Hidden Meanings in Legal English - 2


The verb "to sound" has an unexpected meaning in legal English, where it can mean "to be actionable (in)." Consider this sentence from a decision of the California Supreme Court (Santisas v. Goodin, 17 Cal. 4th 599 - Cal: Supreme Court 1998):

"The case did not present an issue concerning the right to recover attorney fees under a contractual attorney fee provision as applied to claims or actions sounding in tort rather than contract and thus outside the scope of section 1717."

To understand this sentence, you could rewrite the phrase in question like this:

tort claims or actions rather than contract claims or actions.

In other words, "claims sounding in tort" means "claims based on a tort" or simply "tort claims." Likewise, "actions sounding in contract" means "actions based on a breach of contract" or simply "contract actions."

The French translation of "claims sounding in tort" would be "des réclamations fondées sur un délit civil." In Spanish one could write "reclamaciones basadas en un ílicto civil."

Note that British writers sometimes refer to "claims sounding in tort" (= "tort claims") as "tortious claims," but that sounds odd to Americans (as if the claims themselves were somehow tortious). "Claims sounding in tort" sounds odd to English-speakers on both sides of the Atlantic, unless they have studied law.

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