Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2008
The Legal Writer
Word Choices II
More Pairs that Puzzle
By Suzanne E. Rowe

An earlier article on Word Choices (April 2007 Bulletin) resulted in a flood of suggestions for other word pairs that are frequently confused. Often these word pairs differ by only one letter. The optimist in me is certain that we all know the difference between the words; we simply need to edit more carefully. Just in case my inner optimist is wrong, I’ll explain each word in the pair and then offer some tricks that may help you remember which word is which.

Advise vs. Advice
Advise is a verb, an action performed by both lawyers and parents. Lawyers advise their clients. Parents advise their children to become doctors when they grow up.

Advice is a noun, the pearl of wisdom resulting when lawyers and parents advise others. The lawyer’s advice was sound.
My father always had good advice about my future.

Note that advise has a "z" sound. To advise, the lawyer says something, buzzing around the office. In contrast, advice sounds like "ice." You can put advice in a letter, just as you can put ice in a glass.

Among vs. Between
The common choice between among and between depends on how many people, points or possibilities are involved. Among is used when there are more than two options. We’d like for Oregon’s education system to be among the best in the nation.

Between is used for just two options. The attorney had to choose between working late on Friday and coming back to the office on Saturday. Just between you and me, I think she should get a new job. Notice in the last sentence that between must be followed by pronouns in the objective case: me, her, him, them. "Between you and I" is like fingernails on blackboards. (Does anyone out there remember blackboards?)

Here’s an easy trick for remembering which to use. Between begins with "b," which is the second letter in the alphabet. It’s used when you have just two options.

Chose vs. Choose
The difference between the two verbs chose and choose is when they happened. Chose is past tense. This decision happened first (note the one "o" in this word). The law student chose to work at a firm with a general practice.

Choose happens in the present, after the first decision (note the two "o" letters, showing that this action came second). Now the law student must choose whether to focus on transactional work or litigation. He says, "I choose litigation because I love courtroom drama."

For grammar experts, I realize that my mnemonic breaks down in some tenses. When the law student arrived at the firm, he had to choose whether to focus on transactional work or litigation. But those tenses aren’t often the problem.

Council vs. Counsel
A council is a group of people, often brought together to give advice or direction. Last week the art council brought its recommendation to the city council.

Counsel can be the attorney, the advice that she gives or the act of advising. You’d never want to use the same word to mean three different things in three adjacent sentences, but the following examples illustrate the various possible meanings: My colleague served as counsel to the family throughout the ordeal. Her counsel was sound, and her demeanor was supportive. She counseled the family to avoid making hasty decisions.

Comprise vs. Compose
Here’s one word pair that still sends me running for a dictionary: comprise and compose. Sadly, some dictionaries unhelpfully define comprise as to be composed of. I ignore those definitions and reach for another dictionary.

Comprise means to be made up of or to consist of. The city’s land use council comprises developers, home owners and environmentalists.

Compose in its clearest sense means to construct a work of art. Haydn composed symphonies. If you are an especially
good writer, you might claim to compose a letter.

While both comprise and compose can mean "to make up," compose is preferred. Twelve citizens compose a jury. The error you want to avoid is this: A jury "is comprised of" 12 citizens. The one clear rule in this morass is that "is comprised of" is always wrong.

Some writers link the two words to separate their meaning. The whole comprises the parts, while the parts compose the whole. That makes sense to me until I try to apply it. Then I run in circles.

Try using these three sentences to jog your memory: Mozart composed symphonies. A symphony comprises four movements. An orchestra is composed of many instruments. If that fails, run for a dictionary.

Farther vs. Further
Unless you’re a traditionalist as well as a curmudgeon, this pair is simple. Current usage allows you to substitute further when old-timers like me would insist on farther.

Here’s the background. In former times, farther was used to refer to physical distance. For example, when two lawyers trained for the Portland marathon, the one who ran 15 miles went farther than the friend who ran just 10 miles. In those earlier years, further was restricted to abstract meanings. The court would be in recess while the judge considered the matter further. The difference was easy to remember because farther began with far, indicating distance.

Nowadays, farther still describes distances, while further can be used for either distances or abstract considerations. Of course, I am both a traditionalist and a curmudgeon, so the relaxed usage of further makes my skin crawl.

Lose vs. Loose
Lose is a verb that we all hate to experience, unless we are trying to lose weight. Defense counsel feared that she would lose the motion. The three pudgy partners made a pact to lose 15 pounds each.

Loose is most commonly used as an adjective, describing something or someone. Two bolts on my chair are loose. (Loose can also be a verb, meaning to set free or let go. That usage is less common.)

Think of the verb lose in terms of weight, and you’ll never go wrong. The verb lose has already lost an "o," so it has just one left. Think of the adjective loose as the two bolts on my chair; those two round letters are the tops of the bolts.

Principal vs. Principle
Principal has several definitions. First, it is an adjective, meaning primary. The principal reason that the client changed law firms was the attorney’s delay in returning phone calls. Principal can also be a noun, the dear person who ran your elementary school. How many of us remember being told to go to the principal’s office immediately? Third, principal can be an amount of money (your principal investment), the sum you get interest on. Finally, principal is used in legal areas like agency, when we mean the principal person.

Principle has just one definition. It is a noun that means a key idea or fundamental law. Our judicial system is based on the principle of equal protection under the law. Try this mnemonic: both principle and rule end in "le."

Technically, it’s possible to write about the primary rule as the principal principle, but that would be far too confusing.

Regardless vs. Irregardless
This pair should be easy because the first is a widely accepted word, while the second isn’t.

Regardless is a widely accepted word. Generally, we use it to mean without regard or without concern. For example, a lawyer may choose to take a case regardless of the client’s financial situation.

Irregardless is a widely spoken word that means — well, let’s consider it. The prefix ir- typically suggests an opposite. For example, irrelevant means that something isn’t relevant. Irreparable means that something can’t be repaired.

Following that pattern suggests that irregardless means the opposite of regardles, in other words not without regard (i.e., with regard) or not without concern (i.e., with concern). But that’s not the way irregardless is used. In daily speech, the ir- suggests an unneeded emphasis. Irregardless means really regardless. That’s why irregardless is non-standard English and should be avoided. Use regardless instead.

If you need another word, try irrespective. It means without regard or regardless of, especially when referring to something specific. To continue the earlier example, a lawyer may choose to take a case irrespective of the client’s financial situation.

Stationary vs. Stationery
Stationary means not moving. It’s an adjective that describes me on most days. I sit with eyes suspended above keyboard, unmoving, becoming rounder. If I continue this way, my shape will resemble the roundish "a" that distinguishes stationary from stationery.

Stationery is a noun. Think of the lovely letterhead that you just ordered. The "e" that appears twice in "letter" might help you remember that you write on stationery.

Other Pairs?
Thanks to those of you who sent in your "favorite" mistakes. If I still haven’t addressed a word pair that miffs your inner curmudgeon, please let me know and I’ll try to include it in Word Choices III.

Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (2d. ed. 2001).

The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English (1999).

Dictionary.com, at http://dictionary.reference.com/.


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 to Amy Nuetzman of Oregon’s Academic Learning Services for comments on this article.

© 2008 Suzanne E. Rowe

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