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Get to the Point
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Get to the Point!

OK, So You’ve Got a Thesaurus

By Theda C. Snyder

We frequently urge legal writers to use a thesaurus to improve their writing. Finding the best word promotes precision and avoids tedium.

But the list of synonyms omits the nuances. Here you are trying to demonstrate your mastery of writing, but careless use of an unfamiliar synonym can produce a linguistic faux pas.

Not Every Synonym Is Right for the Context

Today I saw another example of a writer, a travel writer this time, trying to prove the writer owns a thesaurus:

“Stroll hand in hand with your paramour across this bridge while taking in views of the palace and cathedral.”

I guess the couple this writer had in mind were staying at a Mr. and Mrs. Smith property[1] because a primary definition of “paramour” is “an illicit lover, especially of a married person.” Yes, the secondary definition is “any lover,” but how many people are going to finely parse the term? Most readers will understand this word to refer to an adulterous relationship.

Writers can get carried away in the search for synonyms to enliven their writing. When I see the word “limn” as a synonym for represent, I know the writer had cracked open a thesaurus. “Limn” usually appears as a synonym for represent, but it has nothing to do with legal representation of a client. Rather, the word refers to an image or words standing for something else.

Which Is It?

Maybe at this point you feel like you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

It all comes down to being careful in your legal writing, a commandment that applies to every drafting decision. Yes, you should use synonyms to vary your writing. Yes, you should use a thesaurus to assist you in this task as well as broaden your vocabulary. Be extremely cautious about using esoteric or unfamiliar words.

Double-check the word in a dictionary to make sure it is right for the intended context. You want to come across as erudite, not clueless.

[1]This website started as a resource for a certain type of couple looking for places to stay anonymously, hence the name. A quick glance at the site today shows they accommodate a broader clientele.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Theda C. Snyder

Theda “Teddy” Snyder mediates civil disputes, workplace injury and workers’ compensation cases throughout California. 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, 3rd Edition” as well as “Personal Injury Case Evaluation” available on Amazon.com. Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at WCMediator.com and on Twitter @WCMediator.

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