Oregon State Bar Bulletin — OCTOBER 2010
The Legal Writer
Interesting Eyes:
Word Choices V
By Suzanne E. Rowe

I ran for the dictionary, hoping to learn that the letters on my Scrabble tray formed a bingo. For readers who do not play Scrabble nightly, a bingo is a word that uses all seven tiles on a player’s tray. A bingo brings 50 bonus points, which I always need to keep from pulling down the house average. I hoped to find in my favorite dictionary the opposite of genial — perhaps, just maybe, ingenial was a word?

Nope. I still scored more than 450 points that night, quite an accomplishment for an amateur like me. Even better, in the “I” section of my favorite dictionary, I found fascinating word usage tips. Here are some of the more interesting “I” words.

If vs. whether.These two words are often interchangeable, though whether is typically considered more formal and thus is more appropriate for the types of documents lawyers write. Sometimes, however, the two have different meanings, which can change a sentence when one is substituted for the other. If can be used in a conditional sense, while whether is used to show an alternative. Consider the following sentences:

Please let me know if your client is available for depositions on Friday. This sentence suggests that the reader need not reply if the client is not going to be available on Friday. Perhaps the two attorneys have already discussed the possibility of Friday depositions, and the client is most likely unavailable. Thus, no contact is required unless that situation changes.

Please let me know whether your client is available for depositions on Friday. The use of whether clearly indicates that the reader must reply with information stating that the client will or will not be available.

Imaginary vs. imaginative. If you like one-word definitions, imaginary means “unreal,” while imaginative means “original.” My four-year-old niece has several imaginary friends. She also draws imaginative pictures that I like to display in my office. (We’ll leave aside the discussion of imaginary numbers, which I remember only vaguely from college math.)

Immigratevs. emigrate. There’s a useful mnemonic device for remembering the difference between these two words. (Watch the initial letters of the italicized words.) Immigrate means to come into a country, intending to stay. Emigrate means to exit a country and stay away.

Impractical vs. impracticable. For years, I thought the second word in this pair was just a gussied up version of the first. Wrong again.

Impractical is used in a general sense to mean “not practical,” “not sensible” or “unrealistic.” For example, it’s impractical to think you can win a case with scant evidence. You might still take the case — because the client is your father or because you believe in the cause — but expecting to win would remain impractical.

Impracticable means that a specific thing is impossible to do. Widening Fifth Avenue in New York City is impracticable (unless you want to knock down St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Saks and numerous other landmarks).

Inchoate. Because I had friends in college whose last name was Choate (pronounced like a combination of “chose” and “boat”), the word inchoate has long baffled me. How can something be inchoate if there’s no choate? Um, just like “ingenial” was going to get me 50 bonus points?

First, let’s clarify the pronunciation of the word that exists: inchoate. The “ch” sounds like a “k,” and there are three syllables (i.e., either in-KO-it or in-KO-wait). Now let’s attack the definition. The general population uses the term to refer to things just begun and thus not formed fully, like the democracy in Kyrgyzstan, or maybe Chicago. In criminal law, inchoate is a term of art, so I turned to a criminal law expert. I learned that inchoate means anticipatory or incomplete. An inchoate crime is one committed in taking a step toward committing another crime. (Think of criminal attempt, conspiracy, solicitation, and aiding and abetting.) That anticipatory or incomplete step itself is substantial enough to deserve punishment, even if the actor doesn’t complete the underlying crime.

Incidence vs. incidents. The most important thing to remember with this pair is to not make the first plural. In other words, don’t write “incidences.”

The two words are confusing because they are pronounced the same. Incidence refers to frequency and is used more often in technical writing. My favorite dictionary offers this example: Increased ultraviolet light is likely to cause increased incidence of skin cancer. The second word, incidents, is just the plural of incident. Again referring to my dictionary: The police are supposed to investigate any incidents of domestic violence.

Include vs. comprise. Before sorting out the differences between include and comprise, we have to meander back to the “C” section of the dictionary to review meaning of comprise. The whole of something comprises several parts. The building you just rented comprises a reception area, five offices and two conference rooms. The building is the whole, and the reception area, five offices and two conference rooms are the parts.

Back to the interesting “I” section. While comprise suggests a complete list, include suggests an incomplete list. In our earlier example, the building comprises a reception area, office and conference rooms, but it doesn’t have bathrooms, which may be why you rented it so cheaply. To suggest that the listing of parts is incomplete, use include.

The building includes a reception area, five offices and two conference rooms.

This example shows that the building likely has a bathroom, might have a kitchenette and probably comes with a front door. There’s no need to write “and more” with include because that word already indicates a partial list.

Incrediblevs. incredulous. Both words in this pair address believability, but each has its own twist. Incredible can mean either “unbelievable” or “unconvincing.” The judge granted summary judgment because the plaintiff’s testimony was incredible.

Incredulous is the opposite of “credulous.” (I’m sure this is why I hoped “ingenial” might be a word.) Incredulous often refers to a person’s attitude, showing skepticism and lack of willingness to believe. The lawyer became incredulous of her client after she caught him in yet another lie.

Imply vs. infer. Much has been written to explain the difference between these two words (including my own attempt in my first Word Choices article, April 2007). Because my review of interesting “I” words would not be complete otherwise, I offer here another attempt to clarify the difference. Briefly, the speaker implies, while the listener infers.

The two words can describe the same event, but they do so from different perspectives. The magistrate judge, trying to be judicious, might imply that the plaintiff’s lawyer is a jerk. The magistrate couldn’t say that directly, but he could give hints both with the words he chooses and the tone of voice he uses. If the plaintiff is a fast thinker, she might infer from those words and that tone of voice that her case will proceed more smoothly if she hires a new lawyer.

The pair works just as well in written communication, where the writer implies and the reader infers. Here’s my example from the earlier article:

The demand letter implied that the lawyer would stop at nothing to win. The elderly client read the letter and inferred that her worthless nephew needed more money.

Infinite vs. infinitesimal. While I’m enumerating my faults, let me confess that I have long ignored the third “i” in the longer word in this pair. In truth, the word has six syllables: in-fin-i-TES-i-mal.

At least I have gotten the meanings of the two words right. Infinite means “limitless.” While the word infinitesimal is so long that many people assume it must be synonymous with infinite, the meaning is actually the opposite. Infinitesimal is extremely small.

The boxes of discovery documents seemed infinite. The chances of finding the smoking gun on one page seemed infinitesimal.

Ingenious vs. ingenuous. Here’s a pair you don’t want to confuse. Both can be compliments, but the second suggests an innocence that you might not intend. The first, ingenious, means “clever.” You’d like for your colleagues to think that you came up with an ingenious solution to the client’s business problem. The second, ingenuous, means “innocently frank,” as when your colleague’s son points out that your socks don’t match.

Innumerate vs. enumerate. Rarely will you intend to use the first of this pair. Innumerate means lacking in a basic understanding of math. Enumerate means to list a number of things one by one. I’ve enumerated several of my faults here, starting with being a bad Scrabble player.

Inquire vs. enquire. Both words in this pair mean “to ask for information.” Americans prefer the spelling with “i” while the British use “e.”

The same spelling preferences hold for “inquiry” on this side of the pond and “enquiry” over there. The meaning of both of those words is “the act of asking someone for information.”

Here’s a quick aside on pronunciation. Some Americans (including yours truly) stress the first syllable of “inquiry,” but my dictionary prefers stressing the second syllable. I promise to purge my habit of saying “IN-kwir-e” and practice daily saying “in-KWIR-e.”

Interment vs. internment. Just one little letter “n” separates these two words, but their meanings are markedly different. Interment means “burial,” while internment means “imprisonment.”

Who knew that words beginning with “I” could be so, well, interesting? Maybe in tonight’s Scrabble game I’ll try to make up a word that begins with “J.”



The New Oxford American Dictionary (2d ed. 2005) (also known as “my favorite dictionary”). 

Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She is grateful for the insights of Carrie Leonetti and Jun Lim.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2010 Suzanne E. Rowe

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