Segways, and Other Homophonic Legal-Writing Blunders

I like Squawk Box, CNBC’s morning financial-news program. During several shows, I’ve watched a guest shift to another topic, only to be greeted by the host saying: “Well, that’s a nice segue. . . .”

When I hear the word segue, though, I ask myself: “Does the person think the word segue is spelled segway?” After all, both words sound the same, but doubtless few people have seen the word segue in print.

Word pairs like segue/segway—called homophones—cause trouble because they’re often misused in legal writing. Let’s take a look at them.

Homophones: Choosing the Right Word to Write 

Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. Homophones can be spelled the same, but need not be. Garner on Language and Writing gives examples of commonly misused homophones in legal writing. Here are 15 of them, their principal meanings from Dictionary.com, and a short comment on each.

  1. Adieu — ado. As an interjection adieu means “good-bye; farewell.” The noun ado means “busy activity; bustle; fuss.” So I suppose there could be much ado when a boyfriend bids adieu to his girlfriend.
  2. Cannon — canon. As a noun cannon means “a mounted gun for firing heavy projectiles; a gun, howitzer, or mortar.” The noun canon, however, means “a standard; criterion.” I wouldn’t want to go into battle armed with only a canon, would you?
  3. Capital — capitol. The noun capital means “the city or town that is the official seat of government in a country, state, etc.” or “the wealth, whether in money or property, owned or employed in business by an individual, firm, corporation, etc.” The noun capitol means “the building in Washington, D.C., used by the Congress of the U.S. for its sessions.” So the United States capitol is located in D.C., which is the capital of the United States, and where the taxpayers’ capital gets spent.
  4. Discreet — discrete. The adjective discreet means “showing prudence and circumspection; decorous.” The adjective discrete means “apart or detached from others; separate; distinct.” According to Garner’s Modern American Usage, both words have the same Latin origin, but discreet came into English through French.
  5. Flack — flak. As a noun flack means a press agent or publicist. In the non-military sense, the noun flak means “criticism; hostile reaction; abuse.” So a person criticizing a press agent would be directing flak at a flack.
  6. Forebear — forbear. The noun forebear means an ancestor. The verb forbear means “to refrain or abstain from; desist from.” The words are completely unrelated. So please forbear from misusing these homophones. If you don’t, your forebears who were snoots won’t be pleased.
  7. Hoard — horde. As a noun hoard means “a supply or accumulation that is hidden or carefully guarded for preservation, future use, etc.” The noun horde is “a large group, multitude, number, etc.; a mass or crowd.” So a horde can hide its hoard. According to Garner on Language and Writing, the Harvard Human Rights Journal mixed up these homophones when it referred to a hoard of asylum-seekers.
  8. Hurdling — hurtling. The verb hurdling means “to leap over (a hurdle, barrier, fence, etc.), as in a race.” Hurtling—also a verb—means “to rush violently; move with great speed.” As Garner notes, an asteroid can’t come hurdling to Earth.
  9. Illicit — elicit. The adjective illicit means “not legally permitted or authorized; unlicensed; unlawful.” The verb elicit means “to draw or bring out or forth; educe; evoke.” Garner on Language and Writing notes that the Ohio State Law Journal mixed up these homophones when it referred to a criminal offense that illicited public rage.
  10. Principle — principal. The noun principle is “an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct.” Principled, however, is an adjective. The adjective principal means “first or highest in rank, importance, value, etc.; chief; foremost,” though principal can also be a noun—as in the principal of a school. Legal writers commonly confuse these homophones because the law is full of legal principles. Garner points out that the Washington Law Review should have used principal when it incorrectly referred to the principle reason for an occurrence.
  11. Reign — rein. As a noun reign means “the period during which a sovereign occupies the throne.” As a verb reign means “to possess or exercise sovereign power or authority.” As a noun rein means “any means of curbing, controlling, or directing; check; restraint.” Garner’s Modern American Usage notes that “these words are frequently mistaken for each other in print—but perhaps no other pair is confused in so many ways.” Case in point: The otherwise-excellent California Law Review mixed up these homophones.
  12. Stationary — stationery. As an adjective stationary means “standing still; not moving.” The noun stationery means writing paper or materials. So when you write it helps if you keep your stationery stationary.
  13. Throw — throe. The verb throw means “to propel or cast in any way, especially to project or propel from the hand by a sudden forward motion or straightening of the arm and wrist.” The noun throe means “a violent spasm or pang; paroxysm” or “a sharp attack of emotion.” So when someone writes that a person was in the throws of an identity crisis—like the Florida Law Review did—you should throw something at him.
  14. Tow — toe. The verb tow means “to pull or haul (a car, barge, trailer, etc.) by a rope, chain, or other device.” The word toe can be a noun—as in the human toe—or a verb, meaning “to touch or reach with the toes.” Writers use the latter sense when using the idiom “toe the line.” The distinction between the homophones, however, didn’t stop The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch from writing a story about the Federal Reserve with the headline: “Fed tows the line.”
  15. Tracks — tract. As a noun tracks can mean “footprints or other marks left by an animal, person, or vehicle.”  The noun tract means “an expanse or area of land, water, etc.; region; stretch.” So you can see an animal’s tracks on a tract of land, but not vice versa.

Your Spell-Checker Won’t Save You From Homophone-Induced Blunders

I recently talked to a former chief judge of a Minnesota district court and I asked him about the quality of the briefs being submitted by the lawyers who were appearing before him. He said that it wasn’t good, and was only getting worse. His diagnosis: The lawyers were putting their writing through their spell-checkers and then filing their briefs. Like many legal-writing blunders, homophones escape a lawyer’s spell-check-only review.

So the point of this pedantic post is this: Take one last, hard look at your legal writing before sending it off to the rest of the legal world. If you don’t, any misused homophones might become an example in Garner’s next book.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lynnfriedman/4477759897/)

Lawyering Skills

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  • http://attenzalaw.com/ Karen Lundquist

    I got a really good piece of advice from my first year legal writing/research instructor. Before submitting something, whether a memo to the court or an assignment to a law school professor, spell check your work by doing a search for some of the most common misspellings and homophones. One that she stressed was an embarrassing one that you want to check: pubic instead of public, but trail instead of trial is another common one. That won’t save you from the mistakes you are discussing (if you don’t know the meaning and the correct spelling, finding the words in your brief won’t help you), but is a good place to start.

  • Elaine Knecht

    Adieu and ado have different phonetic spellings, so even if you don’t speak French you should be able to differentiate.

  • june kohl

    Compliment and complement and therefore and therefor are two I come across frequently. I am a legal secretary and some lawyers do not know the difference…