The Case for Plain-Language Contracts, by Shawn Burton, Harvard Business Review Jan/Feb 2018
I’ve read a lot of arguments about the use of plain English, and I haven’t often been convinced by them. Now this article by Shawn Burton is at first glance an interesting one (thanks to Inge for recommending it on Twitter), but contains some problems.
Are pages of definitions; words like “heretofore,” “indemnification,” “warrant,” and “force majeure”; and phrases like “notwithstanding anything to the contrary herein,” “subject to the foregoing,” and “including but in no way limited to” necessary for an agreement to be enforceable? Is there some counterintuitive value in useless boilerplate language? Does a contract really need 15-word strings of synonyms; all-cap, italicized, bolded sentences that span multiple pages; awkward sentences containing numerous semicolons; and outdated grammar to be worthy of signature? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding no.
Of course, it would be a good idea to remove archaic words like ‘heretofore’, but what about words with a legal meaning like ‘force majeure’. (The ’15-word strings of synonyms’ are one of the reasons some legal translators prefer to translate from German to English even if German is their native language, because German contracts are simpler, partly because terms are backed up by the Civil Code and other legislation.)
Burton writes: ‘Business leaders should not have to call an attorney to interpret an agreement that they are expected to administer.’ I have my doubts about that. And the ‘litmus test’ was whether a ‘high-schooler’ could understand the contract. Maybe this worked with simplified contracts for customers, but surely not for every type of contract.
Here’s an example from the end of the article:
Before and After
That article contains other useful links.