Subtle Distinctions

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Lawyers should possess semantic exactitude—we should appreciate subtle distinctions between words or expressions that look, seem, or sound similar.

In providing most of the following guidance, we have relied heavily on the Concise Oxford English Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage.

aberrant versus abhorrent

Aberrant is the adjective associated with the noun aberration. An aberration is an unwelcome deviation from what is normal. Aberrant means departing from an accepted standard or deviating from behavioral or social norms.

Abhorrent is the adjective associated with the verb abhor. To abhor is to detest, loathe, or seriously hate (something). Abhorrent means “inspiring disgust and loathing.”

abjection versus abjectness

Both nouns derive from the adjective abject. Although the Concise Oxford English Dictionary lists the first sense of abject as “(of something bad) experienced to the maximum degree: living in abject poverty,” the second sense (“completely without pride or dignity: an abject apology)” is perhaps more common in learned writing.

Abjection and abjectness both “refer to a state of being cast aside, abased, and humiliated. The subtle difference between the two is that abjection refers to the physical condition …. Abjectness refers to the state of mind ….”

abjure versus adjure

To abjure is to (formally or solemnly) renounce. A second meaning is “to avoid.”

To adjure is to (formally or solemnly) urge someone to do something, to “charge or entreat solemnly; to urge earnestly.”

absorb versus adsorb

To absorb is to soak up (usually but not necessarily liquid); to take in information; to assimilate (a lesser entity) into a larger one.

Adsorb is a scientific term referring to “the collecting of condensed gas (or similar substance) on a surface.” To adsorb is (of a solid) to “hold (molecules of a gas, liquid, or solute) as a thin film on surfaces outside or within the material”.

adapt versus adopt

The verb adapt has 2 senses: 1. make suitable for a new use or purpose, to modify for one’s own purposes; and 2. become adjusted to new conditions.

In the senses in which you might confuse it with adapt, adopt means to accept something wholesale and use it; “to choose to take up or follow (an option or course of action)”; or “to assume (an attitude or position).”

adduce, deduce, and educe

To adduce is to put forward (argument, evidence) for consideration, or to cite as evidence.

To deduce is to infer, or to arrive at (a fact or a conclusion) by reasoning.

To educe is to draw out, elicit, or evoke.

admission versus admittance

Use admittance in a strictly physical sense: No admittance into these premises after dark.

Typically, use admission in nonphysical and figurative senses: Her admission to the bar brought untold joy to her family.

You can also use admission in a physical sense when rights or privileges attach to the physical entry: The Interior Minister is responsible for the admission of foreigners into the country.

adverse versus averse

Adverse means hostile, negative, or unpleasant; or unlikely to produce a good result: adverse change, adverse circumstances, adverse (side) effects, adverse weather conditions.

Averse means opposed to.

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