Category Archives: Plain English

Saxon & Romance Words

Get the book: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One.

In reading about writing, I’ve run across the following advice

  • H.W. Fowler: “Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.”1
  • Strunk & White: “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.”2

But I never paid much attention because I didn’t know what it meant. When I finally learned, from Classical English Style by Ward Farnsworth,3 I saw that the advice could apply to legal writing, too. 

Modern English contains words of many origins, but two key sources are Anglo-Saxon and Latin; many words of Latin origin are also French and are sometimes referred to as words of “Romance” origin. Yes, I’m skipping the history lesson, but some common examples can help make the point. Here are four pairs in which the first is of Anglo-Saxon origin and the second is of Latin/French/Romance origin:

  • break/damage
  • come/arrive
  • make/create
  • need/require

No, they’re not perfect synonyms, but we can immediately make some generalizations: Saxon words tend to be shorter—often single syllable, and harder in sound; they also tend to be concrete rather than abstract, and less formal, too. One way to put it is that Saxon words are plain, and Romance words are fancy, as in these Saxon/Romance noun pairs:

  • belly/abdomen
  • boss/superior
  • job/position
  • wish/desire

Try it. Here are five Saxon verbs—try to think of the Romance synonyms:

  • ask
  • buy
  • eat
  • see
  • talk

(Answers at the end of this post.) 

What can we do with this knowledge? The recommendation is not to replace every Romance word with a Saxon word—the best writing advice is rarely always or never. Instead, generally default to Saxon words but use your editorial judgment, considering audience, tone, legal terms, and subtleties of meaning. Here are some before-and-after examples with comments.

Before: The City Planner agreed that Hamet’s lot was adjacent to the single-family homes.
After: The City Planner agreed that Hamet’s lot was next to the single-family homes.

  • This is a sensible edit that substitutes a shorter Saxon word for a longer Romance word, making the text a bit more readable.

Before: Castillo asserts that a spouse has no constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel in a divorce suit.
After: Castillo asserts that a spouse has no constitutional right to the effective help of counsel in a divorce suit.

  • Probably not a good edit. “Effective assistance of counsel” is a standard legal phrase. Don’t replace Romance with Saxon when the Romance term is, or is part of, standard legal language.

Before: But a video camera won’t prevaricate.
After: But a video camera won’t lie.

  • This is a solid edit. The example is from an appellate brief, and in that context, if you’re willing to begin a sentence with but and use a contraction, the Saxon lie delivers more force than the Romance prevaricate.

You might reasonably ask why it helps to know that the plain word is Saxon and the fancy word is Romance. Can’t we just use plainer, simpler words when possible? Yes, you can. But I hope this will help raise your writing IQ.

Plus, there’s more to know about Saxon and Romance words in legal writing, and I’ll continue the discussion in the next post. For now, put Saxon/Romance (or just fancy/plain) on your writing radar. Start to notice when you use a fancy Romance word when you could use a plain Saxon one.

Quiz answers: ask/inquire, buy/purchase, see/observe, eat/consume, talk/converse.

Get the book: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One.

_____

[1] H.W. Fowler, The King’s English 1 (1906).

[2] William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style 77 (4th ed. 2000).

[3] Ward Farnsworth, Classical English Style (forthcoming)

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.