Synonyms with Subtle Differences in Legal English

Synonyms with Subtle Differences in Legal English

Choosing a right equivalent among a number of synonymous words in the target language is one of the challenges faced by translators. Literary translators may find it exciting as they can play with words and vary their use of lexical choices in their translation; on the contrary, legal translators need to be more careful as some synonyms may have subtle differences and that mixing the use of those synonyms may result in ambiguity.

Haigh (2009: 58) mentioned that “Legal English is full of synonyms and it is therefore all too easy to start writing about something using certain words, and then later on in the document or letter start using other words to describe it. This can lead to lack of clarity or to ambiguity.” He also mentioned that it is crucial to be consistent in our use of terminology. For example, if we start off with buyer and seller, do not start using vendor and purchaser later in the document.

Here are some examples of commonly used synonyms for legal concepts used in legal documents quoted from Legal English (Second Edition) by Rupert Haigh (2009: 59). There are subtle differences in meaning or usage between them. Examples are presented below the synonyms to further describe their use.

Assign vs. transfer

Assign is used in relation to intangible property (such as rights under a contract) while transfer is generally used in relation to tangible property (such as land and other physical items) (Haigh, 2009: 59).


  • All the rights under this contract may not be assigned by either party without the prior written consent of the other party.
  • The land has been transferred by its owner.


Breach vs. infringement

Breach is used in relation to contractual violations, while infringement is used in relation to the violation of rights (particularly intellectual property rights) (Haigh, 2009: 59).


  • That client is in breach of his agreement.
  • Where copyright infringement occurs, the owner of the copyright has the right to sue.


Clause vs. article

Clause is frequently used in relation to specific contracts, while article is more often in relation to EC legislation and overarching or framework agreements/terms and conditions (Haigh, 2009: 59).


  • This clause stipulates when, under what circumstances, and in what amounts deposits or part payments are to be made.
  • This article deals with the issues raised by contractual waivers.


Contract vs. agreement

Contract is generally used in relation to a specific written contract with legal effect, while agreement may also be used in a more general sense to refer to loose understandings or oral agreements (which may or may not have legal effect) (Haigh, 2009: 59).


  • The contract will be signed this week.
  • The parties have reached agreement on how the case should be settled prior to going into court.


(Landlord and tenant) vs. (lessor and lessee)

Landlord and tenant are used in relation only to the lease of real estate, while lessor and lessee may also be used in relation to the lease of other types of property (Haigh, 2009: 59).


  • The rent has been paid by the tenant to the landlord.
  • The lessor hereby agrees to lease out the land to the lessee.


Obligation vs. liability

Obligation is generally used to refer to a specific duty under a contract or legal provision, while liability refers to legal consequences. For example, breach of an obligation may lead to legal liability (Haigh, 2009: 59).


  • The parties have to comply with all of their obligations under this contract.
  • Force majeure brings the contract to an end and automatically discharges the parties from any further obligations in relation to it.
  • The parties shall be discharged from all liability once all the terms of the contract have been performed in full.


Undertake vs. assurance

Undertake is generally used to indicate a commitment to do a certain thing and to accept the legal consequences of doing so (‘X undertakes to deliver the goods to Y by 5 June’), while assurance refers to a collateral promise given by a third party (Haigh, 2009: 59).


  • The distributor hereby undertakes that upon termination of this contract he will return to the Company all confidential papers.
  • A further assurance clause is needed to secure the relevant party’s agreement to carry out whatever further action is needed in order to implement the contract.


Void and invalid vs. ineffective

Void and invalid mean that something is not legally binding and has no legal effect, while ineffective refers to something that fails to achieve the required legal aim (Haigh, 2009: 59).


  • The contract shall automatically become void and invalid if either party violates any provision set forth in this contract.
  • In such circumstances a confidentiality agreement covering such information will be ineffective.




Haigh, Rupert. 2009. Legal English (Second Edition). New York: Routledge-Cavendish


Article by Luh Windiari


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: