Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

What did I sign? A study of the impenetrability of legalese in contracts


Legal documents, in the form of terms of service agreements and other private contracts, are now an increasingly prevalent part of everyday life. While legal documents have long been acknowledged to be difficult to understand without training, it remains an open question whether the ever-increasing exposure to contracts might have mitigated this difficulty. Moreover, insofar as this difficulty has persisted, there remains no systematic analysis of which linguistic structures contribute most heavily to the processing difficulty of legal texts, nor whether this difficulty is heightened for those with less language experience. Here, we investigate these issues, and in a well-powered experiment find evidence that (a) both recall and comprehension of legal propositions in a contract are hindered by use of a legal register relative to plain-English translations; (b) certain linguistic structures, such as center-embedding, hinder recall to a greater degree than others, such as passive voice; and (c) language experience influences comprehension of legal propositions. Surprisingly, language experience did not influence recall, nor was there an interaction between legal register and language experience on recall or comprehension. These findings suggest that legal language poses heightened difficulties for those with less language experience--who tend to be of lower socioeconomic status and with diminished access to the justice system--and that eliminating complex features of legalese would benefit those of all reading levels.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View