A project which analysed why legal documents are so difficult to understand has won the Ig Nobel Prize for literature.
The Igs are awarded for research that "first makes you laugh, then makes you think", in advance of the actual Nobels.
With a fitting sense of occasion, Eric Martinez, Francis Mollica and Edward Gibson collected their prizes - a ten trillion dollar bill and 'build your own knowledge container' (a paper bin) - during an online ceremony in which a man in shorts blew a trumpet while riding an exercise bike.
It starts with a light-hearted award, then clients begin demanding laminated, illustrated one-pagers.
Their paper, 'Poor writing, not specialized concepts, drives processing difficulty in legal language', found that lawyers stacked their documents with features which hobbled comprehension.
The project, which looked at US contracts, found they were littered with non-standard capitalisation even though putting text in all caps HINDERS UNDERSTANDING.
Legal contracts were also seven times more likely than other texts to use the passive voice rather than the active voice, despite the passive voice posing more difficulties for readers.
And although words deployed infrequently in everyday speech tend to be harder for people to grok, the researchers found that legal documents featured a disproportionately high number of "archaic" words like 'aforesaid' and 'herein'. The team cited speculation that convoluted syntax was viewed by lawyers "as a potential badge of honor for those who wish to 'talk like a lawyer' and be accepted by their profession".
Center embedding - where a clause is placed in the middle of another clause - was also found to be twice as prevalent in contracts than other texts, despite evidence it poses processing difficulties for readers.
To test whether lawyers had to draft as they did in order to communicate specialised legal concepts, the researchers presented 108 people with a set of 12 typical contract clauses, and a set of the same 12 clauses in which they had excised the legal jargon and simplified the format.
Legalese v simple English.
The results indicated that “in many instances such jargon can be replaced with simpler alternatives that increase recall and comprehension while preserving meaning", said the team.
Giving the legal profession a dubious excuse for its incomprehensible drafting, they said that lawyers "may not choose to write in an esoteric manner".
"Similar to the 'curse of knowledge', they may not realize that their language is too complicated for the average reader to understand."
Mollica, a lecturer in Computational Cognitive Science at the University of Edinburgh, told RollOnFriday, "We are not interested in casting shade on people".
”Most of the lawyers we talk to are sympathetic and want to effectively communicate to people and we appreciate their help with our investigations". he said, adding that he didn't know if similar issues plagued the UK's legal documents, "but I wouldn't be surprised".
"Now, we’ll build on this to see why legal text is written this way and what kind of interventions could improve people’s interactions with legal writing."