Common Word Usage Errors to Avoid in Legal Writing

Sometimes the spell check feature in a word processing program will not show errors in spelling and word usage. Proofreading is an essential part of legal writing. While a carpenter uses a hammer, chisel and other tools in the field of carpentry, “[w]ords are the tools of the lawyer’s craft.” Hollcroft v. Department of Treasury, I.R.S., 687 F.Supp. 510, 517 (E.D.Cal. 1988). U.S. Supreme Court Justice Holmes also observed: “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.” Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 418, 425, 38 S.Ct. 158, 159, 62 L.Ed. 372 (1918). This article discusses some common errors in word usage in legal writing.



The word “advice” is the noun while “advise” is a verb. You should seek the advice of a lawyer.  A criminal defense lawyer may advise the client not to take the stand.



“Breach of contract” is sometimes misspelled as “beach of contract.” A “breach” is a seashore area while “breach” means failure to perform a legal obligation.



A “canon” is a set of code of laws or ethics such as NALA Code of Ethics while a “cannon” is a type of artillery used in warfare and battle.



A “council” is a governing body such as a “city council.” Counsel may be another name for a lawyer or attorney. For example, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides the right to counsel in criminal prosecutions.



The adjective liable (a three-syllable word) means subject to, obligated to, or responsible for something. The noun or verb libel (a two-syllable word) refers to a false publication that damages a person’s reputation.



Several definitions exist for “squash” including the vegetable or the game played at some elite country clubs with a long-handled racket and a rubber ball. But if you are opposing a motion or a subpoena, the proper procedure is to file a motion to “quash” rather than a motion to “squash.”



A “statute” is a law enacted by a legislative body such Congress or a state legislature. A “statue” is a three-dimensional representation usually of a person, animal, or mythical being that is produced by sculpturing, modeling, or casting such as Michelangelo’s David.


For more examples, check out chapter five in The Little Book on Legal Writing by Alan L. Dworsky available on Google Books.