It is easy to pick on lawyers who use Latin terms unnecessarily. Please let me pile on, and share three experiences which explain my thinking.
My first week of law school was unsettling. Small talk that I had with another first-year did not help. We were getting along fine until the guy said “ergo.” Ergo? My mind raced off, trying to remember what it meant, and I missed his next sentence or two.
Later that day, I remembered that ergo means “therefore.” But now I am wondering why didn’t just he say that. By using “ergo,” he threw me off enough that I missed what the guy had concluded.
In Making Your Case, Justice Scalia and Bryan A. Garner warn about this. They say that a judge who does not happen to know the obscure Latin phrase you have flaunted will think you a twit. Ergo may not be that obscure, but I thought the guy who used it was a twit.
Fast forward a semester. A friend of mine is fuming because our law professor during class corrected my friend’s pronunciation of a Latin term. When I suggested he was overacting, he explained, “You don’t understand. I taught Latin for years. I was not the one mispronouncing it.”
Ergo, the problem is not only driving less-knowledgeable readers to a dictionary. It is also that your more-learned readers will know when you get it wrong. Trying to sound smart, and getting it wrong, may make you look dumb.
Fast forward a few years more. My boss keeps sticking “inter alia” into my memos and briefs. He explains that I must say “inter alia” when I list something and the list is not exhaustive. I offer to say “includes,” or even “includes, but is not limited to,” but he insists on the Latin.
I still wonder why.
Still, I can’t swear off all Latin. It is just too handy in my appellate work. It is much easier to talk about de novo review instead of review anew; argue stare decisis instead of the doctrine of precedent; and cite amicus or amicus curiae instead of friends of the court.
Richard Wydick summed this up:
[D]o not be too impressed by the Latin and archaic English words you read in law books. Their antiquity does not make them superior. When your pen is poised to write a lawyerism, stop to see if your meaning can be expressed as well or better in a word or two of ordinary English.
— Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers
To help translate, a legal-Latin to plain-English guide is here.
Do you use Latin terms? Why? Please leave a reply or reach me here.