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Get to the Point!

Contronyms: Context Controls Comprehension

By Theda C. Snyder


That word has always troubled me. It’s a contronym, a word that has opposite meanings. Lawyers know that a motion for sanctions asks the court to penalize an adversary’s bad act. But other English speakers define a sanction as a blessing. No wonder your client is confused.

English has plenty of contronyms, also called auto-antonyms:

  • Cleave means to cut apart or cling together.
  • Dusting the furniture means to pick up dust, dusting the crop means to put it down.
  • Bolt means to leave in a hurry or attach to one place.

A contronym’s meaning is usually obvious from the context. But particularly if the recipient of your communication is not a native English speaker, the meaning can be lost. Lawyers should always avoid any usage that could later be interpreted as an ambiguity.

If you want the client to sign some papers again, you might want to avoid the word “resign.” Your communication could be interpreted to reference quitting, the opposite of signing up again. Be very clear when asking a client to “execute” a contract that you don’t mean the client is killing the deal.

When describing a departure, be wary of “left.” Let’s say an issue turns on who could have witnessed a condition or act at an apres-ski party. If the non-skiers go, they have left; the skiers are left. You can see where a misunderstanding could arise. If a deponent uses this term, be sure to clarify.

In a wrongful termination case, if the plaintiff’s supervisor overlooked the plaintiff’s work, does that mean the work was monitored — or ignored?

“Lease” or “rent” can be tricky. When someone is described as leasing an apartment, without further explanation one is unable to determine if that person acted as the lessor or lessee.

Have you come across other contronyms you have learned to avoid?

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Teddy Snyder Theda C. Snyder

Theda “Teddy” Snyder mediates civil disputes, workers’ compensation and insurance coverage cases, including COVID-19 related coverage disputes, in person or by video. Teddy has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She was a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and is the author of four ABA books, including “Women Rainmakers’ Best Marketing Tips, 4th Edition” as well as “Personal Injury Case Evaluation” available on Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at and on Twitter @SnyderMediation.

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