Does Legal-Speak Have Value?


Author: Tim Cummins

An IACCM member recently asked whether the word ‘shall’ implies obligation to perform.

The question inspired lively discussion among my legally qualified colleagues that wasn’t so much to do with the question of interpretation, but more to do with how ridiculous it is that we even have the debate.

By way of illustration, one of them cane up with this rather amusing example of the importance of plain language (and cultural awareness):

“Should we use “shall” or “will” – a little anecdote:

“I’ve fallen in the water and I will die!” the Scotsman cried.
A group of Englishmen there looked on and did nothing, the bastards.

In court, it was realised they took the Scotsman’s will to mean that he wanted to die (which is what it means to English people in English usage). Had the Scotsman said “I shall die” or the even better “I am going to drown,” the Englishmen would know he was in imminent danger of drowning and needed saving. Alas, the Dutchman (or German or whatever) sitting in the gallery quietly muttered to himself, “Why can’t he just say, ‘Help me!’?” The sheriff sitting next to him quietly said, “He didn’t say please…”

So the conclusion of this story? For one of my colleagues, it was simply ‘Why can’t we just say what we mean, using normal words?’ But for another the debate represented a source of considerable value – if you happen to be a lawyer. And that took us to another debate – ‘you shall pay my bill’; ‘you will pay my bill’; ‘you must pay my bill’. What’s the difference (apart from the size of the bill!).

Ken Adams, what do you say?

  • Tim Cummins will be a keynote speaker at the PASA CPO Summit in March. ‘Future Proofing You’ will be held on 13 & 14th March 2018 in Sydney. 

Read more from Tim Cummins on the Committment Matters website.

Tim Cummins is CEO of the International Association for Contract & Commercial Management (IACCM), a non-profit organization that he founded in 1999. Read more here.

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