Many people realize that certain words used in a legal context may mean something different than they would in everyday usage. However, few realize how important it is to understand legal terms when they are used in a contract or other documents that affect their rights, duties, and legal interests.

I strongly suggest that everyone purchase a dictionary of legal terms or use one at a library or on the internet. Such a reference defines every legal term you are likely to encounter and also provides quotes from cases that help explain the legal context of the words.

Examples of words that have different everyday usage meanings and legal definitions include:

  • Assault — Normal usage: a violent attack, either physical or verbal. Legal definition: an unlawful attempt or threat to injure another physically.
  • Binder — Normal usage: a notebook with rings or clamps for holding sheets of paper. Legal definition: a payment or written agreement legally binding the parties to an agreement until the completion of a formal written contract.
  • Complaint — Normal usage: an expression of pain, dissatisfaction, or resentment. Legal definition: the written document filed by the plaintiff in a civil action, setting forth the claim on which relief is sought.
  • Battery — Normal usage: a device for storing electric current energy. Legal definition: the unlawful use of force to injure another person.

Do you find after looking over these examples that your understanding of these terms has changed a little, or a lot? If so, you have the perfect illustration of my point that using a law dictionary can be critical to safe passage through a legal minefield.