METM11 presentation     Thread: Research

Corpus perspectives on legal English: analysis of the use of evaluative adjectives and adverbs*

Ruth Breeze -” Pamplona, Spain

Background and purpose: Translators have long been aware that different academic and professional disciplines operate within different paradigms, and that the distinctive language used by each profession reflects its own particular way of understanding the world. Corpus linguistics offers a way to gain more accurate and detailed insights into disciplinary language and to test our personal intuitions against quantitative data. This study investigates the disciplinary values of law -” that is, qualities which define what is prized (or stigmatised) by this professional community -” by identifying salient adjectives and adverbs in legal corpora. This initial study was undertaken to establish a method for exploring four legal corpora systematically for other areas of legal language that can also be investigated.

Methods: Texts were obtained from European, UK and US e-journals of commercial law, online law reports, companies acts and legal documents (merger agreements, contracts, etc.); the material reflected a time frame from about 1990 to 2010 and came from a variety of countries but was mainly of British or US origin. These were organized into four 500,000-word corpora reflecting commercial law: academic journal articles, case law, legislation, and legal documents. Adjectives and adverbs which were prominent in the four corpora were first identified (WordSmith tools), and then those adjective/adverb sets were tested for relevance to disciplinary values by looking at similarities and differences in usage in the corpora and in two non-legal corpora (the British National Corpus [BNC] and the British Academic Written English corpus [BAWE]). Saliency was considered to be confirmed if words had a frequency at least twice that in one or both of the non-legal corpora.

Results: The following adjective/adverb pairs were found to be highly frequent in the law corpora: -œclear/ly-, -œimportant/ly-, -œreasonable/ly-, -œappropriate/ly-, -œcorrect/ly- and -œproper/ly-. The frequency and use of -œclear/ly- and -œimportant/ly- appeared not to differ greatly between the law corpora and the BNC and BAWE. However, the -œreasonable/ly- pair was salient in all four law corpora and its frequency was particularly high; -œappropriate/ly-, -œcorrect/ly- and -œproper/ly- were salient in one or two of the subcorpora.

Conclusions: The word sets -œappropriate/ly-, -œcorrect/ly- and -œproper/ly- appear to convey attributes that have particular importance in the legal profession, reflecting positive and negative disciplinary values that cross the boundaries between various types of legal writing. The set -œreasonable/ly- manifests the particular resonance of items when they are qualified by those words in legal writing and thinking. This case study shows that the corpus analysis approach can be used to gain deeper knowledge of this specialised area: systematic exploration of such text elements as reporting verbs or downtoners and amplifiers can also be undertaken in the interest of providing language guidance for translators seeking to convey the appropriate tone in their work.

* Note: Invited presentation of a study recently published in the spring 2011 issue of Ibérica; the speaker will give additional details describing the corpus used and refer to other hypotheses that will be tested in the same four legal corpora.


Ruth Breeze is Director of the Institute of Modern Languages at the University of Navarra, and a member of the GradUN research group on discourse analysis. She has a Ph.D. in applied linguistics and has published many chapters and articles on specialised language, discourse analysis and writing pedagogy.


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