Say It Once, Say It Right: Trimming Legal Doublets and Triplets

Before the first day of your 1L year, you probably spent 30 minutes reading one page of a 17th century case (and dreaded having to read nine more before class). If you were anything like me, you sighed and consulted Black’s Law Dictionary to decipher the terminology combined in doublets and triplets—and were often disappointed to find the words were near-synonyms or out of use. You rightly identified these terms as archaic and redundant. But by the end of your 3L year, you were unfazed by the English, French, and Latin terms mixed within dense blocks of text. You could even understand what you read and use it to argue for classroom clients! You were ready to enter the profession, thinking and writing like a lawyer.

But what if this indoctrination into the world of legal triplespeak and redundancy actually made your writing worse? The alliterative rhythm of doublets and triplets that now sounds natural to you is a waste of words. It’s also imprecise. This article explores the origins of doublets and triplets and why we should edit these phrases out of legal documents.

History of and Repetition in English Legal Writing

Legal writing is known for its unique terminology and difficulty. Its peculiarities include doublets and triplets, which are sets of two or three synonyms (or near-synonyms) used together. According to grammar conventions, these word sets must have something in common, either in meaning or origin, and they must be written in the same order every time.

Doublets and triplets are common in legal writing because of how Common Law language developed over eight centuries. Though William the Conqueror offered to maintain some English language and customs in the country’s court system after the Norman Invasion of 1066, the Norman French authorities that took over the jobs of judges and other positions of power brought French and Latin with them. Over time, fewer and fewer legal professionals spoke or tried to learn the English being spoken by the people. (Plus, though Old English was an established spoken language, its speakers rarely wrote it down and were inconsistent in their spelling.) French (written and spoken) and Latin (written) were the languages of the ruling class, which used the legal system (and the languages it was conducted in) to stay in power.

By the 13th century, English law included all three languages, so those who practiced needed to understand all three. To increase understanding across languages and avoid misinterpretation, scribes repeated terms in each language rather than choosing one. In addition, Old English had a strong culture of oral history, with bards who made up and recited their works using rhymes, alliteration, and syllable-count conventions to help themselves and their listeners memorize (and convincingly improvise) the stories being passed down. These factors led to the repetition we see today. For a more detailed history of how legal English developed, read “The Three Languages of the Common Law“ by J.H. Baker, Q.C., F.B.A.

After years of reading arcane case law and its modern imitations, we legal professionals have become desensitized to the repetition. We may even think it just sounds right. While these stylistic choices are “correct” in that they are traditional and can be used in a certain way or context, we trained legal writers can also question whether tradition is still serving us well today.

Some common examples of doublets and triplets in legal English (and their respective origins*) include:

  • cease and desist, from Latin and French
  • aid and abet, from Old English and French
  • terms and conditions, from Old English and French
  • act and deed, from Latin and Old English
  • deposes and says, from Old French and Old English
  • free and clear, from Old English and French
  • null and void, from French and Latin
  • set aside and vacate, from Old English and Latin

*Note, of course, that French is a Latin/Romance language, meaning that almost every word that English borrowed from French was already a Latin cognate.

Reduce Redundancy by Choosing One Word

Lawyers often use doublets and triplets to make sure their statements cover every possible scenario—no matter how unlikely. Over 800 years of doublets and triplets in legal English makes this habit seem like an important tradition, a belief which makes it even harder to break.

Yet using English, French, and Latin words (or their cognates) together to cover your bases creates ambiguity rather than protecting you from it. Because courts expect every word to carry meaning, using words that are near-synonyms requires courts to read distinctions into words that may have none. That’s the opposite of precision. Legal writing experts Bryan A. Garner and Ken Adams both counsel against these useless sets. For litigators, you can find a list in Bryan A. Garner’s The Redbook. For transactional lawyers, you can find guidance in A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting.

Make It Clear, Not Cluttered

Don’t let the rhythm (or the tradition!) of doublets and triplets trick you into thinking they’re necessary. Cut the fluff and focus on clear, concise writing. These words are just repeating the same idea. As you edit, ask yourself whether you need two verbs, two adjectives, or two nouns if you’re connecting them with and or or. You probably don’t. For a faster way to find these editing opportunities, try WordRake. Here are a dozen examples of how WordRake helps.

By negotiating the reduction of these charges, Defendant understood and agreed that he faced a significantly reduced sentence of 37 years eight months.

My client is entitled to payment of the entire balance due and owing under Paragraphs 5 and 14 of the Contract.

Plaintiffs-Appellees (The Homeowners), by and through their undersigned counsel, submit the following Answer Brief supporting the trial court’s ruling.

The aforesaid statement by Defendant’s employee was false and untrue. Defendant’s employee knew it to be so and made the statement to deceive Plaintiff into granting permission for his entry into the said premises.

The Agreement is a valid and binding contract.

The app requires its users to acknowledge and agree that the company may collect, store, and sell users’ personal data.

The corresponding right of a municipality to make and enter into a collective bargaining contract with a labor union has been recognized by statute since 1955.

The Secretary shall have full power and authority to make rules and regulations consistent with this subchapter.

The United States Supreme Court has held that there is no private right of action for aiding and abetting fraud under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5.

There are no fundamental basic services available to the people in that city save and except for the school.

These full and complete depositions are likely to produce evidence necessary to controvert the allegations contained in Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

This Penal Code prohibits the sale or transfer of cigarettes to minors.

Don’t be afraid to edit familiar phrases—many are jargon, not terms of art. So cut through the haze of wordy writing with WordRake. WordRake uses complex, patented algorithms to find legalese, wordy phrases, redundancies, unnecessary modifiers, and more. Then it presents its suggestions to you in the familiar track-changes style. It can make any document clearer and shorter. Try WordRake free for seven days!

About the Authors

Ivy B. Grey is the Chief Strategy & Growth Officer for WordRake. Before joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Danielle Cosimo is a Language Usage Analyst for WordRake. Before joining the team, she was a translator and editor for non-native English speakers applying to degree programs in the United States and the UK. Danielle is formally trained in linguistics and has a certificate in computer programming. She is fluent in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. She applies her interdisciplinary knowledge to create WordRake’s editing algorithms.

Our Story

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggested changes appear in the familiar track-changes style. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.