Spanish legalese is so wordy most Spaniards don’t understand it, study reveals

If you thought that not being a native Spanish speaker was preventing you from fully understanding official texts in Spain you’d be wrong, as a new study reveals that 78 percent of 'Spanish legalese' isn't clear to Spaniards either.

frustrated man on computer
Frustrated with Spanish legalese. Photo: ACWells/ Pixabay

If you live in Spain, you’ve no doubt developed quite a few headaches whilst squinting at your computer screen, re-reading 100-word long sentences on government websites, incapable of making head or tail of what it is they’re trying to say exactly.

It’s no secret that Spain loves bureaucracy, but when it comes to administrative texts, it almost seems as if the civil servants charged with writing them wished to convey that what’s being said is official and important by making any explanation overly wordy and complicated. Either that, or they’re deliberately trying to making it hard to understand.

And while it’s true that written Spanish does tend use more long-winded flowery language than English for example, it isn’t just a case of foreigners getting ‘lost in translation’.

A new study by Spanish consulting firm Prodigioso Volcán revealed that 78 percent of official texts are not clear and therefore are not well understood by the Spanish population. 

After analysing 760 administrative texts linked to ministries, regional governments, municipalities, state agencies and universities, they concluded that 78 percent of these official documents are not written in a way which is easy to understand.  

Of all of them, the most comprehensible are those related to gender-based violence, while the most complex are those that explain how to apply for a grant or scholarship (98 percent of these are not easy to understand). 

One of the most convoluted texts they found was the 22-page document on Social Security and Minimum Vital Income (Ingreso Mínimo Vital), which was written in such an overly formal and twisted language they estimated that an overwhelming majority of native Spanish speakers would be confused by it.  

Even those who write the texts agree they’re too complicated

As part of their investigation, Prodigioso Volcán also interviewed 20 experts whose job it is to write these texts. These professionals admitted that these texts were not actually aimed at everyday citizens, but at other administrative technicians instead. 

They acknowledged that many of these documents “use the passive voice, uncommon words, bad punctuation, spelling errors, too many words per sentence and an absence of connectors”.  

Spaniards are fighting back

Spanish citizens are beginning to fight back against this overly complicated language, demanding that it be written more clearly so that everyone can understand.  

Estrella Montolío, a professor of Spanish Language, is part of a group of activists calling for change, saying that everyone has the right to understand.  

As well as writing articles, texts, creating a podcast, and giving talks on the subject, she has also written a manifesto demanding clear and simple language in administrative texts, which has been sent to heads of different institutions and entities, including the Minister of Education, the President of Congress and to the president of the General Council of the Judiciary.

“We demand an administrative communication that is easier to understand (clearer), closer (less impersonal and less pompous) and friendlier (less hierarchical and threatening)”, part of the manifesto states. 

Marc Bayés, who has a PhD in Spanish Language and is a professor at the University of Barcelona has also been trying to combat the use of this type of overly flowery language and even dedicated his thesis to it.

He says that this lack of clarity carries many risks; for example, it can prevent a citizen from finding the information they need or complicate the management of a fundamental procedure.

There is “a large well of obscure texts which, at times, are directly opaque,” he said with regard, particularly to notifications from the Hacienda (Spanish tax authorities).  

“A clear text reduces inequality because there are many people who do not have a great ability in the language,” he continued.  

A petition has even been set up on calling for clear and simple language in administrative documents, which you can sign here

This isn’t the first time that Spanish citizens have been complaining about overly complicated language.

After a series of complaints, in 2009 Spain set up a Commission for the Modernisation of Legal Language, which issued a report that spoke of the need to turn towards simpler language and argued that improving clarity “strengthens the rule of law”.   

Member comments

  1. I was a lawyer in England and clients had exactly the same problem. In particular, Wills, I made them in plain simple English and Clients really appreciated it! The firm I worked for did not; destroyed aura of expertise, was their view. I asked a Partner to explain a clause he put in – he could not!

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What is Spain’s inclusive language debate and why is it so controversial?

Plans to change the name of Spain's Congress of Deputies for it to not just be the masculine form has reopened the debate about whether Spanish is a sexist language.

What is Spain's inclusive language debate and why is it so controversial?

Plans to make the name of Spain’s Congress of Deputies more inclusive has reopened a long-running and controversial debate about where the Spanish language (more specifically, its gendered grammar) fits into it all.

For non-native Spanish speakers or those without a grasp on Spanish grammar, some of this might seem a little strange. This is especially true for English speakers as most English nouns, adjectives and definite articles do not use grammatical gender forms like in Spanish.

The proposal, put forward by governing coalition partners Socialists (PSOE) and far-left Sumar, is to change the name of Spain’s Congress of Deputies to make it more inclusive. To do so, they want to change it from El Congreso de los Diputados to simply Congreso, thereby removing the masculine gendered los and -o word ending from the name.

The change would be just one consequence of the wider rewriting of Congressional customs to adapt it to inclusive language. The proposal has been backed by left-wing parties and smaller nationalist groups that support the government, but rejected by the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) and far-right Vox.

In February, a body within the Spanish Congress issued recommendations on the use of inclusive language in official documents, then also with the support of the PP. In September 2023, official co-languages including Basque, Catalan and Galician were adopted for use for the first time.

READ ALSO: Why Spain has allowed regional languages to be spoken in Congress

The grammar behind it all

The clash seems to be grammar versus inclusivity or political correctness. Much of this is rooted in Spanish grammar rules, namely how the masculine form dominates when including both sexes in collective nouns. What does that mean?

Essentially, that because Spanish is a gendered language and nouns are given a gender – el libro (the book) is masculine, for example, and la casa (the house) is feminine.

It gets complicated with collective nouns, in other words, when a group of something (usually people) contains both males and females, the default collective noun in Spanish is almost always the masculine version.

For example, the word for parents in Spanish is padres, which could be understood to just mean dads, even though Spaniards instinctively understand that it can, in many cases, also be used to signify the plural ‘parents’ and include both mother (madre) and father (padre). 

In the case of the Congress, the solution seems to be to simply remove the gendered language. However, in other cases the drive for gender inclusivity actually goes and step further and changes the language itself.

If you live in Spain, you might’ve seen that some people (usually very politically engaged, almost always very left-wing) choose to say, though it is more often written on social media platforms, amigues rather amigos so it isn’t masculine and includes both amigas and amigos, the feminine and masculine forms of friends.

This trend is in many ways similar to moves in the United States to use a gender neutral form for Latinos and Latinas, Latinx, something that receives a lukewarm response from most Latinos themselves.

Backlash from Spain’s language academy

The steps to make language more inclusive has received backlash from the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) over the years, which, among other things, criticises attempts to do away with the exclusive use of the generic masculine when referring to people of both sexes, claiming it could “increase the distance with the real world” of the language used in institutions. In other words, politicians adopting politically correct language that real Spaniards don’t use on the street.

The Royal Spanish Academy suggests that “inclusive language” is a wider strategy that aims to avoid the generic use of the grammatical masculine, something the academy (the body entrusted to safeguard the Spanish language) states to be “a mechanism firmly established in the language and that does not involve any sexist discrimination.”

However, it should also be said that the demographic makeup of RAE members is, as one might’ve guessed, not as representative as it could be.

Yet the argument by RAE and many in Spain, particularly on the political right, is essentially that efforts to make language more inclusive is politicisation of non-political grammar rules.

An academy note from February stated that “artificially forcing” the grammar and lexicon of the Spanish language to fit political correctness does necessarily advance the democratic struggle to achieve equality between men and women.

A far-left policy?

Perhaps the most public proponent of making the Spanish language more inclusive is Irene Montero, the highly divisive former Equalities Minister who was member of Unidas Podemos, a far-left party. For Montero, changing gendered nouns in Spanish is not just about removing the traditional masculine collective noun, but also making language more inclusive for non-binary people.

The Minister stated in an interview in 2021 that the use of “hije” (the ‘gender neutral’ version of hijo/hija, meaning son or daughter) is to refer to non-binary people who, Montero said, “have every right to exist, even if it is strange and difficult to understand”.

For Montero and proponents of more inclusive language, “there is nothing more political than the use of the neutral masculine gender” and changing words serves “to modify habits or prejudices”.

“It is no coincidence that the masculine has been used as something neutral and women have reclaimed the language so it speaks for us. If we contribute on an equal footing with men in essential tasks we have every right to be named [properly] and the same happens with the LGTBi collective,” she said.