Even Laypeople Use Legalese


Whereas principles of communicative efficiency and legal doctrine dictate that laws be comprehensible to the common world, empirical evidence suggests legal documents are largely incomprehensible to lawyers and laypeople alike. Here, a corpus analysis (n=59 million words) first replicated and extended prior work revealing laws to contain strikingly higher rates of complex syntactic structures relative to six baseline genres of English.

Next, two pre-registered text generation experiments (n=280) tested two leading hypotheses regarding how these complex structures enter into legal documents in the first place. In line with the magic spell hypothesis, we found people tasked with writing official laws wrote in a more convoluted manner than when tasked with writing unofficial legal texts of equivalent conceptual complexity. Contrary to the copy-and-edit hypothesis, we did not find evidence that people editing a legal document wrote in a more convoluted manner than when writing the same document from scratch.

From a cognitive perspective, these results suggest law to be a rare exception to the general tendency in human language towards communicative efficiency. In particular, these findings indicate law’s complexity to be derived from its performativity, whereby low-frequency structures may be inserted to signal law’s authoritative, world-state-altering nature, at the cost of increased processing demands on readers. From a law and policy perspective, these results suggest that the tension between the ubiquity and impenetrability of the law is not an inherent one, and that laws can be simplified without a loss or distortion of communicative content.

Proceedings of the 46th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society