Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

The Secret to Legal Foretelling: Generic and Inter-Generic Aspects of Vagueness in Contracts, Patents and Regulations

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

The Secret to Legal Foretelling: Generic and Inter-Generic Aspects of Vagueness in Contracts, Patents and Regulations

Article excerpt


In this genre analysis research paper, we compare U.S. patents, contracts, and regulations on technical matters with a focus upon the relation between vagueness and communicative purposes and subpurposes of these three genres. Our main interest is the investigation of intergeneric conventions across the three genres, based on the software analysis of three corpora (one for each genre, 1 million words per corpus). The result of the investigation is that intergeneric conventions are found at the level of types of expressed linguistic vagueness, but that intergeneric conventions at the level of actual formulations are rare. The conclusion is that at this latter level the influence from the situation type underlying the individual genre is more important than the overarching legal character of the genres, when we talk about introducing explicit vagueness in the text.


Genre analysis, corpus linguistics, generic integrity, vagueness, legal discourse, intergeneric conventions, disciplinary genres.


El propósito de este artículo es comparar mediante herramientas de lingüística de corpus el uso de la vaguedad en contratos, legislación y patentes de los EE.UU. La comparación se centra en valorar hasta qué punto estos tres géneros comparten las mismas estrategias de vaguedad lingüística para lograr sus objetivos y sub-objetivos comunicativos. Los tres corpus compilados para este estudio comparten una combinación, tanto de lenguaje legal, como tecnológico y cada uno de ellos consta de algo más de un millón de tokens. El resultado de nuestra investigación apunta a que estos tres géneros comparten convenciones en el uso deliberado de tipos de vaguedad lingüística, pero la fraseología concreta de la vaguedad aplicada no es normalmente la misma. La conclusión es que, en este último nivel fraseológico, la situación subyacente en cada género es más importante que el común carácter legal de los géneros cuando se trata de introducir la vaguedad de forma explícita en el texto.


Análisis de género, lingüística de corpus, integridad de género, vaguedad, lenguaje legal, convenciones intergenéricas, géneros legales.


Vagueness of expression and indeterminacy of content are widely recognised as a characteristic of the writing of legal texts necessary for these texts to fulfil their communicative and pragmatic functions.1 The role of vague expressions has been investigated and documented in a number of legal genres, among them also the three genres under scrutiny in this contribution (regulations, contracts and patents from US law). However, research in this field has thus far mainly been either oriented towards a general philosophical discussion of vagueness and its role in legal systems built upon the idea of the Rule of Law, or towards types of linguistic elements applied to indicate explicit vagueness and indeterminacy within the framework of one genre. But if vagueness is a central characteristic of text formulation in the field of law as rule making, it could be interesting to know to what extent specific explicitly vague elements reoccur across the genres. Yon Maley has in a previous study claimed that behind the formulation of statutes there could be something like a legislative communicative competence in the form of "a set of communicative strategies encompassing what a specialised group of individuals in the exercise of their institutional roles know and do to produce appropriate and valid legislation and, when necessary, interpret it". (Maley, 1987: 26). If this is true, and much work in the field of analysing individual legal genres has shown the idea to be likely to be true, an interesting second step in the investigation of legal genres could be to assume at least a partially overarching communicative competence. For drafters of all legal genres share at least to a large degree a common educational and basic philosophical background from their legal training. …

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