Legal Writing Tip: Don’t Get Fouled up by Commonly Confused or Misused Words and Phrases

Savannah Blackwell

Here’s our final installment (at least for now) on the popular topic of tackling troublesome words and phrases.

Either/or; Neither/nor

“Neither” should be followed by “nor;” “either” should be followed by “or.”

When the alternatives are in the singular, the verb should be as well.

But when one is in the singular, and the other is in the plural, the form of the last noun determines the form of the verb.

Ex: Either they or he was required to prepare the filing.

To be on the safe side, put the plural noun last, and make the verb plural as well.

Ex: Either he or they were required to prepare the filing.

Fewer or Less?

“Fewer” applies to nouns that can be counted, like cars, books, and people. “Less” applies to “mass” nouns, i.e., nouns denoting something that cannot be counted, like a substance or quality.

Ex: Fewer than 12 students signed up for the course.

Ex: Let’s have less noise, please.

Juncture

“Juncture” means “joint” or “connection.” The phrase, “at this juncture,” should be used only to refer to a crisis or a crucial point in time. Writers misuse it when they simply mean “at this time” or “now.”

Lay or Lie

“Lay” means “to put down” or “arrange.” It is a transitive verb and therefore requires a direct object, as in “Now I lay me down to sleep” (the object of which is the word, “me”).

“Lie” means “to recline” or “to be situated.” It is an intransitive verb and therefore takes no direct object, as in “I am lying on the couch.”

Liable or Likely?

“Liable,” which means “subject to” or “exposed to,” really shouldn’t appear interchangeably with “likely” or “apt.” “Liable” is best used for referring to something unpleasant that is at risk of becoming permanent, such as in the sentence, “What you don’t know is liable to hurt you.”

In law, “liable” means “responsible” or “subject to a penalty.” So again, best not to use “liable” when you mean simply “seeming to be true” or “seeming to be right for a purpose.”

Orient or Orientate?

As transitive verbs, the two words mean the same. Most U.S. writing experts consider the latter a needless variation of the former. Stick with “orient.”

Recur or Reoccur?

The first means to occur over and over, often at regular intervals, like a “recurring” nightmare. The second means simply to happen again.

Sui generis or Sui juris?

Sui generis means “unlike anything else, in a class of its own.” Sui juris means “having full rights or capacity.” To avoid sounding pompous, translate these Latin lawyerisms into plain English.

Thus or Thusly?

Since “thus” is an adverb, “thusly” is redundant.

If you’d like to start each morning with a “Usage Tip of the Day” from legal writing expert Bryan Garner, send a note to info@lawprose.org asking that your email address be added to the blast list.

About the author:

Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She became a licensed California attorney in 2010 and specializes in legal research and writing. She can be reached at savannah.blackwell@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SavannahBinSF.