Legal lightning bugs: Precise language is required in legal writing

Paul Fletcher
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Precise language is required in legal writing. Ever notice how much difference a single letter can make?

Overlook an error when proofreading or hit the wrong key, and to take a riff from Mr. Clemens, you have a legal lightning bug. That one letter is really a large matter.

Here are 10 pairs of words. In each case, the first is an often-used legal term. That’s the lightning.

The second is a legal lightning bug, a potential error that might follow you for years.

Mediation vs. meditation
Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution. The parties are trying to resolve a controversy short of trial.  Meditation, well, just keep contemplating that one. Any judge who refers a case to meditation has suffered a lapse in mindfulness.

Statute vs. statue
The Code of Virginia is filled with statutes. Lose that “t” and you have a source of current controversy or something a bit dusty in a museum. Think about a visit to the museum housing a “Statue of Limitations” or the “Statue of Frauds.” OK, maybe visit somewhere else.

Hanover vs. Hangover
Hanover County is just north of Richmond. They grow a famous type of tomato there. Patrick Henry is its most famous resident. Hangover County is a rough place to visit, especially early in the morning.

Tort vs. torte
These two words sound the same. But a tort is a wrongful civil act, such as assault or battery. A torte is a multi-layered cake full of delicious goop, such as chocolate or fruity filling. Surely you remember taking Torts during your first year of law school. Here’s betting they teach Tortes in the first year of baking school.

Canon vs. cannon
Don’t think of the camera company. A canon is a general principle or rule, a law. A cannon is a big gun that fires cannonballs. Judicial canons provide rules of professional behavior for judges. Judicial cannons could be useful for firing a judge who refers a case to meditation.

Trial vs. trail
Trial lawyers represent plaintiffs or defendants – their practices frequently involve negligence and sometimes torts (the legal kind). Trail lawyers might ride around saying things such as, “Howdy, pardner” or “Dagnabbit!” They clearly were watching too many westerns instead of studying for Torts class.

Claim vs. clam
Plaintiff’s lawyers make their living off filing claims, or lawsuits, for injured persons. You won’t see them at the beach digging for clams. Pity the lawyer who makes his or her living at small clams court.

Indict vs. induct
A prosecutor seeks to indict someone, for committing a crime. The leader of an honor society seeks to induct someone, for committing good grades. If someone is indicted into the Beta Club, it has to be a rogue chapter.

Hearing vs. herring
A judge can hold a hearing any day of the week. A fishmonger can hold a herring if the catch has been good. When a judge holds a “preliminary herring,” it must be an appetizer at dinner.

Public vs. pubic
Something that is public concerns all the people or is held out in the open. Pubic … well, we really don’t need to go there. Just don’t forget that all-important “L.” And steer clear of anyone declared a pubic enemy.