It was a pleasure to hear the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG at the 26TEN breakfast in Hobart today, where he stepped us through the commandments for clearer writing. He is the Patron of Clarity, an international association promoting plain legal language.

We heard how a lawyer might say, “Help yourself to an orange,” (and that was in anything but plain English), and about the 498-word sentence written by Justice Dixon in 1951. The Hon. Michael Kirby’s rules were refreshing in contrast.

Here they are reprinted from his website.

  1. Complex statements of facts and law should begin with a summary to let the reader know where he or she will be travelling;
  2. Short sentences and shorter words should replace long;
  3. The passive voice should generally be banished and replaced with active voice. This assumes that lawyers of today have learned what “active” and “passive” voice means. But it can be explained.
  4. Words of connection should be at the beginning of sentences. Words of emphasis should generally be at the end.
  5. Where there is a choice, the shorter word (ordinarily from a Germanic root) should be preferred to the longer word (ordinarily from the French language of the Norman Conqueror);
  6. Sexist and obviously ambiguous language should be removed;
  7. Vagueness is sometimes necessary in legal drafting. However, ambiguity should generally be tackled head on;
  8. Those old potboilers “whereas”, “hereinunder”, “cognisant”, “requisite” should be deleted;
  9. Layout is a technique of communication that matters. It can assist human understanding. As can headings and sub-headings; and
  10. In legal texts that will cross borders, it will generally be necessary to be especially careful in the use of words. Mr. Keating found this when he used the word “recalcitrant” in describing the attitudes of the then Prime Minister of Malaysia. Seemingly, the word had a more pejorative meaning in Malay than in the English language.

I’m already a convert, of course, but I hope you are too.

Mel Roome is a plain English copyeditor and proofreader, and a trainer for 26TEN, the Tasmanian Government’s literacy and numeracy campaign.