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
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: Suggested Citation