Defendant vs. Plaintiff – What’s the Difference?

English used in the context of law is so confusing and full of jargon that it has its own unofficial name: legalese.

If you are confused by legalese, you join a well-populated group of talented writers. Even many legal professionals advocate for simplifying legal English.

In this article, we will specifically discuss two words that are used almost exclusively in the context of law: plaintiff and defendant.

What is the Difference Between Defendant and Plaintiff?

In this post, I will compare defendant vs. plaintiff. I will use each of these terms in an example sentence, so you can see them in context.

Plus, I will show you a memory tool that you can use to remind yourself whether defendant or plaintiff is the term for which you are looking.

When to Use Defendant

defendant versus plaintiffWhat does defendant mean? In legal proceedings, the defendant is the party against whom charges are being brought. Defendant is a singular noun; its plural is defendants.

O.J. Simpson, Lizzie Borden, and Casey Anthony are famous defendants who were acquitted of murder charges at their trials.

Here are a few more examples of defendant in a sentence,

  • The judge set bail so high that the defendant could not possibly hope to pay it.
  • “The defendant pleads not guilty,” said Alistair’s attorney.
  • The Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out a Colorado law that forced defendants whose convictions were reversed to then prove their innocence before recovering fines they had paid as part of their punishment. –The Wall Street Journal

The word defendant was first recorded in English in the 14th century. It is related to the word defend—defendants must defend (or be defended) against accusations of wrongdoing. Defend has been used since Middle English borrowed it from Latin via French.

Defendant can also be an adjective, where it means interested in protecting oneself, but this usage is not limited to legal contexts.

When to Use Plaintiff

Definition of plaintiff definition and definition of defendant definitionWhat does plaintiff mean? A plaintiff is the person who brings accusations against the defendant. Like defendant, plaintiff is a singular noun. Its plural is plaintiffs.

For example,

  • “Objection, your honor!” said Max’s attorney, “this trial has nothing to do with the plaintiff’s romantic entanglements.”
  • According to John, representing plaintiffs is much more challenging than representing defendants.
  • Manning addressed the accusations after a plaintiff in a 2014 lawsuit recently filed a motion to compel testimony that included an email from Manning to a team equipment manager asking for two helmets that could pass as game-used items. –The New York Times

Oliver Brown, Norma McCorvey, and residents of Hinkley, California, are famous plaintiffs who were successful in court.

The word plaintiff is related to the adjective plaintive and the verb complain, which can all be traced back to a Latin verb that means to beat one’s chest in lamentation.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Define plaintiff and define defendantSince plaintiff and defendant are both legal terms, it can be confusing to remember the difference between them. Fortunately, there is an easy trick to remember plaintiff vs. defendant.

  • Plaintiff is related to the words plaintive and complain. You can think of a plaintiff as the person who makes a complaint in court.
  • Defendant is related to the word defend. A defendant is the person who must defend themselves against the complaints brought forward by the plaintiff.

As long as you can remember the origin of these legal words, you should always be able to remember what they mean.


Is it defendant or plaintiff? Plaintiff and defendant are legal words. They refer to the accusing and the accused parties, respectively, in court cases.

To summarize,

  • A defendant has charges brought up against him or her.
  • A plaintiff brings charges against someone else.

If you have any future trouble remember the meaning of plaintiff or defendant, you can check back with this article for reference.