Back with more sets of commonly confused words. While some may think the words on my lists are elementary, I assure you that I am choosing specific sets because I have seen law students and lawyers misuse them. In an effort to help eliminate that misuse, I present ten more sets of commonly confused words.
Disinterested/uninterested – The distinction between these two words is subtle, but it’s important. “Disinterested” means impartial, unbiased, having no stake in the outcome. E.g., To settle the dispute, we want a disinterested third party. “Uninterested” means not engaged, unconcerned, or bored. E.g., I am uninterested in the NBA playoffs. That means I pretty much don’t care about NBA playoffs or their outcome. They don’t interest me. I would not say, I am disinterested in the NBA playoffs. While with both sentences, I am saying I have no stake or interest in the outcome, “disinterested” implies an impartiality that I don’t mean. I am not impartial or unbiased (disinterested) about the playoffs; I affirmatively have no interest in them (uninterested).
Discreet/discrete – Though pronounced the same way, these two words mean two different things. “Discreet” means cautious or reserved, particularly in conduct or speech. A person who is discreet knows not to talk about a sensitive subject in public. “Discrete” means something that is separate and distinct. For example, in any given case, there may be two or more discrete legal issues; that is, two or more separate and distinct legal issues.
Elicit/illicit – These two words sound nearly the same when said, though the context of the conversation will often provide the cues a listener needs to know which word is which. In writing, though, you want to be sure to choose the correct word. “Elicit” means to draw out or draw forth, usually a response or a reaction. The defendant’s testimony about the crime elicited gasps from the jurors. “Illicit” means something illegal or unlawful, and therein is the best way to remember it. Illicit = illegal. Defendant was arrested for his illicit conduct.
Liable/guilty – And while we’re on the subject of illegalities, let’s distinguish between guilt and liability. While the words may be interchangeable to lay people, in law they tend to have some specific meanings. Someone convicted of a crime is guilty, but someone who violates some civil standard is liable.
Lead (leed)/lead (led)/led – “Lead” (pronounced leed) means to go before, to show the way. E.g., One candidate leads in the latest Marquette Law School poll. “Lead” (pronounced led) is a chemical element, like a lead pipe or pencil lead. To form the past tense of lead (leed), we say led. Thus, She led the way, not She lead (led) the way.
Loose/loosen/lose – “Loose” is most frequently used as an adjective. It is the opposite of “tight.” My new suit feels loose now that I’ve lost some weight. “Loose” is also a verb, though its usage in that way is very infrequent. As a verb, “to loose” is to set free. Charles loosed the hounds after the escapees. “Loosen,” also a verb, means to relax something, to make it less tight, like when you loosen your belt after a big meal. “Lose” is a verb; it can be the opposite of “win,” and it can mean to be unable to find something. E.g., Sam has a trial today; I hope she doesn’t lose or Eric loses something important nearly every day. The most common error I see involves using “loose” for “lose.” It makes me lose my mind.
Plead/pleaded/pled – “Plead” is present tense and means to make an emotional or argue a position, usually in court. So, e.g., When I go to court today, I plan to plead not guilty. To form the past tense of “plead,” lawyers have historically used “pleaded”: Mr. Campbell pleaded not guilty. This usage, says Bryan A. Garner in The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style (2d ed. 2006), is still the preferred usage. However, “pled” is also acceptable. E.g., Mr. Campbell pled guilty. What is not acceptable, though, is to use “plead” as if it were past tense; it is not. When we mean past tense, saying Mr. Campbell plead guilty is grammatically incorrect.
Precede/proceed – “Precede” means to come before. For example, Frank’s death preceded his wife’s. Or, The faculty meeting precedes my meeting with Erica. It’s from the same word family, if you will, as “precedent,” a word I covered here. Often, though, writers mix up “precede” with “proceed.” “Proceed” means to begin or continue a course of action. E.g., Counselor, you may proceed with your questioning.
Prescribe/proscribe – In spelling these words, the only difference between them is the prefix: pre- or pro-. But that difference means a difference in meanings. “Prescribe” is to order or authorize something, like when the doctor prescribes your medication. Also, e.g., The statutes prescribe the penalties for particular crimes. That is, they order or set out the penalties for crimes. “Proscribe,” on the other hand, means to ban something. To say The statutes proscribe the penalties for particular crimes, means the statutes have banned or eliminated penalties for crimes. While that may be welcome news for some, it’s certainly not accurate. I could say, though, Statutes proscribe the possession of certain narcotics. That is, statutes ban the possession of certain narcotics. Unless, of course, they have been lawfully prescribed (ordered) by a doctor. Think of the “o” in pro- as “outlawing.”
Site/sight/cite – “Site” is a noun; it means a place. Like, Milwaukee will be the site of the next conference. “Sight” has to do with vision—what can be seen. That sunset was surely a sight! Or When she sets her sights on a goal, watch out! Most often, though, lawyers likely want the word “cite.” “Cite” means to provide a reference or a source (as in “citation”). It can operate as a noun or as a verb. For example, I might ask students to provide a cite for a certain sentence in their briefs. There, the word is a noun; a thing. As a verb, it might appear like this: The brief cited a litany of cases in favor of the plaintiff.
My other posts on commonly confused words are here (that/which/who, more than/over, few(er)/less, amount/number, farther/further, since/because/as, among/between, who/whom, attain/obtain), here (a/an/the, counsel/council, e.g.,/i.e., it’s/its, principal/principle, then/than, utilize/use, you’re/your, affect/effect, tortious/tortuous, tack/tact, capitol/capital, motioned/moved, flesh/flush), here (although/while, assure/insure/ensure, complement/compliment, rational/rationale), here (a couple, a few, some, several, and many), and here (born/borne; good/well; lay/lie; pair/pare/pear; peak/peek/pique; precedent/precedence; whether/whether or not).
EDITOR’S UPDATE: The image above is from a website featuring tattoos. That same site also features a lovely script tattoo that says: Never Loose Hope.