Spoilation and Parole Evidence: The Importance of Spelling

August 30, 2011

Recently I helped someone with a research question involving spoliation of evidence.  When I initially entered my search terms into Westlaw, I typed spoilation instead of spoliation.  Interestingly, this is such a common mistake that a search of all state and federal cases on Westlaw returns 1,047 results for the term spoilation — a significant number, when compared with the 9,317 results for spoliation. 

Legal terms of art can be tricky, and there are certain terms that seem to invite misspelling.  At a glance, the error in “parole evidence” may be skimmed over, as parole is a word.  However, if you enter this term in a search on Westlaw, you will see a bright yellow message displayed at the top of your result list: Did you mean “parol evidence”?  And if you try to search for “parole evidence” using the plain language search of WestlawNext, you’ll find that most of your results discuss “parol evidence.”

I asked some Reference Attorney colleagues to share other easy-to-misspell words they’ve run across, and put together a short list that is more suggestive than comprehensive:

  • Harassment is often spelled with varying numbers of r’s and s’s. 
  • Extrinsic, judgment, laches, and frivolous can be surprisingly easy to misspell (e.g. extrinisic, judgement, latches, frivilous).
  • Adviser/advisor is a particular pet peeve of one colleague — although on Westlaw and WestlawNext, these are automatically treated as alternative terms, unless you deliberately force the system to search only for one or the other.  Thus, a search in federal securities cases on Westlaw will return the same 7,950 cases for either advisor or adviser, regardless of the spelling used.
  • Principal/principle are not alternative terms on Westlaw, which makes sense as each has a distinct meaning.  However, since both are terms commonly used in the law, accidentally exchanging one for the other in a search may still produce search results — just not the desired results.
  • Voir dire, prima facie, certiorari, and other linguistic imports are also prime candidates for misspelling, where spellcheck is unlikely to be helpful.

Even misspellings can return results, as courts sometimes make spelling errors too.  For example, if I want to find cases involving taxation and the Philippines, a Westlaw search in all cases using the terms tax! /p Phillippines (misspelled with two l’s) will deliver 7 results, while correcting the spelling produces another 384.

For this reason, if you are running a search and getting surprisingly few results, it is always a good idea to double-check that you have spelled your terms correctly.   Black’s Law Dictionary is available electronically on both Westlaw and WestlawNext to check the spelling of legal terms.

If you are unsure of how a term should be spelled, you can use the universal character (*) and/or root expander (!) in Westlaw.  For example, you might type princip! to search for either principle or principal.  Or if you can’t remember how to spell a word, you can use the asterisk to replace the letter you’re unsure of, as in friv*lous or licens*r.  You can also combine these symbols to capture variations on a word, such as using kn*w! to search for knew, know, known, knowledge, etc.