Is “Inure” Really a Magic Word?

Over at the Language Log there is an interesting post about the word “inure.”  The writer Roger Shuy is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, at Georgetown.  He now works as a linguistics expert, often, it seems, with lawyers.  

In the post he first describes the ordinary use of the word “inure,” giving an example from a Newsweek article, “Shoppers seem inured to the relentless Christmas spirit.”  Then he goes on to describe another use of “inure” that he found in a legal document, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to get the lawyers to change to something plainer, like “financially benefit.”

Recently I’ve been helping the Montana Department of Revenue revise the thousand or so letters the tax people mail to taxpayers. It’s been an interesting experience, about which I intend to post more at some other time. But for now, let me cite the following sentence that appears in a number of letters sent to corporations about their tax status:

No part of the net income of a Montana tax-exempt organization can inure to the benefit of any private stockholder or individual.

So now we see two somewhat dissimilar meanings of inure (both are given in MWCD, by the way). Inure conveys something bad when shoppers are inured to the relentless Christmas spirit. On the other hand, to the tax people inure can convey an advantage or benefit that stockholders or individuals might get in their business lives. But this positive advantage for these stockholders can also be judged to be bad (not legal by Montana law), making this good thing a non-acceptable bad thing, at least in the context of corporate taxation. Are we confused yet?

I challenged the use of inure in this letter, but the lawyers in the tax department strongly objected. I argued that these tax letters are replacing a word with one meaning that lay people know with a word that has another meaning known only to lawyers (probably) and accountants (possibly). But the lawyers informed me that inure is one of those magical words that is absolutely necessary for legal reasons. Still, it seemed to me that it would be clearer to readers, even corporate readers, if the letter would say:

No part of the net income of a Montana tax-exempt
organization can financially benefit any private stockholder or

To my thinking anyway, if we would replace “can inure to the benefit of” with the simpler, “can financially benefit,” the letter would convey the same thing and avoid the possibility of confusing readers with the apparent dual meanings (one positive and one negative) of inure.

Were those tax lawyers right?  Is “inure” a magical word in this context?  

I want to say, no, of course not–if it means the same as “financially benefit,” then it can be changed.  But my expertise is in brief-writing and in immigration law, not in tax law.  Maybe it really does matter in that context.  Still, I wish it didn’t.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Bruce Boyden

    Even if “inure” is a magic word in tax law, does that mean it needs to be used in a communication with the public? I doubt it. Thinking of the magic words I’m familiar with, such as “substantial similarity” (actually two, two, two magic phrases in one), you need to use such phrases in your court papers and legal memos, but there’s no special need to use exactly those words in licenses or any other communications between ordinary humans. I suspect the Montana Dept. of Revenue just doesn’t want to let go of their security blanket.

  2. John Finland


    1. transitive verb harden somebody to something: to make somebody used to something unpleasant over a period of time, so that he or she no longer is bothered or upset by it

    2. intransitive verb come into effect: to come into legal operation or effect

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