22 January 2019 1

Legal English – The Use of Legal Doublets


Double Trouble:  The Story of Legal Doublets in English (and why you should care!)

Legal Doublets are two near-synonyms joined by a conjunction and used together as one term in legal writing.  Similarly, Legal Triplets are three near-synonyms used together as one term.  Here are some key features of both:

  • They tend to retain the same word order – for example, “each and every” is a legal doublet whereas “every and each” is not
  • Often, each word in the doublet or triplet has roots in a different medieval language – Germanic Old English, Norman French, or Latin
  • They are often, but not always, alliterative – i.e.: “aid and abet”, “part and parcel”, “lewd and lascivious”, and “rest, residue and remainder”

Where are they found?

Legal doublets are everywhere in English, from the fine print on a purchase (think “terms and conditions”) to wedding vows (“to have and to hold”).  In current everyday usage they may be “few and far between,” however they still appear frequently in contemporary law.  Because the words in doublets and triplets are not exact synonyms, this can cause a lot of confusion for translators of legal documents.[1]

Where do they come from?

The story begins in 1066, when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings.[2]  Following the invasion, William put French nobility in charge of the English.  This created a bilingual environment where French was the language of the elite, and English the language of the working-class.[3]  Over the course of the occupation, English absorbed about 10,000 French words and evolved from “Old English” into “Middle English”.[4]  Medieval writers and lawyers felt they had to use words from both languages in order to ensure documents would be understood and respected by all.  For example:[5]

Old English/ Germanic:Norman-French:Medieval lawyers would write:
BreakingEnteringBreaking and entering
GoodsChattelsGoods and chattels
LandsTenementsLands and tenements
GiveGrantGive and grant
KeepMaintainKeep and maintain

Frequently used doublets became an ingrained feature of Middle English, and eventually the habit of doubling became the fashion so that we also see French words paired together, and English words paired together:

All-French Legal DoubletsAll-English Legal Doublets
Aid and abetHave and hold
Cease and desistEach and every
Terms and conditionsBy and with

What should we do about them?

Some experts advise that legal doublets should be avoided as they cause unnecessary wordiness and confusion.  This makes sense, especially considering that these terms arose in a totally different cultural context. However, it’s still important to be aware of them when translating and interpreting existing documents.[6]  Due to the subtle differences between the near-synonyms in doublets and triplets, it may be almost impossible to replicate the meaning of a legal document if these are replaced with single words.

For English language learners, however, studying legal doublets and triplets can be a great way to build vocabulary, as they highlight slight differences between near-synonyms which go undetected in your standard textbook vocab lists.  For example, can you explain the difference between “true” and “correct”, or between “each” and “every”?

Whether you’re a lawyer, legal translator or a Business English language learner, taking apart legal doublets with a powerful dictionary can be a useful exercise.  Contact Simon & Simon today to find out how we can help to design a bespoke course just for you.



[1] https://translationpapersbali.com/2013/11/26/doublets-and-triplets-in-english-legal-language/

[2] https://medium.com/@mattsamberg/a-fit-and-proper-discussion-of-legal-doublets-9ef1cf9f9dd; https://www.kaplaninternational.com/blog/history-of-english-doublets-cow-vs-beef

[3] https://www.thoughtco.com/how-french-has-influenced-english-1371255

[4] https://www.thehistoryofenglish.com/history_middle.html

[6] https://www.translegal.com/grammar-and-writing/doublets

Legal English –  The Use of Legal Doublets
Article Name
Legal English – The Use of Legal Doublets
Legal doublets are everywhere, but in everyday English communication they are less frequent. Read more to discover where confusion can arise.
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SIMON & SIMON International
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There is one comment:

  1. Nika - 19th February 2021 at 2:07 pm

    I was always wondering why legal documents are so wordy. For example, why keep AND maintain? Isn’t that a tautology? Well, it makes sense now, as many other things do, when you look at their historical development.

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