Getting the words right

Legal writing requires precision, and precision requires the right word. Correct word use or “usage,” aids clarity and enhances credibility. With those goals in mind, I offer these confused and misused words, along with explanations. For each, I present an example of incorrect usage from a real legal document (names have been changed).

compliment / complement
The firm considers this team approach a benefit to the client as Jacobson and Gonzalez compliment each other, constantly reviewing and discussing issues.

Although it’s possible that Jacobson and Gonzalez praise (compliment) each other, the word here should be complement, meaning to complete or to go together well.

discreet / discrete
This mandamus proceeding presents a chance for the court to hold that a party cannot avoid the effect of Rule 292 by seeking separate trials of discreet issues that constitute a single cause of action.

Discreet means tactful and circumspect. The correct word here is discrete, meaning individually distinct. These two words can be difficult to keep straight, so to help me remember them, I use this memory aid: In discrete, the two e’s are separated by the t. They’re distinct.

historic / historical
These costs will be subject to reconciliation as reconcilable fuel costs on an historic basis.

The word historic means famous and significant: Passage of the Civil Rights Act was a historic event. The proper word here is historical, which means relating to history or occurring in the past.

But what’s the proper article? Should we use an historical or a historical? The best current guidance is that historical and other words beginning with h, like hereditary and humble, take the article an only if you do not aspirate the h. In other words, use an only if you pronounce the words as if there were no h: istorical, ereditary, umble. And the best current guidance on that is to aspirate the h. So write a historical basis, a hereditary trait, a humble person.

More next week.