Category Archives: Plain English

Obituary: WITNESSETH

Witnesseth, Confusing, Long-Lived Legal Archaism

The word witnesseth, a legal term used in deeds, contracts, and other formal documents, passed away Monday after a decades-long decline and what some say were well-deserved attacks. Those close to the word said it died in a legal form pulled up on a smart phone in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was 587 years old.

One of the most enduring Elizabethan archaisms, witnesseth’s late decline represented a steep fall from its heyday. It rode high on the fear of “changing the form” for more than two centuries. It prospered despite challenges, such as one raised in 1744, when a legal scribe first asked a lawyer, “what is this word, and why are there spaces between the letters?”

The deceased in a recent photo.

Witnesseth maintained its entrenched position in legal documents, although it was more and more often relegated to land deeds, until at least 1957, when a busy real-estate lawyer in Waukeegan, Illinois, inadvertently left it out of a draft deed, which a secretary dutifully typed up. Yet the real-estate transaction closed without incident, and witnesseth began its slow decent.

Rumors persist among some hostile to witnesseth that the reports of its death are premature and that it is lying low in old formbooks and county real-estate filings, waiting to be recognized and used again.

Tips for Concision: 6. Deflate compound prepositions

Deflate compound prepositions.

Compound prepositions are prepositions on steroids. Instead of being concise and simple, they’re puffed up, like for the purpose of, by means of, and with reference to.

In Plain English for Lawyers, Richard Wydick says they “suck the vital juices from your writing.” He offers some of his least favorites: by virtue of, in relation to, and with a view toward. And in The Grammatical Lawyer, Morton Freeman calls them “drawn-out prepositional phrases” (an apt name). He particularly dislikes during the course of, in terms of, and on the part of.

They’re almost always unnecessary, so deflate them. For example, the compound prepositions in the next sentence can be easily shortened to one word:

  • The attorney spoke to Chris Santiago with regard to (about) the cease-and-desist letter in order to (to) learn its content.

Put them on your editing checklist.

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The wisdom of a fortune cookie–UPDATE

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UPDATE: The advice on the fortune is from William Zinsser, a noted writing expert and author of a really good book called On Writing Well, which I recommend. I’ve also learned that many others have received this fortune as far back as 2009. Wow.

After a lovely meal of Spicy Basil Fried Rice, I opened my fortune cookie and found this:

Four

What a surprise. It’s the most unusual but most appropriate fortune I’ve ever seen.