Plain English and legal writing: Comparing expert and novice writers

Alissa J. Hartig, Xiaofei Lu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Language-focused materials for teaching professional legal writing to second language writers of English in U.S. law schools have been dominated by a set of "Plain English" recommendations, particularly avoidance of the passive voice and nominalizations. At the same time, little to no research has addressed whether these recommendations actually reflect expert use or whether they are indicative of more or less skilled novice performance. To investigate the use of these features in expert and learner texts, two corpora were examined. The expert corpus was composed of 10 published pedagogical sample memos used in legal writing instruction. The learner corpus was composed of 13 low-rated student memos and 13 high-rated student memos. Although an initial chi-square comparison of learner and expert corpora suggests that the experts use both the passive voice and nominalizations significantly less frequently than learners, further analysis suggests that the usage of these features does not clearly distinguish more skilled novices from those who are less skilled. A closer look at the expert corpus also suggests that the use of these features is highly variable across individual samples. Implications for pedagogy are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)87-96
Number of pages10
JournalEnglish for Specific Purposes
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


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