Poor writing, not specialized concepts, drives processing difficulty in legal language

Eric Martı́nez*, Francis Mollica, Edward Gibson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Despite their ever -increasing presence in everyday life, contracts remain notoriously inaccessible to laypeople. Why? Here, a corpus analysis (n ≈ 1 0 million words) revealed that contracts contain startlingly high proportions of certain difficult-to-process features –including low -frequency jargon, center-embedded clauses (leading to long-distance syntactic dependencies), passive voice structures, and non-standard capitalization–relative to nine other baseline genres of written and spoken English . Two experiments ( N=184 ) further revealed that excerpts containing these features were recalled and comprehended at lower rates than excerpts without these features, even for experienced readers, and that center-embedded clauses inhibited recall more-so than other features. These findings (a) undermine the specialized concepts account of legal theory, according to which law is a system built upon expert knowledge of technical concepts; (b) suggest such processing difficulties result largely from working -memory limitations imposed by long-distance syntactic dependencies (i.e., poor writing) as opposed to a mere lack of specialized legal knowledge ; and (c) suggest editing out problematic features of legal texts would be tractable and beneficial for society at-large.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105070
Number of pages7
Early online date4 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2022


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