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Legal-English Pitfalls: False Friends and Other Common Vocabulary Mistakes

March 14, 2022 | Written by Stephanie Schanz, an American lawyer, founder of Legal Lingua

Learning a second language is never easy. Understanding the vocabulary of a specialized field in another language is an even greater challenge. Indeed, mastering Legal English may often seem as indispensable.

In Legal English, small errors can create large problems when seemingly minor vocabulary misunderstandings result in the loss of legal cases, money, time and—ultimately—clients! One of the most common mistakes made by non-native speakers is the misuse of terminology due to misleading similarities between legal terms and words in a person’s native language, words from other English dialects, or English words used in non-legal situations.

In order to get a grasp on these baffling blunders and avoid costly mix-ups, lawyers and students benefit from AmCham’s Legal English Training Program, which prepares them for the International Legal English Certificate (ILEC) exam. This 14-week preparatory course is offered twice a year, starting in January and September. The program helps ensure that participants avoid the following potentially costly mistakes:

Faux Amis

False friends, or faux amis, are words, from two different languages or dialects, that look and sound similar
but have different meanings. Often, false friends are spelled and/or pronounced exactly alike, which leads
to confusion and trouble from a legal standpoint if they are used interchangeably.

Some common examples of Legal French-Legal English faux amis:

Some common examples of Legal UK-Legal-English U.S.- English faux amis:

BritishAmericanDefinition
Company LawCorporate Lawthe body of law dealing with incorporated businesses
Ordinary SharesCommon Stockstock in a corporation where playouts are determined by a percentage of the profits
and overseen by a board of directors
StocksInventoryan accounting of all merchandise and goods available
Competition LawAntitrust Lawacts and laws enacted to restrict or prohibit monopolistic business practices
Land and BuildingsReal Estatephysical land and the structures and/or landscape on that property
Barrister/SolicitorLawyer/Attorney (at law)a professional officially recognized by the appropriate authorities within the legal
system to provide legal services and advice
Articles of AssociationBylawsthe officially established, detailed and documented rules for conduct of corporations,
partnerships, or any organization

Many words used in commonly spoken, everyday English take on a slightly different or more serious meaning when used in a legal context. Some words that can cause confusion for those new to Legal English are:

TermCommon UseLegal Use
Appeala request, a pleathe legal process of requesting the reversal of a final decision made by a trial court
Opiniona personal view or beliefthe explanation of a court’s decision
Damagesthe results of injury or harmthe monetary award in a lawsuit
Discoverya finding, an uncovering,
a breakthrough
the process of obtaining information from the opposing party prior to trial
Noticean announcement,
to become aware of something
information provided in a lawsuit giving both parties knowledge of documents filed,
deadlines and all other matters pertinent to the suit

With so many potential pitfalls and traps, mastering Legal English might seem like an impossible goal. But it’s not! Personal application, practice and effective Legal English training programs like AmCham’s ILEC prep course help students and legal professionals nail these slippery faux amis and common mistakes in order to build more successful legal practices.

Legal-English Pitfalls: False Friends and Other Common Vocabulary Mistakes


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