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Tradition and Change in Legal English

Verbal Constructions in Prescriptive Texts


Christopher Williams

In this volume the author examines verbal constructions in prescriptive legal texts written in English. Modal auxiliaries such as shall, may and must are analysed, as well as indicative tenses such as the present simple, and also non-finite constructions such as the -ing form and -ed participles. Results are based on specially compiled corpora of prescriptive texts coming from a wide range of English-speaking countries and also international organizations such as the European Union and the UN. The author also analyses the nature, extent and impact of the calls for change in legal language coming from the Plain Language Movement. Although legal language tends to be depicted as being highly conservative and unchanging, the author shows that in certain parts of the English-speaking world a minor revolution would appear to be taking place, while in other parts there is greater resistance to change.


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III. Tense, Aspect and Modality in Prescriptive Legal Texts in English 75


III. Tense, Aspect and Modality in Prescriptive Legal Texts in English 1. Tense, aspect and modality: introduction Having analysed some of the main features of the language of the law in English, the specificities of prescriptive legal texts, and some of their principal communicative and pragmatic functions, we can now proceed to look at some of the features characterizing verbal constructions within such texts, starting with a general overview of the situation of tense, aspect and modality in English before concentrating our attention on the peculiarities of the various verbal constructions and the ways they are used in prescriptive texts. Clearly, in a volume dealing predominantly with verbal constructions in prescriptive legal texts, it would be impossible to deal exhaustively with questions relating to tense, aspect or modality in English in general. At the same time it might be worth saying a few words about each of these features of the English language so as to provide a framework within which to analyse such constructions in a more coherent way. First of all, it should be pointed out that verbal situations can be classified as either: i) processes, where there is a change of state or a transition into a state, e.g. to thicken, to reduce; ii) actions, which usually involve a conscious ‘human’ element carrying out the action, e.g. to draft, to ride; iii) events, where something happens without any agentive force necessarily intervening,1 e.g. to happen, to collapse; and iv) states, which exist without any energy being...

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