“Lawful” and “Legal” are fairly similar terms, and it can sometimes be hard to decide which one to use in a given context, or what the difference between both words is, if there’s any. This article will clarify what the difference between “Lawful” and “Legal” is, and if they’re interchangeable.
The difference between something “Lawful” and something “Legal” is that something lawful follows the substance of the law, while something legal follows the form of the law. Something can be illegal in its form and not be unlawful in its substance.
This is because something can be illegal in the letter of the l, but not go against the spirit of the law, and therefore not be unlawful.
“Lawful” carries with it an implication of ethics and morality in a way that the term “Legal” does not. “Legal” merely implies that something is allowed, “Lawful” would imply that something is rightfully allowed.
“Lawful” is an adjective that means that something is permitted by the law and potentially endorsed as correct.
The Cambridge Dictionary merely defines “Lawful” as a formal adjective that means “allowed by the law”.
The term can also carry a connotation of ethics and morality, as something “lawful” will be thought to follow the spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law.
Here are some example sentences that include the proper use of “Lawful”:
- For twenty years he has been a lawful citizen.
- The thing about due process is that it has to be lawful.
- I got this house through a lawful trade of assets.
- He decided what he’d done to her was not lawful.
- They decided to try and fight for a lawful result.
- The outcome of that trial was not very lawful at all.
- She thinks the lawful result came to pass after all.
- They have been a lawful institution for more than fifty years.
“Legal” is an adjective that means that something is allowed by the law, or connected to the law in some way.
“Legal” is defined by The Cambridge Dictionary as a formal adjective that is “Connected to the law” or “Allowed by the law”.
It carries with it no connotation of morality or immorality, unlike “Lawful”, and is generally associated with the form of the law rather than the substance of the law.
Here are some sentences that put “Legal” in the proper context:
- In this state it’s legal to drive when you’re 16 years old.
- What he did was wrong, but it was also legal.
- Is it legal for you to be purchasing these goods at this hour?
- From what I can tell, it was a completely legal process.
- To get your ID you need to hand in these legal forms first.
- Your car insurance is completely legal, of course.
- Would the result of this transaction be considered legal?
- When he sees this file he will agree that it was all legal.
In casual conversation, yes, you can use either “Lawful” or “Legal” interchangeably with no issues to the message being conveyed in the conversation.
There are differences in the nuance between both terms, as “Lawful” carries an added connotation of morality that “Legal” does not, but both terms mean “Allowed by law” and can be used interchangeably in that context.
According to data compiled using the Google Ngram Viewer, the word “Legal” is utilized significantly more than the word “Lawful”.
Observing the data we can gather that starting in the 1800s and up to the present day, “Legal” has seen more use than “Lawful”, though in the 1800s the gap between them was fairly small.
Ever since the 1800s, “Legal” has mostly gone up in use, while “Lawful”, in spite of a spike in the mid-1800s, has generally gone down in use over the years, creating the huge gap that separates them nowadays.
Of note is the fact that “Legal” actually reached its peak use in the year 1999, and has yet to reach that high again, despite growth in use from 2012 to 2019.
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Martin holds a Master’s degree in Finance and International Business. He has six years of experience in professional communication with clients, executives, and colleagues. Furthermore, he has teaching experience from Aarhus University. Martin has been featured as an expert in communication and teaching on Forbes and Shopify. Read more about Martin here.