Legal Writing Tip: Tackling Problematic Words

Here’s more on the ever-popular topic of easily confused words. Email me your own problematic pairs – they could end up in a future column.

Preventative, Preventive

Both mean devoted or concerned with prevention. Some linguistic purists prefer preventive.

Imply, Infer

Perennially problematic, this duo’s difference bears reminding. To hint at something is to imply; to make an educated guess is to infer. A helpful hint: the speaker implies, the listener infers.

Kneeled, Knelt

These are interchangeable. Read your draft aloud and pick the one that flows better. (Bonus quiz – can you name the Taylor Swift song with knelt in the lyrics?)

Irregardless, Regardless

Contrary to popular belief, irregardless is a word. However, it’s used mostly in speech. Use regardless, if for no other reason than your reader may think your text contains an error.

Like, As

Use like when no verb follows. My daughter looks just like her father.

Use as if the next clause includes a verb. My daughter looks just as I would expect her to.

Despite, In Spite Of

These are interchangeable. Use despite when facing a strict word limit.

Should Have, Should Of

In speech, the proper should have is often slurred to sound like should of. But should of is never right in writing.

Oral, Verbal

Traditionally, verbal refers to things put into written or spoken words; oral refers to the mouth and to things that are spoken. But they’re increasingly used interchangeably.

Could Care Less, Couldn’t Care Less

Another phrase that’s been obscured thanks to slurred speech, couldn’t care less is correct. (Could care less implies that you still might care a little.)

Jealousy, Envy

Envy means you want what someone else has (and typically involves just two parties); jealousy means you’re worried someone is trying to take who or what you already have (and sometimes involves three parties).

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About the author:

gordonA former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco. She is the author of Cheer: A Novel, which is available on Amazon. She can be reached via email at leslie.gordon@stanfordalumni.org. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @LAGordonWriter.