I posted this over on the Eng Lang Stack, but they say it likely is more apropos here.

Terms like 'make whole', 'encumbered', etc have both non-financial/non-legal usages and financial/legal usages and, in some cases, explicit financial/legal definitions.

To avoid technical connotations, to avoid the possibility of a sentence being read as a legal statement, an obvious workaround is to swap in such a synonym. But synonyms may not exist, or when one does exist, the sentence may unacceptably degrade.

Another remedy is to include a phrase such as 'colloquially speaking'. But the deprecation could be inappropriate.

What are other ways to minimize the chance of a sentence from being misconstrued in this way? Is there an adjective or modifer that accomplishes this?

Fictitious examples:

A divorce can make whole both parties. (google: "make whole" divorce. For example: http://www.divorcecentral.com/lifeline/life_ans.html. Make Whole in the sense of closure, in the sense of getting on with their lives.)

The VA is a monopoly on veteran healthcare. (This sentence was spoken a few minutes ago by Senator Lindsey Graham at his Town Hall, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtzDvmLrK-s at about 40:00. Monopoly in the sense the Veterans Administration is immune from competition.)

EDIT: Context is non-fiction, formal.

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    You did not tell us the context. Are you writing journalism? Fiction? Academic? Example: "So there I was at Vinny's pub, and the drunk next to met said that he'd gone through a divorce. That, and a few glasses of wine, made him feel good, because a divorce can make whole both parties."
    – user23046
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 23:20

1 Answer 1


There really is no way to indicate that you are using a term in a non-technical sense if you use it in a context in which the technical sense would normally be inferred. The best approach to avoiding ambiguity in these cases is to approach the entire descriptions differently. Don't just substitute a synonym for the problematic word, rewrite the entire sentence or paragraph to avoid summing up the idea in one word at all. Write out in more precise and detailed terms the idea that you wanted to convey by that single word. So, for instance, in the example you gave, say "arrange things so they are able to get on with their lives".

Words are placeholders for complex ideas which can always be more precisely stated using more words. The use of the placeholders speeds communication when they are use in context where there meaning is clear. But sometimes they are ambiguous, and their intended meaning cannot reliably be made clear. In these cases the only safe course is to drop back to the longer phrase, sentence, or even paragraph that expresses the idea that the word stands for.

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