LINGUIST List 30.4177

Tue Nov 05 2019

Review: English; Discourse Analysis; Forensic Linguistics; Historical Linguistics; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics; Text/Corpus Linguistics: Fanego, Rodríguez-Puente (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 09-Aug-2019
From: Marijana Javornik Čubrić <>
Subject: Corpus-based Research on Variation in English Legal Discourse
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Teresa Fanego
EDITOR: Paula Rodríguez-Puente
TITLE: Corpus-based Research on Variation in English Legal Discourse
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Corpus Linguistics 91
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Marijana Javornik Čubrić


The book consists of 294 pages and has eleven chapters. It opens with an introductory chapter written by the editors, Teresa Fanego and Paula Rodriguez-Puente, and is thereafter divided into two parts entitled ''Cross-genre and cross-linguistic variation“ and ''Diachronic variation“. In the opening chapter the authors refer to Vijay Bhatia's paper from 1987 in which he explained the rapid growth of interest in legal English as a result of developments in three disciplines, linguistics, applied linguistics and social science disciplines; they explain that the book attempts to outline the research carried out in the large field of legal discourse over the past thirty years. The chapter offers a brief overview of law-related fields of language study focusing on the development of the Plain Language Movement and of forensic linguistics, register and genre perspectives on legal discourse, previous research on legal language from diachronic and historical pragmatic perspectives; in its last section it introduces the ensuing chapters.

Part 1 comprises five chapters which present cross-linguistic studies, the first of which is ''English and Italian land contracts: A cross-linguistic analysis“. It is written by Giuliana Diani and it examines the textual and linguistic features of English and Italian land contracts based on a self-compiled corpus. The analysis shows remarkable similarities between English and Italian contracts, but also points out that Italian contracts are less formulaic and have fewer passives, nominalizations, binomials and multinomials, while English contracts seem to be unaffected by the changes towards modernisation and simplification advocated by the Plain Language Movement. In Chapter 3 Cristina Lastres-López analyses if-conditionals in English, French and Spanish courtroom and parliamentary discourse on the basis of corpus evidence from various sources and shows that if-conditionals are mostly used to express canonical conditions, but also function as interpersonal and textual devices in all three languages. In Chapter 4 entitled “Part-of-speech patterns in legal genres: Text-internal dynamics from a corpus-based perspective” Ruth Breeze examines four 500,000-word corpora constructed from different families of genres in business law (academic texts, case law, legal documents and legislation) in terms of key parts of speech. Her analysis of 18 different parts of speech shows that the use of plural possessive nouns is common across all legal genre families, but that academic and case law texts much more frequently use relative clauses introduced by which and that and the present tense, while legal documents and legislation have distinctive patterns of cohesion achieved by listing and ellipsis and are overall more formulaic. The next chapter, “A comparison of lexical bundles in spoken courtroom language across time, registers and varieties” Randi Reppen and Meishan Chen analyse diachronic, register and language varieties in spoken courtroom language by identifying the fifty most frequent three-word bundles in the 1994 American trial of O.J. Simpson and comparing them with lexical bundles in Present Day English trials (1993) and Early Modern English trials (1560-1760) as established by Culpeper and Kytö in 2010. The last chapter in Part I by Stanislaw Goźdź-Roszkowski, “It is not just a fact that the law requires this, but it is a reasonable fact. Using the Noun that-pattern to explore stance construction in legal writing” examines the construction of stance through nouns in two legal genres, academic journals and judicial opinions. The analysis shows numerous similarities in both genres, but points out that ‘certainty’ nouns are more frequently found in judicial corpora.

Part II is devoted to diachronic variation and its opening chapter “Are law reports an ‘agile’ or an ‘uptight’ register?” by Douglas Biber and Bethany Gray considers to what extent have law reports adopted linguistic innovations observed in other written registers (science research articles, newspaper articles and fiction) and concludes that compared to other written registers law reports have been relatively conservative and resistant to historical change. In Chapter 8 Paula Rodríguez-Puente provides a diachronic analysis of the use of personal pronouns in English law reports using the Corpus of Historical English Law Reports 1535-1999 (CHELAR). The analysis proves that law reports present significantly higher frequencies of first and second person pronouns than other formal texts, and that in spite of being resistant to historical change in many respects, law reports have evolved towards a higher degree of involvement, interpersonality and subjectivity. Chapter 9 authored by Nicholas Groom and Jack Grieve and entitled “The evolution of a legal genre. Rhetorical moves in British patent specifications, 1711 to 1860” provides a diachronic corpus-based analysis of the British patent specification. In Chapter 10, “The representation of citizens and monarchy in Acts of Parliament in 1800 to 2000” Anu Lehto investigates collocates associated with citizens and monarchy, as they can reveal meanings associated with words, and traces their semantic preferences and prosodies, arguing that their portrayals are related to developments in the socio-historical context and legislation. The data covers different layers of citizens, as the corpus of about 290,000 words contains acts on the poor, children, women, employers and employees and vagabonds, and the analysis concludes that the role of the citizens considerably improved in the period covered by the data. The concluding chapter “Drinking and crime. Negotiating intoxication in courtroom discourse, 1720 to 1913” by Claudia Claridge examines how drunkenness is presented in courtroom speech by focusing on words which mean ‘drunk’. The data basis is the Old Bailey Corpus 2.0, a 24.4-million-word corpus drawn from the proceedings of the Old Bailey (London’s central criminal court).


Bhatia’s statement from 1987 about the dramatic expansion of interest in legal English seems to be more true and relevant than ever. Due to specific characteristics of Legal English (archaisms, borrowings, specific collocations, the use of legal doublets, a special way of using modal verbs, passivization, nominalization and subordination), it is a challenging and difficult area of study. As it is a language for special purpose that is clearly not used only by the members of the legal profession, but that affects everybody as law governs all areas of social life, every citizen should be able to understand it. Therefore the Plain Language Movement is particularly important, and it has become successful in recent years. Although it is generally considered that the Plain English for law movement began in 1970s, many efforts to make English for Law plainer have been made for centuries. The first legislative attempt to make legal procedure more understandable to common people dates back to 1362, when Parliament passed the Statute of Pleading which demanded that English should become the language of the court instead of French, but that documents should continue to be written in Latin. David Melinkoff’s book The Language of the Law from 1963 was the first book that clearly pointed to many absurdities connected with Legal English and it strongly influenced the Plain English for Law movement. It should be mentioned that Melinkoff, as well as many important authors that followed him in this area, was not a linguist, but a lawyer. He described the language of the law as “wordy, unclear, pompous and dull” (Melinkoff, p. 24), and provided numerous examples of legal documents and rules which are extremely difficult to understand. After the publication of Melinkoff’s book, in the 1970s the Plain English for Law movement gained momentum. Supporters of the movement claim that lawyers continue to use outdated phrases and ritual language out of habit, and that they refuse to accept the fact that times change. Accepting changes and adapting to them lies at the very heart of the Plain English for Law movement. As explained by M. Asprey, a prominent author in the field, also a lawyer by profession: “We can no longer be content to rely on the old words, the old clauses, the old precedents. Things have changed. The public perception of lawyers has changed. We are no longer seen as the learned custodians of unknowable secrets. We are no longer immune to challenge on our own ground. Our clients are asking questions. They are demanding the right to understand the advice we give and they want to be able to read the documents we draft for them.“ (Asprey, 3-4). Because of that, the recent research in the vast field of legal discourse is important and relevant. This book is a valuable contribution to it, because it deals with two crucial areas of study; in its Part I it examines different genres, emphasising the enormous diversity of legal discourse and pointing to its similarities and differences in different languages. By analysing the differences between modern and historical legal language in its Part II, it clearly demonstrates that a better insight into the historical development of legal language enables a better understanding of the ways in which it is still changing today.

Although the book covers difficult topics, it is written in a clear and concise language which makes it easy to understand. The editors made an excellent selection of contributions so that the volume coheres, it is informative and at times even amusing, particularly in its vivid final chapter, with actual examples of the language used by intoxicated persons in courtrooms.

The volume can be recommended to anybody interested in legal language, but particularly to those involved in legal language research, because it encourages future corpora-based research on similar lines and could give young researchers valuable ideas about which direction to go.


Asprey, Michèle, 2003. Plain Language for Lawyers, Third edition, The Federation Press, Sydney.

Melinkoff, David, 1963. The Language of the Law, Little, Brown and Co., Boston&Toronto.


Marijana Javornik Čubrić is a Senior Lecturer of Legal English at the Faculty of Law, University of Zagreb. She holds a PhD in legal linguistics and has authored several textbooks in the field of LSP.

Page Updated: 05-Nov-2019