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7 Words Lawyers Misuse

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

If an act, say a conspiracy to misuse a word, is incomplete, it's inchoate. Is a completed act choate? Not if you're Antonin Scalia. The Supreme Court Justice hates the word so much that he's interrupted oral arguments (not rare) to chastise a lawyer (rarer) for using the phrase.

But when it comes to commonly misused phrases, Scalia might want to save his rage for more prolific offenders. (Plus, plenty of legal dictionaries allow choate, so Nino might be a little picky here.) Whether it's Latin abbreviations or simple adjectives, there are plenty of words lawyers repeatedly misuse. Here's our collection of common crimes against language.

1. Such: Nothing makes legal writing sound as tedious and needlessly wordy like the overuse of such. One shall deliver "such goods" to "such place" at "such a time" as agreed upon. Keep such as a demonstrative adjective, along the lines of "I've never seen such behavior from a grown man," and use the, this, or that when you need a pronoun.

2. Fewer: Fewer, of course, doesn't mean the same thing as less. Less refers to measurement of a whole, while fewer refers to specific, discrete items, as in "I have less time, but fewer things to do."

3. Adverse: Things are adverse, such as legal precedents. When it comes to people, though, the better word is "averse." Your client shouldn't be adverse to settling, he should be averse to it.

4. Honed In: To hone is to sharpen, as in a well-honed blade, or refine, like honing your craft. You do not "hone in" on something. Rather, you "home in on," or focus on, that thing. Hone and in should not be used together.

5. Them Latin Abbreviations: While complex Latin phrases trip up even seasoned lawyers, misused Latin abbreviations are much more common. We're looking at you, "i.e." and "e.g." The two are not interchangeable. The abbreviation "e.g." stands for exempli gratia, or "for example." Use it for general examples. Its sister "i.e." stands for id est, or "that is." It should to illustrate or clarify, i.e. when providing a more specific illustration of a general concept.

6. Discreet: Your managing partner is having three discrete affairs, but he's not having them very discreetly. Discreet means on the D.L., while discrete means specific or distinct. If you take three discrete paths, you've taken three separate paths. If you take three discreet paths, you've tread on some very circumspect walkways.

7. Imply: When one implies, she suggests, insinuates, indicates. If you are deducing or concluding something, you are inferring. It's not "I imply from your reaction that ..." Use infer instead.

Bonus! Argle-Bargle and Jiggery-Pokery: These words, used by Scalia in his dissents to Obergefell and King v. Burwell, respectively, should not be used in your writing. Resurrected from linguistic obscurity, they're Scalia's now. Leave them for him.

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