Legal copy never ceases to baffle me. What are those lawyers
thinking when writing those texts that no one wants to read?
Are they actually kidding themselves to the point of believing
that they are communicating anything useful to their audience?
I understand that some of them might have no other purpose
than protecting their employers against any possible lawsuit,
but—naïvely—I expect government bodies to have the interest
of the population at heart and therefore to endeavor to write
clear, accurate, and concise legal copy. Recent travel to the US
suggests that there is still room for improvement. Below are
three examples (catch your breath as you set to read them ;–).
First come pretravel formalities. As an alien seeking to travel
to the US under the visa-waiver program, I am now “subject
to enhanced security requirements” and must therefore apply
at the “Electronic System for Travel Authorization Web Site”
(quite a phrase—got to love capitals). As I pointed my browser
at esta.cbp.dhs.gov, however, the warning below popped up:
Can someone explain to me the rationale behind the long lists
of verbs in there? Is it for example important for ESTA visitors
to understand the difference between intercept and capture
or between inspect and analyze? What is this warning trying
to tell us here? That the information we enter on the Web site
will be recorded? For an application form, is this not obvious?
Or that criminal activity will be denounced? Need it be said?
Note also how the only way out of this dialog is to click OK,
signifying “you consent to the terms set forth in this notice”:
in other words, it is not like you have much of a choice, is it?
The next example comes from the sign posted inside the door
of my hotel room in Houston, Texas. Here is what it stated:
BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS
Article 4593 — Liability for Valuables. Any hotel, apartment hotel or boarding housekeeper, who constantly has in his hotel, apartment or boarding house a metal safe or vault in good order and fit for the custody of money, jewelry, articles of gold or silver manufacture, precious stones, personal ornaments, or documents of any kind, and who keeps on the doors of sleeping rooms used by guests suitable locks or bolts and proper fastening on the transom and window of said room shall not be liable for the loss or injury suffered by any guest on account of the loss of said valuables in the excess of the sum of fifty dollars, which could reasonably be kept in the safe or vault of the hotel, unless said guest has offered to deliver such valuables to said hotel, apartment hotel, or boarding housekeeper for custody in such metal safe or vault, and said hotel, apartment hotel, boarding hotel, or boarding housekeeper has omitted or refused to deposit said valuables in such safe or vault and issue a receipt therefor; provided such loss or injury does not occur through the negligence or wrong doing of said hotel, apartment hotel or boarding housekeeper, his servants, or employees, and that a printed copy of this law is posted on the door of the sleeping room of such guest.
For those of you who teach communication in any form: how
about assigning the revision of the above text as a homework?
Your students would have to define an audience and purpose,
structure the information, make style choices (person, voice),
worry about consistency, etc.—a short but complete exercise.
(Clarify that it's OK to use more than one sentence, though. ;-)
Actually, the hotel where I stayed in Austin, Texas displayed
a slightly more reader-friendly version of the above warning,
so it is not like Article 4593 has to be displayed exactly as is.
As a final and somewhat more amusing example of baffling
legal copy, the same sign posted in my Houston hotel room
also carried an excerpt from “Houston Fire Code 27–22/23”:
(e) It shall be unlawful for any person, as a guest or occupant of any hotel, rooming house, tourist court, or other place renting rooms for the accommodation of the public, by smoking, or attempting to light or to smoke cigars, cigarettes, pipes or tobacco in any manner in which lighters or matches are employed, or in the disposition of lighted machines, cigars, or cigarettes or live embers of any smoking material, in a careless, reckless, or negligent manner, whether willfully or negligently, to set fire to any mattress, bedding, furniture, curtains, drapes, or any household fittings.
I am amazed that it was found necessary to tell hotel guests
in Houston that setting fire to their room is against the law.