Real edits of real ESL Legal English (No. 1)

Abstract discussion of principles and definitions can improve your understanding of effective written Legal English only so much. Sometimes you need to make the theoretical discussion more concrete by watching an experienced teacher and editor working to improve real ESL Legal English. Watching me think my way through the editing of real ESL Legal English gives you a better feel for how abstract theory applies to real ESL writing.

The best strategy of all is to write your own ESL Legal English and watch it being edited. Maybe we’ll accomplish that strategy with some of your own writing in a future post soon.

For now, this post presents and discusses a few of my suggested edits of a document written in ESL Legal English by Mr. Maurizio Iorio, an ESL attorney who practices law in Milan, Italy.

Maurizio’s ESL Legal English

Maurizio’s law practice includes work on product safety. That’s why he wrote an article in the summer of 2012 entitled, “The new WEEE Directive.” The acronym “EEE” stands for “electrical and electronic equipment.” The related acronym “WEEE” stands for “waste electrical and electronic equipment”—that is, electrical and electronic equipment that is discarded as waste. Maurizio wrote his article to explain a new EU directive governing WEEE that was published in late July 2012.

Maurizio writes well in English. Whether he realizes it or not, he long ago moved beyond what I call the “merely linguistic” approach to ESL Legal English. His English moves smoothly and comfortably on the page. It shows none of the word-to-word roughness that’s present when an ESL writer is still in the process of moving beyond “English as linguistics,” beyond English as a labor primarily concerned with grammar and vocabulary, and toward true written fluency in English.

Maurizio’s written English moves so well that I want you to see his writing, standing on its own, before I start picking at his article to try to improve his writing:

At the time of writing this article (early July 2012), the new WEEE Directive—whose text has been agreed upon by the Commission, Council and European Parliament since December 2011 and which has been officially approved by the EU Council on 08/06/2012—is very close to being published in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU).

That 55-word sentence—very long but handled beautifully—opens Maurizio’s article. I suggested no changes to it in my edits.

I suggested many changes in the rest of the article, but I also want to stress that Maurizio’s written English is quite good. I have worked with much English written by mother-tongue writers that was effectively identical to the level of fluency I saw in Maurizio’s article.

This post can glance at only a few of my suggested edits. Maurizio’s entire original article, along with my entire edited version of the article and my commentary on my proposed edits, will appear soon in a new page on this site.

Specific edits: Effective sentences

My edits to two of Maurizio’s sentences illustrate several common issues in effective written English.

(1) Here is the first of those sentences in Maurizio’s English:

It must finally be remembered that after 3 years from the date of entry into force, the Commission is mandated to review the scope of the Directive. (27 words)

I suggested this revised version of the sentence:

The Commission is mandated to review the scope of the Directive three years after the Directive takes effect. (18 words)

A reader’s first goal is to find the action in a sentence. Written English usually works best when it remembers its essential S-V-O (Subject-Verb-Object) sentence structure: Who or what does or did what (and, perhaps, to whom or what)? I first discussed the basic S-V-O sentence structure on this blog in the post on Martin Luther King Jr.’s eloquent English in his “I Have a Dream” speech. That discussion applies just as much now for Maurizio’s ESL Legal English.

The action of Maurizio’s sentence begins (or starts to begin) only with his seventeenth word—which is late for a writer to “get to the point” in an English sentence. That seventeenth word is the definite article the that comes after the comma and suggests a noun that might perform some action.

My first task as an editor of this sentence is to help the reader reach the action much sooner. The first six words of the sentence (It must finally be remembered that) are expendable throat-clearing; most writers use such words when they draft in order to warm up for what they really want to say. I therefore have no trouble cutting those introductory words altogether. With those opening words cut, I reverse the remaining two portions of the sentence so that the action comes first (The Commission is mandated to review), and the sentence instantly works much better.

I’d like to begin the sentence with The Directive mandates the Commission to review. That language would avoid the verb in the passive voice (is mandated) and thus would clarify the action in the sentence. I can’t do that, though, because I’m only guessing that the Directive itself imposes the mandate Maurizio refers to. Leaving verbs in the passive voice is not ideal in English, but sometimes it’s a tolerable choice if you can articulate a good reason for it. In this case, my ignorance of what the Directive says is a good reason to leave the verb in the passive voice.

(2) Shorter sentences also help readers to find and understand your points. My post on the English in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech mentioned the general rule that the average sentence length in English should be 15-25 words. Often you can get closer to that goal just by splitting a relatively long sentence into two or more shorter sentences.

For example, Maurizio’s original article contains this 54-word sentence:

The “Visible Fee”, known in Italy as E.C.R. (acronym of “Eco Contributo Ambientale” or WEEE Eco-Contribution), is currently foreseen for some historical WEEE (air conditioners and white goods) until 13/02/2013, and it allows Producers to indicate on the invoice, separately from the sale price, the collection and treatment costs borne by them.

The sentence is clear, but it also lags because of its length. It forces today’s short-attention-span readers to remember the sentence’s subject (The “Visible Fee”) over the course of several grammatical constructions and substantive ideas.

I’d therefore split the original sentence to make Maurizio’s ideas brisker and easier to digest. That split is the main difference between Maurizio’s original and my edited version of this passage:

The “Visible Fee”, known in Italy as E.C.R. (acronym of “Eco Contributo Ambientale” or WEEE Eco-Contribution), will apply to some historical WEEE (air conditioners and white goods) until 13/02/2013. The law providing for the fee also allows Producers to indicate on the invoice, separately from the sale price, the collection and treatment costs borne by them.

The two sentences in my edited version are 31 and 27 words long; the total passage is four words longer than Maurizio’s original sentence because I needed to add “function words” for clarity and smooth transitions. My suggested sentences are still long, certainly according to the goal of 15-25 words per sentence. But each of my suggested sentences is also much easier to digest than a 54-word sentence is.

It would be easy to divide the passage into three sentences by splitting my first sentence into two even shorter sentences:

  • The “Visible Fee” is known in Italy as E.C.R. (acronym of “Eco Contributo Ambientale” or WEEE Eco-Contribution).
  • That fee will apply to some historical WEEE (air conditioners and white goods) until 13/02/2013.
  • The law providing for the fee also allows Producers to indicate on the invoice, separately from the sale price, the collection and treatment costs borne by them.

If shorter sentences are better in English, why wouldn’t I divide my first sentence to make two shorter sentences?

First, the “rule” is only a guideline and not an ironclad law: shorter sentences are usually, but not always, better in English. It’s better to see the goal of a sentence length of 15-25 words as an average. It’s a flexible goal that leaves you room to make your writing more interesting by varying the length of your sentences. Short sentences can work. So can occasional long sentences.

Second, despite its length, the 31-word first sentence in my version is relatively easy to understand because the parenthesis explaining the acronym is in apposition to “E.C.R.” The grammar of that sentence makes balancing so many concepts relatively easy because so much of the sentence consists of grammatically equal concepts.

Finally, third, I hesitate to divide the first sentence any further for a more intangible reason: I wonder whether Maurizio would lose credibility with his intended readers by presenting even shorter sentences in this particular instance. Especially in my role as an editor of ESL Legal English, I want to avoid a written English whose sentences could be perceived as baby talk by advanced readers of English from cultures that value formality (in writing and elsewhere) more highly than modern Americans typically do.

Is that fear an over-reaction? Maybe. It would not apply for all audiences, but it would apply for some. On an actual editing assignment, if the writing made sentence length an issue, I’d discuss my concerns about sentence length with the writer before I’d consider the assignment finished.

Specific edits: Grammar and style

A few specific points of grammar and style in Maurizio’s article deserve mention here:

  • The term enter into force seems to describe exactly what the more common term take effect describes—that is, the moment at which an enactment becomes effective. I’d use the shorter, brisker, more common term (take effect).
  • It is worth remembering that mother-tongue writers in English do not tell readers that something is “worth reminding” (as Maurizio writes a few times). An even better solution for confusion between remembering and reminding would be to omit the introductory throat-clearing (It is worth remembering that) altogether.
  • The word criticality does not exist in English—or, if it does, it should not exist in English, if only on aesthetic grounds. One lesson here is to use simple words because your first task as a writer (in any language) is to communicate. That task fails if you entrust it to words that make no sense. Other lessons: Don’t abandon your good English dictionary when you need it the most, and don’t assume that simply anglicizing words in your mother tongue results in actual English words.
  • Whether you’re writing in English or translating your mother-tongue original into English, double-check to ensure that you’ve not imposed your mother tongue’s grammar onto your English. Here, I wondered more than once whether Maurizio used the definite article the largely because Italian would have used a definite article even where English typically would not. The difference between the Italian and English titles of the 1997 Italian film, La vita e’ bella (Life Is Beautiful) illustrates this difference in usage.
  • Said is not an adjective in English—or, if it is, it should not be an adjective in English, if only on aesthetic grounds. Yes, many mother-tongue attorneys still unthinkingly use said as an adjective. But writers who value brisk, clear, human writing in English treat this usage as the tired lawyerism that it is and avoid it. A definite article (the) or demonstrative adjective (this or that) serves your purpose in such cases just as well, and it does so without being draped in the cobwebs of antiquity.

I’ll discuss these and other points of grammar and usage in more detail in the commentary that accompanies the full edited version of Maurizio’s article.

Questions or comments? Post them here on the blog, send me an email, or start a discussion in the “Advanced ESL Legal English” community on Google+.

#legalenglish #englishforlaw #eslattorneys #esllawyers

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