Command of Language: Essential for Advocates


Nothing else is more crucial for an advocate for his professional success than his command of language. In fact the command of language is the key to success in any profession in which words count. Advocacy is a profession where command of language – both in written and spoken form – plays a decisive role. Since English is the language in which many materials required for an advocate are available, this article refers to an advocate’s command over English language alone.

An advocate needs language skills in diverse occasions. He needs language skills while presenting a case in the court or persuading a judge to a particular point of view or convincing a client about a complex issue. An advocate cannot bring the rightness of the cause which he argues to the attention of the judge without language skills.

In cross examination, an advocate requires language ability in asking right questions and in using the right words, in the right tone and tenor so as to elicit right answers from the witness. To study a provision of law, which might be drafted in a highly sophisticated style or in a quite simple but deceptive form, an advocate requires language skills. In critically analyzing each word and its meaning he requires language ability. In preparing a deed of contract or a will or a petition, an advocate requires ability to find the right words and sentences that would serve the purpose of such a deed.

Words carry thought

Words are the vehicle of one’s thought. One cannot think and converse without using words. In writing or in conversation one communicates mostly in words and there is no other easier way to converse or communicate with one another.

No advocate can attain professional success without having a good command over the words and the language he handles. If there is difficulty for others to make out what an advocate writes or speaks it may be because his mind is still unclear of the concepts he deals with. Obscurity in language is probably the result of obscurity in thinking.

Inherent infirmity of words is also a problem, but the right solution to this problem is persistent learning and skillful use of them. A word may mean one thing in one context but another thing in a quite different context. An advocate must therefore exercise great care in using each word in its right context. He must prefer using plain and clear words to communicate effectively.

Denning’s effort to develop language ability

Lord Denning, in his book “The Discipline of Law”, narrates the extraordinary efforts he – though he was an English native – had taken to acquire his English language skills when he was called upon to serve the Bar.

He tried to become proficient in words drawing on English literature and reading the works of Shakespeare. He read great authorities like Macaulay, Carlyle and Milton to horn his language ability. Reading those books provided him not only a wide vocabulary of words but also a good familiarity of the meaning those great authors assigned to the words. He learned that the meaning of a word may change from time to time, place to place, and person to person, depending on the context in which it is used.

Then he practiced the words and their language pattern continually, as a pianist regularly practices his piano, so as to get proficiency in both writing and speaking. He took infinite pains in writing, by crossing sentences after sentences, writing them again and again, so as to make the writing clear and definite.

Therefore an advocate should consciously cultivate the practice of building command of language on order to succeed in his profession.

Need to make your voice pleasing

In fact, developing speaking skill needs more practice and experience compared to developing skills in writing. The first thing to be focused in speaking is to make your voice pleasing. A harsh or discordant voice dispels its listeners. Use the right pitch and tone so that you are audible to all those who pay attention to your speech, without strain.

Use right pronunciation, rhythm and intonation to make your speech attractive for which you need to practice voice articulation exercises. Pace must not be too fast or slow. But take care, not to use long winded sentences. When you speak or write – as Lord Denning says – you should think of the people who are listening to you in the court room or chamber or those who are reading your essay or book. Make their task of reading/listening easy as you can, by avoiding possible pitfalls of improper speaking or writing.

Not to use long words or sentences

Lord Denning then asks us not to use long words unless we are sure that our readers/hearers understand it.

If one uses a word that they have never heard before, he/she will fail in his communication by not conveying his meaning to them. Therefore don’t use a long or complex word. But when you come across a long word in the course of reading or listening then you must look it up in the dictionary to extend your vocabulary. However if a long word is there in a statute which you cannot ignore, you have to find out what it means by looking at the definition clause or a dictionary. Then give the word the most sensible meaning you can think of.

He reminds us not to use an over long sentence. He adds that you may lose the hearer or reader before he gets to the end of your material if you use long winding sentences. Therefore desist from using multi-syllable jargons and verbal distortions; instead use plain, simple words and clear sentences which everybody will understand. Avoid round about expressions; instead use direct language style.

When a long draft is being prepared make it into paragraphs and sentences. If a sentence is unduly long, split it up into short ones or use punctuations. Sometimes a dash, colon or semicolon can do magic in making your long sentence manageable and meaningful. Kindly remember not to end up with the first draft. Read and re-read it, correct and re-correct it a dozen times so as to make it clearer to your readers. Divide a long piece of writing into smaller parts with a short heading for each division.

Choose the right word

You should choose your words well and present them well when making an oral presentation. A good speech prepared well in advance can be ruined by a bad delivery. Please don’t forget that the spoken and the written word are quite different. If you are writing a draft for a speech, please write it in a style you orally deliver it. Never learn the speech by heart but think of the points in it and explain them during delivery.

Writing English perfectly is as important as speaking it in the right way. Making a mistake while speaking does not matter much, but making the same mistakes in writing may damage your professional reputation.

Not to use bad English

And remember not to use uncivilized and offensive expressions no civilized person dares to speak or write in public.

Similarly bad English will damage your reputation. People get distracted by grammatical or spelling errors. No one will take you seriously if your English is unreasonably bad when your profession requires you to be well equipped in English language.

When almost every source of knowledge in law right from the text books to enacted laws to reference documents to Judgments exist in English language, an advocate cannot survive in the profession without horning proper English language skills.