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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tip: All Too Common Usage Mistakes


By Leslie A. Gordon, BASF Bulletin Contributor

Watching Magic Johnson’s famous press conference, I was stunned that no one vetted his remarks before he announced he’d “attained” the HIV virus. To attain refers to something you achieve – he’d meant contracted or acquired. Around that same time, I overheard a big firm lawyer say “supposably.”

Raining Cats and Dogs

These kinds of mistakes are common. I make them too. Until recently, I thought you “said your peace,” but it turns out, you say your “piece.”

Some other commonly misused words and phrases:

Bated breath: refers to “abated,” meaning held or restrained (not “baited,” as in fishing)

Piqued your interest: to excite (not “peaked,” as in mountain)

Home (home in on a target) vs. hone (to sharpen):
The missile homed in on the plane. She honed her writing skills.

Flush it out (get it out of hiding place) vs. flesh it out (giving substance):
She ran software to flush out viruses. He fleshed out the litigation strategy.

Into (to the interior, against, in the direction):

Walk into the museum; go into the medical profession; break into pieces; well into January.
Note: Sometimes in and to just wind up next to each other and must remain two words.
Billy walked in to see the principal. Jack dove in to retrieve Rose’s necklace.

Edition (something edited and published) vs. addition (something added)
She placed her first edition of Little Women in the bookcase in the new addition of her house.

360 degree turn: turn around completely (simply changing direction is a 180 degree turn)

Penultimate: second to last (doesn’t mean totally ultimate)

Judicial (pertaining to the courts) vs. judicious (wise, showing sound judgment)

Literally: actually (Note: It cannot literally rain cats and dogs.)

Don’t forget to flush out these common typos: then/than; could of/should of/would of (it’s could have); its/it’s; and your/you’re.


A former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco. She is the author of Cheer: A Novel, which is available on Amazon. She can be reached via email at Follow Leslie on Twitter: @LAGordonWriter.

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