Poor Writing, not Specialized Concepts, Drives Processing Difficulty in Legal Language

Cognition 2022, 224, 105070. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105070

7 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2022 Last revised: 16 Mar 2022

See all articles by Eric Martínez

Eric Martínez

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Frank Mollica

University of Edinburgh

Edward Gibson

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Date Written: March 3, 2022


Despite their ever-increasing presence in everyday life, contracts remain notoriously inaccessible to laypeople. Why? Here, a corpus analysis (n≈225 million words) revealed that contracts contain startlingly high proportions of certain difficult-to-process features--including low-frequency jargon, center-embedded clauses (leading to long-distance syntactic dependencies), passive voice structures, and non-standard capitalization--relative to nine other baseline genres of written and spoken English. An experiment (N=184) further revealed that excerpts containing these features were recalled and comprehended at lower rates than excerpts without these features, even for experienced readers, and that center-embedded clauses inhibited recall more-so than other features. These findings (a) undermine the specialized concepts account of legal theory, according to which law is a system built upon expert knowledge of technical concepts; (b) suggest such processing difficulties result largely from working-memory limitations imposed by long-distance syntactic dependencies (i.e., poor writing) as opposed to a mere lack of specialized legal knowledge; and (c) suggest editing out problematic features of legal texts would be tractable and beneficial for society at-large.

Keywords: law and language, psycholinguistics, empirical legal studies, law and cognitive science, corpus analysis, computational linguistics

JEL Classification: Z19, Z28

Suggested Citation

Martínez, Eric and Mollica, Francis and Gibson, Edward, Poor Writing, not Specialized Concepts, Drives Processing Difficulty in Legal Language (March 3, 2022). Cognition 2022, 224, 105070. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105070, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4048460 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4048460

Eric Martínez (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

Francis Mollica

University of Edinburgh ( email )

Old College
South Bridge
Edinburgh, Scotland EH8 9JY
United Kingdom

Edward Gibson

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
50 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

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