Words That Mean Their Opposites
By Suzanne E. Rowe
Excellent legal writing needs to be clear and precise. The legal writer needs to choose each word with care to reflect an exact meaning. But how can a writer be clear and precise with words that mean their opposites?
Using an example from the home front, “dust” means both to remove dust (as in dusting the furniture) and to apply dust (as in dusting a truffle with cocoa powder). Moving into the workplace, if you are “anxious” about an upcoming meeting, are you dreading it or looking forward to it?
The term “autoantonym” refers to words that can mean opposite things. These words might remind you of Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways who looks right and left, in and out. Caveat: Websites use a variety of terms for these Janus words — “autoantonym,” “antagonym,” “contranym” and “polysemy” — but only the last appears in my favorite dictionary. “Polysemy” is a term from linguistics that means “the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase,” but the many meanings don’t have to be opposite. Similarly, the websites with lists of autoantonyms are entertaining, but a brief romp through my dictionary showed that some of the “antonyms” are based on very casual usage.
Regardless of what you call them, autoantonyms can cause problems for legal writers. When you use the following words, be sure that the context makes your intended meaning absolutely clear.
According to my favorite dictionary, apparent means both “obvious” and “seeming real or true, but not necessarily so.” That leaves me wondering whether an “apparent conclusion” is the result of foolproof logic or faulty reasoning.
Does this word suggest coming together or falling apart? When you “buckle” your seat belt, you fasten its two parts together. When the walls of a building “buckle,” they are bending due to pressure. Depending on the reason the walls are falling apart, you might have a claim against the construction company.
The meaning of this phrase depends on where you are and on what the subject of the sentence is doing. The British use “carry on” to mean that you are continuing in the same direction. The ambiguity happens on this side of the pond. Americans can use “carry on” to show that life is continuing normally. On the other hand, an agitated person might “carry on” about the cause of agitation. For a scenario with both meanings, imagine the client carrying on about his neighbor’s parties that carry on until the wee hours of the night. In other words, he’s complaining about parties continuing normally until after midnight.
Put away your Bluebookfor a moment, and note two conflicting definitions of “citation.” It could be an official recognition of merit, such as a soldier receiving a citation — an award — for bravery. Or citation could mean a summons to appear in court because you ran a red light. The difference could leave a reader wondering when a citation is good and when it’s bad.
In traditional wedding vows, the partners promise to forsake all others and “cleave only unto thee.” Unfortunately for the lovers, “cleave” has two opposite meanings. “Cleave” can mean not only to cling together emotionally but also to split apart. Remember that the biggest knife in your kitchen is likely a “cleaver.” Don’t snicker during the next traditional wedding you attend!
This word has a special meaning in law that makes it a perfect Janus word. In non-legal settings, “continue” means to keep doing something. In legal settings, “continue” means to adjourn or postpone. So the following sentence is logical, if confusing: “The hearing continued until it was continued.” Translation: “The hearing went on until it was adjourned.”
When things go “downhill,” do they improve or not? Compare these two examples:
After the judge ruled the evidence inadmissible, the prosecutor grumbled, “It’s all downhill from here.”
After the judge ruled the evidence inadmissible, the defendant’s lawyer smiled and said, “It’s all downhill from here.”
In the real world, “enjoin” means to urge or instruct: “The high school enjoined students to do public service work during the summer.” In the legal world, it means to prohibit, namely through an injunction: “The court enjoined the company that was selling uncopyrighted T-shirts near concert venues.”
“Left” can refer both to those who departed and those who stayed. “After the governor’s press conference, all of the journalists left except one. Just one journalist was left.”
In formal legal documents and conversations, “literally” has just one meaning: “exactly.” “The document was literally 89 pages long” means that it comprised exactly 89 sheets of paper. “The client was literally too scared to speak” means that the client didn’t say a single word.
In our informal texts and conversations, we misuse “literally” just to add emphasis. “I literally died from embarrassment.” Does that mean your ghost is sending the text?
This word can either mean “an unintentional failure to notice or do something” or “the action of overseeing something.” Should the board of directors punish or reward the CEO for her oversight? In other words, should she be punished for failing to notice the change in the market or rewarded for overseeing the new policy that responded appropriately to market forces?
While this word technically means to read something “in a thorough or careful way,” informal use sometimes suggests it means simply glancing over. Thus, the word isn’t technically an autoantonym, but your client might not understand your expectation when you ask him to “peruse” the documents before signing them. Do you want him to examine them meticulously or just skim over them?
Unlike “peruse,” the word “scan” actually does have two opposite meanings. It can mean both (1) that you’re looking carefully at each part of something and (2) that you’re flipping quickly through something. The goal of the two actions is the same: trying to find a particular feature or a relevant part. My favorite dictionary provides this example for the first: “He raised his binoculars to scan the coast.” My favorite students provide this example for the second: “We scanned each case quickly to find the part that was relevant to our client’s cause of action; then we read that part carefully.”
In issues within the country, “sanction” typically means to give permission or approval. For example, one political party might sanction its members of Congress shutting down the government. In international matters, “sanction” means to impose penalties, as when the United Nations sanctions the actions of a rogue state.
Obviously, this word can mean “not qualified,” but it can also mean “unquestionably qualified” or “complete.” Try this example: “The test case was an unqualified success.” I think that sentence means the test case was completely successful, and all future litigation should follow its arguments closely. But the example might mean the test case was a bust because the judge was later accused of taking bribes; thus, the test case can’t qualify as a success.
Don’t be like Humpty Dumpty, who famously said, “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” When you use an autoantonym, also use the context to tell your reader which meaning you choose.
The New Oxford American Dictionary (3d ed. 2010) (aka “my favorite dictionary”).
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.
Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She is grateful to Kevin Ko and Lindsay Massara for comments that improved this article.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2013 Suzanne E. Rowe