When Every Word Counts

The very first sentence of an article published some years ago in USA Today recently caught my attention: “Could three words change the way severely ill patients and their loved ones think about death?”.

The title of this article quickly gave the answer away “’Do not resuscitate’ vs. ‘allow natural death’”.

This article highlights not only how semantics can change a person’s reaction to a given situation (and potentially the ensuing consequences), but also the importance of using the right terms in the right context. As this article explains, while “allow natural death” may permit a family to better come to terms with the end of life of a loved one, “do not resuscitate” continues to carry specific meaning to the medical staff. Both expressions have their uses.

While this article reflects an issue important to the medical community, there is no doubt that the lesson applies to the legal profession as well. Indeed, where the adversarial process is so often triggered by an unfortunate choice of words, careful reflection on the appropriate expression is a worthwhile exercise. For example, in employment law, the words “dismissed” vs. “fired” vs. “termination of employment” can all have their uses and meanings and may ultimately affect the consequences. What other terms and expressions in the practice of law would benefit from this type of reflection?


  1. Ginger Goodwin


    DNR and allow natural death mean the same thing to medical people and laymen.

    In employment law the words don’t really create the adversary, it is the relationship and the breaking thereof which accomplish the act of terminating the relationship. So fired, wrongful dismissal, constructive dismissal,termination for cause, or without cause, or termination for lack of work, closing down of the company, etc. do not mean same thing(s) , nor do these words have the same content. To pretend that they do or to substitute words to give the opposite content ie: using termination instead of constructive or wrongful dismissal is creating a fairy tale. Get me some fairie dust.

    Here is a similar situation which resembles Kowalski. “Light” writing leaves this blog with a dirty taste in one’s mouth when reading this kind of tripe. Time for the hook. Not the guillotine, just don’t publish this kind of very weak stuff. Looks bad on Slaw. But more specifically, on the editor. I don’t think this is a free-for-all blog.

  2. “I don’t think this is a free-for-all blog.”

    While Slaw posts are vetted, there is an apparent open-door policy on thoughtless kneejerk anonymous/pseudonymous commenting.

    “Ginger”, if you feel inclined to comment, perhaps you should be sure you comprehend the article in the first place. And then, as Kowalski says, have the courage to attach your criticism to your identity.

    (And since you have, evidently, entirely missed the point, I urge you to re-read the words “is so often triggered“. Ms. Lay’s point is not that the terms are synonymous but that the choice of words influences perception of the circumstances and, therefore, can often influence whether litigation results. For more on this, see Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought.)