LawProse Lesson #284: A short quiz on lexical distinctions.

LawProse Lesson #284: A short quiz on lexical distinctions.

Few things are more embarrassing for a professional writer or speaker than to use a wrong word. It’s like a professional musician’s hitting a wrong note. You reach into your mind for a word and end up grabbing the one next to it instead. Because the English language is so full of pairs or even groups of nearly identical words, pitfalls abound. Many of these are needless variants—for instance, *disorientated for disoriented. But many others are products of what linguists call “differentiation”: the process by which similar words (usually sharing a common etymology) gradually take on distinct connotations and even definitions—think of collegiate (associated with college) and collegial (associated with colleague). Some of these differentiations result merely in differences of nuance or context; others create wholly separate (or even opposite) meanings. Here are five questions of lexical distinction that can trip up even the most careful writers. Try your hand first and then check the answers at the end.
  1. At 16, Susan was emancipated from her [(a) adopted; (b) adoptive] parents.
  2. “Is that really the best you can do?” he asked in a [(a) derisory; (b) derisive] tone.
  3. In her closing argument, she employed pathos with a [(a) masterly; (b) masterful] hand to engage the jurors’ sympathies.
  4. The mediators managed to bring the parties to an [(a) amicable; (b) amiable] resolution.
  5. Ultimately, all the claims rest on an alleged June 9 conversation between Mayo and Lowen—a conversation that is entirely [(a) fictional; (b) fictitious].
  Answers: 1. (b). Adopted children but adoptive parents. 2. (b). Derisive means “expressing derision”; derisory means “worthy of derision.” 3. (a). Past masters are masterly; tyrants are masterful. 4. (a). People are amiable; relationships are amicable. 5. (b). Fictitious means “false” or “imaginary”; fictional means “involving the literary genres of fiction.” Did you hesitate before answering? You’ll find a detailed discussion on each of these points and more in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed. 2016). If you enjoyed this quiz, check out the new Garner’s Modern English Usage mobile app, available on the App Store and Google Play. The app contains the full text of the 1,056-page 4th edition (2016), with over 8,000 entries and essays—plus 30 usage quizzes like this one, with immediate feedback and links to relevant entries for further guidance on each question. And it’s half the list price. Download on the App StoreGet it on Google Play Apple and the Apple logo are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries. App Store is a service mark of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries. Google Play and the Google Play logo are trademarks of Google Inc.

Live seminars this year with Professor Bryan A. Garner: Advanced Legal Writing & Editing

Attend the most popular CLE seminar of all time. More than 215,000 people—including lawyers, judges, law clerks, and paralegals—have benefited since the early 1990s. You'll learn the keys to professional writing and acquire no-nonsense techniques to make your letters, memos, and briefs more powerful.

You'll also learn what doesn't work and why—know-how gathered through Professor Garner's unique experience in training lawyers at the country's top law firms, state and federal courts, government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies.

Professor Garner gives you the keys to make the most of your writing aptitude—in letters, memos, briefs, and more. The seminar covers five essential skills for persuasive writing:

  • framing issues that arrest the readers' attention;
  • cutting wordiness that wastes readers' time;
  • using transitions deftly to make your argument flow;
  • quoting authority more effectively; and
  • tackling your writing projects more efficiently.

He teaches dozens of techniques that make a big difference. Most important, he shows you what doesn't work—and why—and how to cultivate skillfulness.

Register to reserve your spot today.

Have you wanted to bring Professor Garner to teach your group? Contact us at for more information about in-house seminars.

Scroll to Top