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14 commonly misused words in the legal industry

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Legal terminology and jargon are tough enough to learn, but the many words and phrases that are often used incorrectly can cause confusion and misunderstandings in legal agreements and communications.

Brush up on some of the most commonly misused words in the legal industry to make sure your writing stays clear and concise.

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#1 Moot vs. Mute

Is the point “moot” or “mute”? Well, it could be both—if the point could actually speak. A moot point is a situation when an issue is not determinative of an outcome. The word “mute” refers to something that’s quiet, unspoken, or refraining from speech or temporarily speechless. Get the point?

#2 Imminent vs. Eminent

Another tricky one. “Eminent” means famous and respected within a particular area or profession, and “imminent” means about to occur. Think I-M-M = “immediate” and “imminent.”

#3 Ensure vs. Insure

To ensure is to make certain or sure of. To insure is to guard against loss, and is most frequently used in the sense of “insurance.”

#4 Emigrate vs. Immigrate

Many folks don’t know if they’re coming or going—and that’s the trouble here, as well. The verb “emigrate” is always used in connection with “from,” and “immigrate” is always used with “to.” Think of it as directional… emigrate is to come from somewhere, and to immigrate is to go to somewhere.

#5 Forego vs. Forgo

“Forego” means to precede in place or time or to “come before.” The word “forgo” means to reject or to omit or decline to take (something pleasant or valuable) … to “go without.”

#6 Imply vs. Infer

This one seems to trip people up all the time. A speaker or writer implies something that’s not explicitly communicated, or to strongly suggest the truth or existence of something. But it’s the listener or reader who infers this notion from the communication.

Similar to “emigrate” and “immigrate” discussed above, it’s a bit directional or based on where you are in the mix. If you’re the speaker, you imply…if you’re the listener, you infer.

#7 Do diligence vs. Due Diligence

Some may think that “do diligence” means doing something diligently, but that’s not the case. “Due diligence” is a legal term that means you’re going to investigate a person or business before entering into some sort of business relationship with them. So, with this one, there’s only one way to go, and that’s to perform due diligence. “Do diligence” is not a thing.

#8 Less vs. Fewer

Can you count it? If so, use the word “fewer.”  Save the word “less” for uncountable nouns.

#9 Bimonthly vs. Semimonthly

“Bimonthly” means every other month, while “semimonthly” means twice a month. Think of BI = TWO. Bimonthly is two months in duration.

#10 Principle vs. Principal

Here’s a nasty one that can really derail a contract or a legal communication. The word “principle” is a fundamental truth or proposition. A “principal” is a major party in a business transaction. If you haven’t heard this one, use it now: your PAL is the principal. A principal is a person while a principle is a thing…a rule, a truth, or a doctrine. You got this!

#11 Proscribe vs. Prescribe

Another important one to get right in the legal world. To “proscribe” means to forbid, but the word “prescribe” means to administer, advocate, charge, command, decide, decree, demand, or issue and order.

So how can you remember the difference? How about remembering the ‘o’s: the “o” in proscribe matches for prohibit, taboo, and outlaw, while prescribe is like a prescription… the doctor issues an order for some medicine.

#12 Farther vs. Further

Ok, this one’s a bit nit-picky because you hear and see many attorneys and paralegals using this set of words interchangeably. The grammar police may not issue a citation for getting these wrong, but just so you know, use “farther” when you’re talking about a physical distance and “further” when indicating time or metaphorical distance.

You’re farther down this list of confusing words than you may have realized. However, you can always do further research to make sure your language is correct. We’re really stretching here but FA in farther is like a fathom, a distance of six feet under water. The FU in further can be associated with furtive, which can mean indirect or covert.

#13 Than vs. Then

Use “than” for comparisons and “then” for a chronological sequence. For example, I’d rather use the correct word than look silly. If I look silly, then I will study this list with more effort.

And finally…

#14 Attain vs. Obtain

You “attain” or achieve a goal, but you “obtain” or acquire an object. Hopefully you’ll attain competence with these confusing words; if not, you can obtain a copy of this list to review.

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Did this list help you get some of these confusing words straight? What are some examples you’ve seen of often misused words in the legal industry?

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