Well, I learned something today. Mark Liberman has an extended discussion at Language Log about the word conclusory as used by lawyers, discovering that it means “asserting conclusions without evidence.” (This came up in connection with Sen. Arlen Specter’s skeptical assessment of what Alberto Gonzales has said about the firings of the U.S. Attorneys: “Those statements are very conclusory.”) I’m happy to say I don’t spend a lot of time reading material written by lawyers, but it’s always good to learn something about another dialect.

Addendum. Donald Kochan writes to tell me about his article on this subject, “While Effusive, ‘Conclusory’ is Still Quite Elusive: The Story of a Word, Iqbal, and a Perplexing Lexical Inquiry of Supreme Importance,” University of Pittsburgh Law Review 73 (2011 [actually appeared in print in March 2013]); here‘s the abstract, and you can download the paper from there.


  1. It’s a useful concept for analyzing political debate too. If you say “I don’t like Bush because he’s a crook” you’ve summed up your conclusion without giving any reasons for it. If you stop there you haven’t said anything. You often run into people who’s main political ideas are all conclusory, repeated verbatim from what someone else said and entirely ungrounded on facts or reasoning.

  2. Very true. I’d start using the word, except no one but lawyers would know what I meant.

  3. If not now, when?

  4. marie-lucie says

    I think that this word (new to me also) would be very useful in some of the discussions here! “X, you are being conclusory, Where is the evidence?”

  5. On a law blog recently, someone commented about something being “facially” true. Does that mean “on the face of it”?

  6. I propose the following eggcorn:
    Conclusory = Conclusive + illusory.
    Does it count as an eggcorn if I do it on purpose? 🙂

  7. It’s surprising this term is so foreign outside legal circles. The purpose of the word (and I use it often) is to point out the logical and evidentiary flimsiness of the assertion. “I belong to category X and was fired for that reason” presents nothing more than an unexamined — and unexaminable — legal conclusion and is therefore called a “conclusory allegation”. The latter phrase is used in motions for summary judgment, where the defense argues the plaintiff should not be permitted to proceed to trial for the simple reason that she’s presented no evidence that would support the truth of her claim. It can also be used to describe a judicial or administrative decision that fails to identify the legal and factual findings that justify the conclusion. It’s the legal equivalent of failing to show your work in math class, except that the soundness of the “work” is the only way we have to test the soundness of the result. (For that matter, I believe that mathematicians have a related term, “hand-waving”, that refers to the sloppy inferences sometimes resorted to, out of laziness, ignorance, or lack of time, in otherwise rigorous proofs.) Injecting the word “conclusory” into everyday speech tends to give the conversation a Socratic flavor, for better or worse.
    P.S. “Facially” would, in my view, only appear in sloppy legal writing. It’s an awkward attempt to make an adverb out of “prima facie”, and basically means that what’s being said is a preliminary conclusion that may or may not be withstand closer scrutiny.

  8. The problem with trying to introduce the word into “normal” conversations is that people unfamiliar with it will naturally guess it’s a synonym of “conclusive”, just as “illusive” is a synonym of “illusory”.

  9. That’s why you have to use an incredulous tone of voice when you say it. “That’s rather conclusory, isn’t it?” And then, rather than assume it is a synonym for “conclusive”, the interlocutor will ask “what the hell does that mean?”

  10. Yeah, this is one of those words that would be great to have available in normal discourse if only we could figure out how to get it there.

  11. Oh geez. Those of us who dwell in the dreg caste of the language society tend to hate those types of words. It’s a lawyer’s word — designed only to confuse and obfuscate the truth from us. We know words like ‘conclusive’ and ‘inconclusive’. Why not use words that we’ll understand in sentences rather than ones that give the appearance of opposite meanings?

  12. I’d be cautious about adopting this language in real life. Bear in mind that lawyerly usages stem from a specific formal environment with a limited number of possible actors– ‘witness’, ‘expert’, ‘judge’, ‘jury’, ‘advocate’– and a limited set of possible results. So, there can be a formal language that lays out the relationships among these actors and the specific ways their statements may lead to the possible results. But reality, such as it is, is not so simple.

  13. Why not use words that we’ll understand in sentences rather than ones that give the appearance of opposite meanings?
    Well, yeah, that’s why it can’t actually be used in normal discourse. The point is that it would be nice to have a word with that meaning that could be used without confusing people, because it’s a useful meaning. But I guess “Have you got some actual evidence for that?” works.

  14. Jerry Stephens says

    I’m a little surprised st some of the reaction around Arlen Specter’s use of “conclusory.” Mark Lieberman is correct in his “Language Log” posting that it is missing from the standard non-legal dictionaries. But it’s not absent from the Oxford English Dicttionary where the definition provided — i.e., “relating or tending to a conclusion; conclusive” — seems perfectly straightforward to me. Even from the lawyer’s perspective, the word has never seemed to me to be one that should be appropriated for exclusive use by the bar.

  15. the definition provided — i.e., “relating or tending to a conclusion; conclusive” — seems perfectly straightforward to me
    Yes, it is indeed straightforward, but it is not the definition in question here, which is why there is confusion. Lawyers use the word to mean ‘implying a conclusion without supporting evidence,’ the lack of evidence being the important aspect.

  16. So you’re saying that “conclusory” means that the speaker is begging the question?

  17. Dearieme got it. It’s asserting the conclusion you want someone to come to in a sort of dressed-up way which conceals the fact that you’re offering no evidence or argument for the conclusion.
    It’s really characteristic of TV-radio oral politics, and probably a lot of political speaking. I think it can be caught more easily when reading, when you’re not swept up in the rhythm of the language and can notice that the critical point was just assumed.
    Gonzales’ statement made me wonder how he can be competent to practice law. He really seems to be a Bush family mouthpiece more than a legal thinker.

  18. >> “Lawyers use the word to mean ‘implying a conclusion without supporting evidence,’ the lack of evidence being the important aspect.”
    This is not quite right. It has less to do with evidence and more to do with factual basis.
    In a legal complaint, you allege facts — you aren’t expected to, and indeed aren’t allowed to, present evidence. That comes later in the case. You are being “conclusory” when you allege “conclusions of law” instead of “ultimate facts”.
    So, for example, “The defendant was negligent,” is a legal conclusion, not an ultimate fact; it is a *conclusory* allegation.
    But, “The defendant drove a car at a speed greater than was safe for the conditions and as a result lost control and crashed into the plaintiff’s car, causing plaintiff bodily injury and property damage,” is a factual allegation and therefore not conclusory. (But nowhere is any evidentiary basis stated or required.)

  19. Thanks! I am (obviously) not a lawyer.

  20. Of course, words being words, ‘conclusory’ sometimes gets used every which way too; and why not?
    I’m glad of this post, by the way. I distinctly recall looking up ‘conclusory’ early in my career and, not finding it in The Dictionary, resorting to ‘conclusionary’. Eventually, I reverted back to ‘conclusory’ — even though it wasn’t a real word — because that’s just how the concept is always expressed. Ultimately, I sorted out the fact that it is a real word precisely because that’s how the concept is always expressed. I didn’t know until now though that it had finally achieved a place in mainstream dictionaries.
    Just as a follow-up, the stock phrase for “implying a conclusion without supporting evidence,” is “states facts not in evidence.”

  21. Adding a comment to bring the post to the attention of anyone who might be interested in Donald Kochan’s new article on the word and its usage in the legal world (see Addendum above):

    It is […] a revelation about the fallibility of dictionaries, a recognition of the sometimes indeterminate use of language, a caution that a word’s meaning is seldom revealed in isolation, a lesson on the importance of contextual analysis, a debate about the utility of flexibility in standards, and a charge in the face of unavoidable confusion to make the best use of skill and analogy to operate within the constraints of a new judicially-demanded ante for entering the game of civil litigation.

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