The Complex Sentence in Legal English: A Study of Law Reports

John Franklin WIREDU


Using Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar as its theoretical framework, this study analyses case reports of Ghana’s Supreme Court decisions which were published in the Daily Graphic of 2011 and 2012. There were 87 such cases reported in the newspaper in that period.

The study is based on the assumption that legal English is a recognized specialized form of language use and that the language is specific to the special requirements of the law. Earlier studies have noted that the pursuit of precision, clarity and all-inclusiveness is an important goal  of legal language.

Accordingly, in this work, we have established that these goals of precision, clarity and all-inclusiveness are achieved through the use of detailed information to avoid confusion and ambiguity in the interpretation of the law. If legal language is perceived as complex and incomprehensible, it is because there are specific linguistic steps taken to ensure that the language is precise, clear and unambiguous. One such measure is the use of grammatical structures. For instance, in order to accommodate the high volume of information within a sentence, different structural types of clauses are used in the law texts.

The main question we answer in this work is: what are the linguistic structures we find at the Unit of Sentence in law reports?

From the analysis, the following results have emerged. The declarative is the only sentence type used in the reports which we analyzed. In addition, it is noticed that hypotaxis is the preferred clausal relationship in this variety. As a result, the picture that emerges in this analysis is that there is the overwhelming dominance of the dependent clause type.

This is an indication that

a)       there are links between ideas in the sentence

b)       there is the process of information integration in the legal texts

c)       there is information ranking in the texts

All these indicators are realized through rankshifting, a grammatical process which has facilitated the packaging and the ranking of the ideas in a single sentence

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