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The new generation of law dictionaries

The usual setting is that dictionaries list terms and provide their definition (monolingual dictionaries) or equivalent in another language (bilingual dictionaries).

A new approach to legal dictionaries are described in the fourth collection of interviews with prominent terminologists entitled ”Why is terminology your passion”, just released by the Directorate General for Translation of the European Parliament*.



This approach is described in this periodical by Professor Lynne Bowker, a Full Professor of Translation (FR-EN) and Information Studies at the University of Ottawa, a Certified Translator, and a Member of the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO), in the interview made with her.

She was asked the following question (on page 32):

“With reference to Prof. J. Humbley’s statement that “dictionaries and specialist dictionaries, are ever increasingly being adapted to correspond more closely to users’ needs”, how would you describe the future of dictionaries?

She answered as follows:

(…) it’s not really surprising that dictionary users have become more demanding. Language is about communicating. Lexical items are certainly a key feature of a language, but to communicate effectively, we need more. And so, in their linguistic “superstore”, users would like to see more examples, contexts, usage information, phraseology, and more. They want guidance about how they should use lexical items in the broader linguistic structures. (…)

Let us see an example, for the term ”sua sponte":

Black’s Law Dictionary gives an excellent definitio

"Of one’s own accord, voluntarily, without promting or suggestion, on its own motion, plus it provides a sample sentence: ”the court took notice  sua sponte that it lacked jurisdiction over the case”.

The Dictionary surely provides a good example on usage, but it is hardly a detailed guidance.

Let us have a look at the description of this term, with guidance as to its use, as in a linguistic superstore, where all information is provided to guide the reader to write legal texts to native pro standard.

#1     sua sponte (adjective)

The term is an adjective in the following expessions, so is placed before nouns:

term + noun

sua sponte authority, sua sponte order

term + action

        sua sponte grant of summary judgment, sua sponte judicial referral, sua sponte reopening, sua sponte request

For example:

entity + exercise + sua sponte + authority + to verb1

The board declined to exercise its sua sponte authority to reopen the deportation proceedings.

#2     sua sponte (manner adverbial)

Term in mid-position

The term may take mid-position in sentences as below:

court + sua sponte + reconsider + order

We conclude that a trial court can sua sponte reconsider its own interim orders irrespective of section 1008.

court + sua sponte + stay + proceeding

The court will sua sponte stay this proceeding pending a decision by the Judicial Panel.

court + exceed + authority + in sua sponte + verb+ing

The panel held that the district court exceeded its authority under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) in sua sponte ordering a remand.

Term in end-position

The term may also take end-position in sentences as below:

court + enter + judgment + sua sponte

District courts are widely acknowledged to possess the power to enter summary judgments sua sponte

court + reopen + case + sua sponte

We hold that we have authority to review refusals to reopen sua sponte to the limited degree that therefusal was based on legal error.

court + exceed + authority + by verb+ing + sua sponte

The district court exceeded its authority under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) by remanding sua sponte based on a non-jurisdictional defect.

Court-decision names

The term also appear in court decision names as follows:

court decision + sua sponte + verb+ing

Order sua sponte addressing subject matter jurisdiction

Order sua sponte staying all proceedings

A comprehensive and detailed - easy to understand - description, with no fancy grammar terms. This is how a total of 1550 legal terms are described in the book entitled "A Practical Guide to English for Law", a linguistic superstore for legal terms, as foreseen by Professor Lynne Bowker.


The book - acknowledged by an Oxford Law Professor in the preface he wrote to the book as "a masterly work” - covers 1550 legal terms, and describes in 1000 pages and 50 chapters the range of verbs, adjectives, nouns and complements are in use with these terms, with a set of typical sentence patterns to guide readers to native pro excellence in legal English.




* This periodical is available for free here:

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