1. Introduction

2. The 6,000-word sentence (in an 1853 conveyance)

(A) Layout
(B) Syntax
(C) Punctuation
(D) Style

3. The 1853 conveyance summarised in an abstract of title

4. A 1936 conveyance
Minor copying mistakes in the transcript corrected and a new footnote 2 added: 4.8.13)

5. 2013 standard transfer

6. Acknowledgements

1. Introduction

2. The 6,000-word sentence (in an 1853 conveyance)

(A) Layout

This indenture* is on 4 pages of parchment each about 72cm across by about 60cm down (equivalent to nearly 7 A4 sheets per page), bound and sealed along the bottom with the first page at the back and the last at the front. The ragged right margin is only a couple of millimetres wide in places. The document has been folded twice vertically and twice horizontally in such a way that the backsheet, on the middle of the 9 panels so created, is immediately visible to someone searching through the bundle.

* So called because of the jagged edges where the two copies of the document were separated. The word could be applied to any two-party deed and this one was called a "conveyance" only on the backsheet, which describes it much more helpfully as a "Conveyance of Five Dw[ellin]ghouses situate in Woolpack Lane in the Town of Nottingham [from] Mr John Bailey and others to Mr John Gregg". None of this information — the fact that it was a conveyance, what or where was the land conveyed, or the names of the main parties — can be extracted from the text (even by a lawyer) without a great deal of close scholarship.

The scanned top of the first page appears as a 3-page pdf file but the full text has been typed and annotated. In transcribing it I have tried to preserve, as best I can, the capitalisation and appearance of the original.

(B) Syntax

There are 6,122 words in the body of the document (that is, omitting the execution and receipt clauses at the end and the backsheet) in what, subject to the reservations to which I'll come in a moment, is a single sentence that may be broken down into these sections:

  1. (Date & parties) This Indenture made the [date] Between [the parties] (92 words)
  2. (Recitals) Whereas [1] … And whereas [10] … (2,953 words)
  3. (Effective part) Now this Indenture witnesseth…And this Indenture also witnesseth… (3,054 words)
  4. (Testimonium) In Witness whereof the said parties to these presents have hereunto set their hands and seals the day and year first above written (23 words)

These are my reservations:

  • Section 1does not fit grammatically into the sentence, nor does it form a sentence of its own (though it would do if it began (as the 1936 conveyance does) "This Indenture is made …". And if the "is" is added and the order of parts 1 and 2 reversed the combination would be a complete sentence.

    Without the "is" the effective part should begin "witnesseth", the opening words of section 1 — "This Indenture" — being the verb's subject. But there is a great deal of redundancy throughout the document and the unnecessary repetition of "this Indenture" there and of "this Indenture (also) witnesseth" 3,000 words later might have been either overlooked or shrugged off.

  • It could be argued that there is an unindicated sentence break after word 3,948, closing the sentence which began at word 93 with the first recital and included the 898-word object of the first "witnesseth". The new sentence would then begin "And this Indenture also witnesseth".

Against the suggestion that there is a sentence break before or in the middle of section 3 it can be argued that:

  • Neither section 1 nor section 2 has a main verb, so neither makes sense unless it is a part of the section 3 sentence.
  • Since sections 1 and 2 apply equally to both the quasi-sentences in section 3 it would be illogical to consider them part of the first only.
  • No mark or space suggests a sentence break, except (possibly) the capital "A" of "And". But the capital is not conclusive, as many minor mid-sentence words are capitalised (for example, "… with the remainder To the use of …")
  • The opening "and" suggests continuation of the existing sentence, at least to a 20th century reader. But had the prejudice against starting a sentence with "and" been adopted by mid-19th-century lawyers?
  • There was a general tendency among lawyers to include as much as possible in one sentence.
  • The size and style of the writing* with which these quasi-sentences are introduced are indistinguishable from those used elsewhere in the document for key words that clearly occur mid-sentence.

Similar arguments militate against a sentence break between sections 3 and 4, where the mid-line "In witness" is written (anomalously, as this is the only incidence for words beginning a section) in style 4*.

* The 6 styles are (with the approximate heights of the lower-case letters without ascenders, descenders, or artistic flourishes):

  1. The opening word or words (however unimportant) of each page: 30mm Gothic.
  2. Key words (whether beginning a section [eg "Whereas"] or clearly mid-sentence [eg "to the use"]): 6mm Gothic.
  3. Names of parties (mid-sentence): 5mm Italic.
  4. Less important key words [eg "And", "First"] (with the exception of "In witness", invariably mid-sentence) : 4mm Italic.
  5. Normal text: 2.5mm Italic.
  6. Long insertion squeezed between lines: 1mm Italic.

(C) Punctuation

There is no punctuation except for inverted commas around, and on some occasions the apostrophe in, the name "The King's Arms".

(D) Style

The document contains levels of redundancy so far beyond anything I have ever read before that I began to doubt that the drafter was taking the job seriously.

The discredited argument that repetition in legal documents is needed for precision is further undermined in this case by inconsistency. Here are 2 examples of variation, describing (i) what property was passed and (ii) to whom, comparing the wording in this deed with that of the 1936 conveyance and the modern standard. Each variant is used only once unless otherwise stated.

(i) What property passed (For definitions of the various terms see the footnotes to the text.)
  • the Messuages Tenements or Dwellinghouses pieces of land Buildings and Hereditaments
  • the Messuages Tenements or Dwellinghouses parcel of land buildings and hereditaments
  • the said Messuages Tenements or Dwellinghouses parcel of land buildings and hereditaments
  • the said Messuages Tenements or Dwellinghouses parcels of land buildings and Hereditaments
  • said Messuages Buildings Land Hereditaments and premises
  • the hereditaments (twice)
  • the Tenement or Dwellinghouse and Hereditaments
  • the Tenement or Dwellinghouse and hereditaments
  • which said Tenement or Dwellinghouse and other the hereditaments
  • the said tenement or dwellinghouse and hereditaments
  • the said tenement or dwellinghouse and Hereditaments
  • all and singular the Messuages Tenements or Dwellinghouses parcel of land buildings and hereditaments
  • the said tenements or dwellinghouse yard outbuildings and hereditaments
  • which said several dwellinghouses or Tenements being five in number with their appurtenances form the hereditaments and premises
  • the said last mentioned Tenement and Hereditaments
  • the Messuages Hereditaments and premises
  • the Messuages or Dwellinghouses Hereditaments and premises
  • the Messuages or Dwellinghouses and Hereditaments (twice)
  • the said Messuages or Dwellinghouses Hereditaments and premises (twice)
  • the said Messuages or Dwellinghouses hereditaments and premises
  • hereditaments
  • other hereditaments (twice)
  • the said hereditaments
  • the said hereditaments and premises (twice)
  • the said other hereditaments
  • the same hereditaments and premises and every part thereof
  • the said Messuages or Dwellinghouses Hereditaments and all and singular other the premises
  • all and singular the said rents issues and profits Messuages Dwellinghouses Hereditaments and premises
  • the said rents issues and profits Messuages Dwellinghouses Hereditaments and premises
  • the same rents issues and profits Messuages or Dwellinghouses hereditaments and premises
  • all and singular the said hereditaments and premises with the appurtenances

Despite this cascade of illusory detail, the land involved is remarkably imprecise. There is no plan; there are no house names or numbers (and we don't know whether these were — then and later — the only houses in that street); and the boundaries are described only by reference to the adjoining occupiers (who might have changed by the time a doubt about this deed had to be resolved). But there is much reference to earlier deeds (which might supply these answers) and to the land "therein described or mentioned and thereinafter granted and released or [sometimes "and"] expressed or [sometimes "and"] intended so to be". Only after 4,037 words do we come to this description of the property conveyed by this document:

All those four Messuages Dwellinghouses or Tenements situate standing or being in the Town of Nottingham aforesaid in a yard or place there called Woolpack place And also all that Messuage or Tenement containing two rooms situate over an archway or passage leading into a yard at the back of and occupied with a public House called or known by the name or sign of “The King’s Arms” situate in Woolpack Lane in the Town of Nottingham aforesaid which said last mentioned Messuage or Tenement together with the said first hereinbefore mentioned four Messuages Dwellinghouses or Tenements form a row and are in the respective occupations of Carter King Davis Cooper and Black* and were erected and built by the said William Smith upon some portion of the said piece of land containing two hundred and fifty square yards adjoining the said public House and are bounded on or towards the North and West by Woolpack Place aforesaid on or towards the South by hereditaments of Francis Hart Esquire on or towards the East in part by the yard occupied by the said public House and in other part by the Paint Shops and privies hereinafter mentioned And also all that the land or ground forming the Site of the said five Messuages or Dwellinghouses and premises hereinbefore described and intended to be hereby granted released or conveyed

* Blank spaces were left before each of these surnames for forenames which were never inserted.

Despite all the time I have spent typing and analysing this document I still do not know whether each of the documents recited relates to the whole or just part of the land conveyed by this deed (or even whether it is possible to be sure). That would take a lot more work, which I leave to any reader who has the necessary leisure, temperament, and education. (Those uncharitably suspecting that lawyers are overpaid should bear in mind that to understand this sentence requires — on average, according to the Flesch-Kincaid estimate — some 2,390 years in school. The curriculum is not specified.)

But to return to those 31 bulleted variations, the equivalent expressions in the 1936 conveyance were:

  • the property hereinafter described
  • the premises hereby conveyed (3 times)

And the description of the 1936 property reads:

All that piece or parcel of land situate on the south side of a road known as Harbour Drive at Linemouth in the Urban District of Anglecaster in the County of Yorkshire which said piece of land has a frontage to Harbour Drive aforesaid of forty six feet or thereabouts and is for the purposes of identification only more particularly delineated and shown on the plan drawn hereon and thereon coloured pink Together with the messuage or dwellinghouse erected thereon or on some part thereof and known or intended to be known as No 63 Harbour Drive Linemouth Anglecaster aforesaid

A modern conveyance (normally called a transfer) relies on the postal address (punctuated) and the Land Registry title number of the land conveyed. If no title number has yet been allocated, or there is no adequate postal address, the land is marked, usually by red edging, on a plan which must identify it with sufficient clarity for the Land Registry to mark it on their own plan.

(ii) To whom it passed
  • [Name] and his heirs (8 times)
  • [Name] and his assigns (4 times)
  • [Name] his heirs and assigns (29 times)
  • [Name] his heirs or assigns (4 times)
  • [Name] his heirs appointees and assigns (4 times)
  • [Name] his heirs executors and administrators
  • [Name] his heirs executors or administrators
  • [Name] his heirs executors administrators or assigns (4 times)
  • [Name] his heirs or assigns or his or their Counsel in the law
  • [Name] his heirs and all and every persons and person lawfully or equitably claiming or to claim any estate…
  • [Name] his heirs appointees or assigns or any person lawfully or equitably claiming through him or them any estate
  • [Name] his undertenants or assigns (twice)
  • [Name] his or her executors or administrators or their his or her assigns

Having identified "the Vendor" and "the Purchasers" by their names and addresses the 1936 conveyance uses:

  • The Vendor (15 times)
  • The Vendor and his successors in title
  • The Purchasers (11 times)
  • The Purchasers and their successors in title
  • The Purchasers and the persons deriving title under them
  • The Purchasers or other the owners for the time being of the premises hereby conveyed

The modern, standard form Land Registry transfer refers only to "the transferor" and "the transferee".

3. The 1853 conveyance summarised in an abstract of title

Before contracts can be exchanged for the sale of land, the seller's solicitor must convince the buyer's solicitor that the seller has good title. With most titles now registered at the Land Registry that is usually easy: a certificate can be downloaded from the registry's website. But for land not yet registered sellers must establish that the land is theirs. To do this it is usually sufficient to trace the title documents back to one (the "root of title") at least 15 years* old that passed the whole interest in the land "for value" — that is, not as a gift. Certain searches, and all mortgages with their receipts, are included in the bundle.

* The period was reduced from 30 years by the Law of Property Act 1969 and from 40 years by the Law of Property Act 1925.

Nowadays the buyer's solicitor receives photocopies of the deeds with a summary called an epitome (pronounced with 4 syllables) of title. But until the late 1960s, when photocopiers became cheap enough for all solicitors' offices to have them, this was not possible: the title deeds were summarised in an "abstract of title". Writing these was a skill of its own, with the summary abbreviated in a way that made the resulting text even less accessible to outsiders than the original.

You can see from the 1885 abstract how the 1853 conveyance was treated. It is not all legible, and much redundancy remains. I have compared a 972-word section of the conveyance (shown in light blue on pages 8 to 10 of my transcript) with the corresponding 217 words (marked on pages 5 & 6) of the abstract, giving also my (inexpert) interpretation. (You may wonder why the selection ends where it does. I took it from the abstract [where it appears to run from one natural break to another] rather than from the conveyance [where it doesn't].)

4. A 1936 conveyance

The 1936 conveyance was, surprisingly, hand-written, although solicitors' offices by then routinely had typewriters and skilled typists*.

* My mother was one. If I remember rightly, she had to touch-type at least 60 words per minute accurately, and take Pitman shorthand at 120 wpm, to qualify as a legal secretary earning about £2.10s.0d [£2.50]) a week.

For convenience, I have shown it typed with the plan pasted in and addresses changed to protect the current owner's privacy.

The document is much smaller than the indenture, though still large by modern standards, on 6 thick paper pages each about 41cm across by about 26cm down (that is, about one quarter of the size of the 1853 deed). It has more generous margins and is bound with green ribbon down the left side, with the first page helpfully on top.

Some paragraphs end in a full stop.

It is more neatly written than the indenture, without corrections or insertions. Larger italic and Gothic type is more consistently used to highlight key words.

The structure follows that of the 1853 deed as far as "Witnesseth as follows:-" (with the addition of the missing "is" in the first line).

  1. (Date & parties) This Conveyance is made the [date] Between [the parties] (66 words)
  2. (Recital) Whereas … (61 words)
  3. (Introduction to the effective part, with price & receipt) Now this Deed … in consideration of [price & receipt] witnesseth as follows: (52 words)

But it then moves to numbered paragraphs, each a single complete sentence:

  1. The Vendor as Beneficial Owner … conveys unto the Purchasers [clear identification of the property by words & plan] And Together with [rights over adjoining land] Except and Reserving [rights retained by the vendor for the adjoining land] To hold … as joint tenants (228 words)
  2. (The trust under which the purchasers will hold the land for each other) (75 words)
  3. (The trustee-purchasers' extra powers) (96 words)
  4. The Purchasers … will … observe … the covenants … in the First Schedule (140 words)
  5. The Vendor … covenants … (116 words)
  6. The Vendor … acknowledges the right of the Purchasers to production of the documents mentioned in the Second Schedule ... (34 words)

The main body of text finishes with an unnumbered paragraph consisting of the usual formula:

In witness whereof the parties hereto have hereunto set their hands and seals the day and year first above written (20 words)

The 375-word 1st schedule consists of 8 numbered covenants. 5 are single sentences; 2 have 2 sentences each without a full stop between them; 1 is a sentence fragment (though its meaning is clear).

The 2nd schedule lists clearly, briefly and in datal order the deeds retained by the vendor.

5. 2013 standard transfer

As conveyancing becomes increasingly computerised the documents have been honed down beyond recognition. I have included this standard blank form for comparison.

The expressions "transferor" and "transferee" are used, rather than "seller" and "buyer", because the form is sometimes used for transfers that aren't sales.

6. Acknowledgements

For their answers to my questions and their suggestions I am grateful to Heikki Mattila, Bryan Garner and his staff at Lawprose (especially Tiger Jackson), John Hightower, and Nick Lear.

I would also like to thank the Land Registry for their permission to use their form of transfer, and I hope I will be forgiven for calling them the Land Registry as grammar and habit (but not their brander) dictate.