You Think the Law Requires Legalese?, by Joseph Kimble, Legal Writing Editor Blog
A classic. -CCE
There’s a sign that, in some configuration, appears on every gas pump in Michigan, although most drivers probably don’t even notice it anymore. You can see one in the photo to the right.
Let’s put aside the all-capitals, which are notoriously hard to read. And never mind that the first and second items aren’t exactly parallel. (‘Stop engine. Don’t smoke.’) The trouble — linguistically, stylistically, semantically — shows up in the third item.
Look at that little sentence. We get an explicit subject, A person, which really throws off the parallelism. The lawyer’s shall — now corrupted and ambiguous from misuse — does not belong even in statutes or regulations, let alone on a gas pump. Remain in attendance? Oh, please. The first of is unnecessary. And for the big comedic finish, we’re seemingly told that the nozzle must be able to see the person.
The fix isn’t hard: ‘You must stay outside your vehicle and be able to see the nozzle.’ Or for parallelism with the first two items: ‘Stay outside your vehicle, and make sure you can see the nozzle.’
Now, are people likely to misunderstand the pump version? No. Is this the worst public writing on the planet? Obviously not. But by tracing this mundane example to its source, anyone who cares about clarity in legal and official documents can learn a set of critical lessons. . . .
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