Updated: Jan 29

“Never ask a question if you don’t know the answer.” – Rowena Cherry (Author)

In January 2021, one of our Web Workshop topics was, ‘Improving Your Legal Writing’. During the workshop, we discussed why improving your legal writing was so important. And it is. Here are just three reasons:

· because most of the work of a lawyer (practising or academic) involves writing. Even if you are an advocate, you will spend a lot of time writing.

· because, unfortunately, people will judge your writing – especially as a practising lawyer - more critically than your spoken English.

· because the words ‘I used a translation app’ are never an acceptable defence if you make mistakes.

As a practising lawyer, you will also spend a lot of time asking questions. Yes, advocates in court ask questions during a case – for example, to witnesses during a trial. But, even if you are not a trial lawyer, you will ask a lot of questions. For example, you will want to get information from your client to understand her case fully. You may want to ask questions and get information from other lawyers. Often, you will need to write your questions – for example, in emails or letters.

It is therefore very important for a lawyer to know how to ask questions. You want, and need, the questions you ask to be formed accurately. In this series, we will look at question formation in English. Hopefully, this will give you more confidence when you need to ask questions.

Although we do not normally deal with 'grammar' issues, we have decided to do this series. This is because:

- questions are fundamental to lawyers, and

- our experience is that language learners, even at higher levels, do not always know

how to structure questions accurately.

In this introduction, we will introduce some important basic language, structure, and terms, that you will need to know to get the most from this series.

Two Basic Types of Question

There are two basic types of question:

· a ‘closed question’ – this is a question where the answer must be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (even if no more information is given). For example:

Are you a lawyer?

Do you know what a contract is?

This is the kind of question that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

· an ‘open question’ – this is a question which cannot be answered just with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It is a question which can only be answered by giving some information. For example:

What is a governing law clause?

When did you sign the contract?

For 'open questions', we need to use a 'question word' (Q).

In this series, we will look at how, why, and when lawyers, including trial lawyers, use both types of question.

Positive, Negative, Question

At a basic level, we can see three types of sentence:

· positive – He is a commercial lawyer

He practices commercial law.

· negative – He is not a commercial lawyer

He does not practice commercial law.

· question – Is he a commercial lawyer?

Does he practice commercial law?

In this series, we are interested in the third type.

Auxiliary Verbs

‘Auxiliary’ sounds very technical. For our purposes, it simply means ‘helping’. An auxiliary verb is just a ‘helping verb’. It changes or helps another verb. Auxiliary verbs can be put into two basic categories:

· the verbs

- to be

- to have

- to do

· the ‘modal’ verbs

- may

- can

- could

- must (have to/need to)

- shall

- should

- will

- would

- might

The modal verbs (essentially, verbs of ‘mood’) are very important for lawyers, particularly if you are involved with contracts. Why? Because modal verbs express, for example, obligations, permissions, prohibitions, and so on, which you find in contracts (and legislation). For example:

- obligation (must/have to/shall) [The Seller must/shall deliver the goods on the 30th March]

- permission/right (may/can) [The Buyer may terminate the contract in the event of the following…]

- prohibition – (must not/shall not) – [The Employee must not obstruct, misuse or interfere with anything which affects health and safety in the workplace]

Subject Verb Object

Students of general English know that the general rule of English sentence structure is ‘Subject/Verb/Object’. As we discussed in the recent Web Workshop on legal writing, this structure is an essential part of legal writing in ‘plain (modern) English’. Very simple examples would be:

Subject (Who) Verb (action) Object (what)

The parties sign the contract.

The government ratified the treaty.

We saw that there are many advantages to using this structure in our legal writing, and also in keeping the subject, verb, and object (S-V-O) as close together in a sentence as possible.

Question Words (Q)

In English, the following ‘question words’ introduce questions which are ‘open’ – and therefore require ‘information’ (and not just ‘yes/no’) to answer:

· What…..?

· Why….?

· When….?

· Where….?

· Whose…..?

· Which….?

· How….?

As we will see in this series, these kinds of questions – particularly in the context of litigation/trials must be used very carefully. It is important that you know exactly what kind of information these kinds of 'question words' are trying to discover (or 'elicit'). ['Where' - location, 'When' - time, etc]

In this series, we will give you opportunities (through exercises) to develop your ability to ask great, and relevant, questions, if you wish.

As we go through this series, if you have any questions about anything, please feel free to email us at and we will try to answer them.

See you next time.

© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2021

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