Avoiding doublets in your writing


What are doublets in grammar?

A doublet is expressing the same sentiment with two or more words when one would be sufficient. It is particularly rife in the Law sector. 

Doublets add unnecessary words to your writing. For this reason, they decrease your readability and should be avoided. 

As detrimental as they are to good readability, they’re fascinating to read about etymologically.

Why are there so many doublets in legal writing? 

Law has its own traditions and terminology and may seem a narrow niche to point out, but using it as an example, we can all learn from it. Indeed, there is a movement for more plain language in Law as a civil rights issue (the right to comprehend.)

The reason Law has so many doublets is that they once had a practical use in early English. Some doublet expressions date from centuries ago when it was best practice to use words of various origins. It actually aided understanding for people with different linguistic backgrounds, such as Norman French. 

However, many argue it is no longer necessary. Including David Mellinkoff, a lawyer known as “the enemy of legalese” who wrote a great deal on the topic. Doublets – and even Legal Triplets – form a part of what he calls ”contagious verbosity”. In 1963, he wrote a book called The Language of the Law. This marked the beginning of his lifelong campaign for clarity and brevity. Many Plain Language campaigners in Law agree that this book proved that legalese as a form of abbreviation is nonsense. 

It’s thanks to Melinkoff’s tireless efforts and documentation that during the 1970s and ‘80s, consumer documents began to change. For example, insurance policies would be incomprehensible without the work of campaigners to necessitate change. Obfuscation is now treated as suspicious rather than revered. 

With this being said, some elements of Middle English still survive in legal documentation today. One of these is the doublet. You may recognise these examples:

  • Aid and abet
  • Legal and valid
  • True and correct
  • Peace and quiet
  • Terms and conditions
  • Give and bequeath 

Language change takes time, and progress isn’t linear. Indeed, ironically, New York State passed a law in 1981 requiring that consumer agreements be written in ”a clear and coherent manner using words with common and everyday meanings”. Do you spot the legalese? Melinkoff did. There are two doublets in this sentence. He pointed out one, which is ‘common and everyday’. If something is common, it’s redundant to say it’s also everyday. Another doublet is ‘clear and coherent’. If something is clear, it’s also coherent. You don’t need to say both. 

What can we learn from this? 

If you’re a lawyer and you’re reading this article, chances are you understand the benefits of readability. Good for you for driving change. But, even if you’re not working in law, it’s helpful to spot this language feature in your writing. Look for any time you use two or more words that are joined by a conjunction and are either similar or synonymous. That’s a great opportunity to cull one of the words.

Ever used the phrase ‘each and every’? Retire it. Along with ‘part and parcel’ and ‘have and hold’. 

Doublets aside, you can also look for unnecessary numbers of adjectives in your writing, which can be a style issue. Descriptive writing can be extremely effective. However, you can do that without saying a handful of words that essentially mean the same thing. Conciseness can paint a vivid image in fewer words.