Working with Contracts If You Aren’t a Native English Speaker: Some Notes from All Over

I’m attuned to the particular challenges facing anyone who isn’t a native English speaker and is required to draft or negotiate contracts in English. Indeed, my site contains this note on the subject. I was recently reminded of this issue in a number of ways.

First, I exchanged emails with a reader in Asia. Here’s what he said, in part:

We operate at a level of mediocrity in Asia (including India, a particular hotbed of florid legalisms and Latin locutions) and most of Europe that would induce tears. A great part of the problem is that English is not always the primary language. Those who speak it passably are eager to preen by stuffing documents with what they perceive to be fancy words.

And I encountered this article from It’s by Fiona Robertson of The Rights Lawyers, a technology, media, and telecommunications boutique based in Dubai, and it details some bizarro language she’s encountered in contracts. I suspect—or rather, I hope!—that in some instances the language in question was drafted by a non-native English speaker.

And the third reminder was a conversation that I had today with someone in Europe. He inquired whether my stuff might be too advanced for his company’s personnel, most of whom are non-native English speakers.

These three reminders prompted the following thoughts:

If your company enters into contracts that are in English, you have no choice in the matter: To protect your company’s interests, your company’s legal and contracts personnel will have to ensure that the contracts accurately express your company’s intent. To do that, you have to be able to manipulate English sufficiently to avoid the sorts of problems that routinely cause confusion and land people in court. That requires a decent command of the form of standard English that should be used in contracts. And there’s no way to somehow dumb it down for the non-native English speaker.

But that challenge is manageable. The language of contracts is limited and stylized, so you don’t have to wrestle with much of what gives English its fiendish complexity. And if you’re looking for guidance, MSCD provides the only comprehensive set of guidelines.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

2 thoughts on “Working with Contracts If You Aren’t a Native English Speaker: Some Notes from All Over”

  1. Ken:

    You might also say that, if a reasonably fluent, non-native reader of the language can’t understand a sentence, that’s a sign that someone needs to rewrite the sentence.

    That someone need not be the reader. One of the most effective negotiating tactic is, “I don’t understand this sentence. Could you re-write it to say the same thing using simpler language?” That can be done with most contracts because most contracts are badly written. The counter-party (in a negotiated setting, at least) would look obnoxious to refuse such a request.


  2. As someone who has to deal with contracts on daily basis drafted by non-natives, I can tell you that people see them as some kind of dance floor they can show their fanciest moves – oh, look at all these words I got from the dictionary! Plus, believe it or not, but in my country there are university professors who really think that using passive voice is the way to make sure you are writing in legal language. A very popular way to react to my objections is to say: “But this is how they do it!”
    And, no, your stuff is not too advanced for non-natives. What it is, it is pretty logical and straightforward.


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