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Levels of formality

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Formality in legal writing

Different forms of writing call for different levels of formality. For example, writing to a friend will normally be informal. However, all business writing, and especially legal writing, is formal. However, you should avoid over-formality, which to the contemporary reader can sound pompous (=affectedly and irritatingly grand, solemn, or self-important). Most modern legal communication could be described as formal-neutral. However, the register (=level of language, formality, grammar and vocabulary etc) used will depend on the communicative purpose of each individual text, as well as the relationship between the writer and the reader.

Formality in legal writing: key points

Using contractions (eg don’t instead of do not) makes written English sound more like its spoken equivalent. The audience and purpose of legal writing are different; there, the informality of contractions may suggest that a lawyer has failed to treat the subject matter of your writing with an appropriate level of seriousness. Similarly, abbreviations should be avoided whenever possible.

Rude, crude or vulgar language is evidence of a casual rather than a serious approach to your writing. They may convince your reader that you lack the professionalism to think of more precise ways to express your thoughts.

Most legal writing aims to establish an air of objectivity and impartiality.

If you do not know the gender of the person to whom you are referring, use “he or she” rather than either “he” or “she” throughout.

Always use the proper title in the address and salutation. If you do not know the person always use a formal salutation (eg Dear Sir, Dear Ms Jones).



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