Legal English “Peter’s Pills”: When is Latin hot, and when is it not?

Nuovo appuntamento con il video-corso di inglese giuridico promosso da Federnotizie in collaborazione con Confprofessioni e BeProf

Nuovo appuntamento con “Peter’s Pills“, la rubrica online di Legal English by Federnotizie (la rivista online di Federnotai), in collaborazione con Confprofessioni e Beprof. La 39esima video-lezione “When is Latin hot, and when is it not?” è disponibile sul sito www.federnotizie.it, sui canali social e sul sito di Confprofessioni e sull’app Beprof, scaricabile da App Store e Google Play.





Many Latin expressions are used in Legal English. Degrees in Law in Common Law countries do not require students to study Latin, so how do you know when you can or can’t use Latin expressions in a legal context? The answer is easy. I have drawn up a list and if a Latin expression is on my list, then it is hot, otherwise it is not. This list does not consider Latin words used in Criminal Law, but only focuses on areas which correspond to the Latin Civil Law.

Here are the Latin words that are extremely common in the AnlgoSaxon world. If you want to be understood by English speaking people, you should pronounce these with a typical English pronunciation:

Latin Meaning
Ab initio from the begining of something
Bona fide in good faith
Bona vacantia goods or an estate belonging to nobody, ownerless property which by law passes to the Crown or State
Caveat a warning
Caveat emptor “buyer beware”. A common law doctrine that places the burden on buyers to reasonably examine property before making a purchase.
Commorientes The commorientes rule states (subject to a court order) that if two or more people die in circumstances where it is not possible to tell who died first, the deaths are presumed to have occurred in order of seniority, so the younger is deemed to survive the elder
De facto really, or in reality
Et al “and others” or “and the other people” and usually follows the name of a person or a list of names and represents the remainder of the group. Please note, NEVER say “et alia,” “et alius,” or “et alii.” because this will confuse people.
E.g. “for example.” Please note, NEVER say “exempli gratia” because this will confuse people.
Et seq and in the following pages’
I.e. “that is” (cioè). Please note, NEVER say “id est” because this will confuse people.
Inter alia among other things
Inter alios among other people
Obiter dictum obiter dictum = Obiter: A judge’s expression of opinion said in court or in a written judgement, but not essential to the decision and therefore not legally binding as a precedent.
Pari passu “equal footing”. In finance, “pari passu” means that two or more parties to a financial contract are all treated the same. Pari-passu is common in bankruptcy proceedings as well as debts in which each party gets the same amount. Wills and trusts can also assign a pari-passu distribution where all the named parties share the assets equally.
Per se in itself or by itself
Per stirpes describes property divided equally between the offspring. If a parent who is a beneficiary under a will dies and the legacy goes to the children in equal shares, the legacy has been divided per stirpes.
Prima facie at first sight or based on first impression
Quid pro quo (BEWARE: may be a false friend). Please note that the expression is “quid pro quo”, not “qui pro quo”. It means “an exchange of favours” or “a favour in exchange for something else” or an exchange of services. E.g.: In a quid pro quo agreement the baker always exchanged loaves of bread with the butcher for beef. “Quid pro quo” is NOT used in English to mean a misunderstanding.
Ratio decidendi “rationale for the decision”. The chain of reasoning in a case that causes the judge to arrive at the final judgment.
Sine die to a later undefined time. With no date for the restart. E.g.: The meeting was adjourned sine die.
Ultra vires beyond your powers. If a director of a company does something ultra vires, then what has been done is invalid.
Verbatim word by word; exactly
Vice versa the other way around; the contrary

Thank you very much and see you next time for more Peter’s Pills to improve your Legal English!

You may be surprised to discover that in English speaking counties there is a “Plain English Movement”. This movement tries to get the legal community to abandon Latin and archaic terms for modern plain English. Read more about the Plain English Movement here: “Plain English Movement, The Plain English Movement: Panel Discussion” (.PDF).