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Similar-sounding words can have very different meanings. Sound-alike words have tripped up many a scribe. Because you may be spelling the word correctly but misusing it for the context, spell-check is of no help. Watch out!
Incorrect usage will reflect badly on your legal writing and distract the reader from your message.
The hands-down No. 1 most confusing word pair is “affect” and “effect.” Part of the confusion arises because both words can work as a noun or a verb.
“Affect” is usually a verb. People usually use it to mean “to change” or “to influence,” as in “The injury affected plaintiff’s sense of smell.” Less commonly, “affect” can also mean to act falsely, as in “He affected the manner of a bohemian.” Pronounce this word with the accent on the second syllable.
“Affect,” the noun, is a medical term for a person’s observable mental or emotional state. Cases involving psychological injury may involve discussions of a patient’s affect. “Patients with depression and schizophrenia often show flat affect.” Pronounce this word with the accent on the first syllable.
Most people use “effect” as a noun referring to a result: “The unusual weather caused a major effect.” But “effect” can also be a verb. Lawyers like this usage, even though they don’t always get it right. Used as a verb, “effect” means to cause or create. “The tsunami effected a change in shoreline land use.” The phrase “effect change” may be the most common use of “effect” as a verb.
The difference between “affect and “effect” as verbs may seem subtle. Consider whether the event or entity brought about the change or merely influenced something that already existed.
“The agent’s principal insisted he litigated not for financial gain, but for the principle.” A “principal” is a person, such as the principal of a school, or an entity that hires an agent. Maybe you remember the section on “Principal and Agency” from your law school Business Entities class. Fundamental or personal rules of conduct or management are “principles.” People are not “principles.”
Do your clients impose billing rules? One common rule is the requirement of “discrete,” i.e., separate, billing entries rather than blocked entries.
Example of discrete entries:
Example of blocked entry:
Billing in “discrete” entries doesn’t mean you were careful not to disclose confidential information. Lawyers often wrongly call acts “discreet” when they really mean “several,” not “circumspect.”
Lawyers like these abbreviations of Latin phrases in briefs — they sound so gosh-darn lawyerly. But lawyers often mix them up: “e.g.” means “for example” and “i.e.” means “that is (to say).” Both should appear in lowercase and be followed by a comma.
This usage mistake has cropped up in the last couple of years. Expressive, moving, influential speech is “eloquent,” not “elegant.” Perhaps the speaker’s clothing was tasteful and suggested prosperity, or guests at a formal event acted gracefully and in a refined, appropriate way. These people were “elegant.” Do not refer to a barrister’s argument as “elegant”; “eloquent” is what you mean.
Both words denote violence, but to different types of objects. Knights might “ravage” a castle, but a knight who “ravished” a damsel did not display chivalry. “The property damage insurance coverage was insufficient to repair the storm’s ravages” is correct usage. “To ravage” means to cause heavy destruction. “Ravish” is a euphemism for “rape,” a sex crime. Further examples of the really weird ways language evolves include a definition of ravish (not the preferred one) as “to overwhelm with emotion,” and if that damsel was very pretty, she might have been called “ravishing.” Go figure.
Moral of the story: To avoid mistakes that make your writing look ignorant instead of learned, use that dictionary.
Theda C. “Teddy” Snyder mediates workers’ compensation cases throughout California. An attorney since 1977, she has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at www.WCMediator.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @WCMediator.
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