Legal Doublets – What are they?

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

By Thea Jaffe

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:
Breaking Entering Breaking and entering
Goods Chattels Goods and chattels
Lands Tenements Lands and tenements
Give Grant Give and grant
Keep Maintain Keep 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 Doublets All-English Legal Doublets
Aid and abet Have and hold
Cease and desist Each and every
Terms and conditions By 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.  For more information on how you can build your Legal English skills with Language Services Direct, get in touch today.

About the author

Thea works on the corporate account-management team, overseeing language training programmes for a wide range of clients. Before joining Language Services Direct, she completed an MA in English Literature as well as a CELTA (language teaching qualification), and went on to teach Business, Academic, and General English at various institutions in London and New York. During this time, she also gained valuable work experience in other sectors including retail and publishing.

As a Corporate Account Manager, Thea draws on her experience as a language trainer, her passion for customer service, and her understanding of the corporate environment to ensure the best possible experience for clients, learners and trainers.

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