Confusing Words

Many words and phrases frequently are abused or misused. Make sure to avoid the
flawed interpretation of these terms.

abdicate/abrogate: We abandon things when "abdicating." We "abrogate" things when
    we abolish them. Thus, we write, "Congress has abdicated [not abrogated] its power
    over foreign policy to the President."

advice/advise: "Advice" is the noun and "advise" is the verb; people advise others by
    offering advice.

affect/effect: To be safe, treat "affect" as a verb and "effect" as a noun. An "effect" is a
    result. "Affect" means that one produces an effect. Avoid the phrase "to effect this
    result" since it is a barbarism. People often use the word "impact" when they should use
    the word "affect," as in "The economy impacted our company’s profits." The correct
    form is: "The economy affected our company’s profits." An exception: in psychology
    the  word "affect" also refers to evaluations people make—in this sense this word is a

aggravate: This word means increasing the seriousness of something. Do not use it as a
    synonym for "irritate." Instead of stating "Tom’s manner aggravated his family," write
    "Tom’s eating habits aggravated his colitis."

aid/aide: We aid people when we help them. An aide is a special assistant.

already/all ready: "Already" means "by the time mentioned." "All ready" means that
    everything is prepared.

although: See "while/although."

amount/number: Write "number" when things can be counted, as in "Perot received a
    surprisingly large number of votes." When things are lumped together write amount, as
    in "Perot aroused a great amount of voter attention."

anxious/eager: "Anxiety" is unpleasant. "Eagerness" is joyous. They are not synonyms.

around/about/approximately: Do not substitute "around" for "about" or "approximately."
    "Around" refers to the surroundings of something. Instead of writing, "Around two
    billion people watched the Academy Awards broadcast," write "Approximately two
    billion people watched the Academy Awards broadcast."

as: See "like/as."

assume/presume: We "assume" things in the absence of evidence (e.g., "He erroneously
    assumed that she wished to pay the restaurant bill"). We "presume" things when it is
    reasonable to do so and there is no evidence to the contrary (e.g., "The court presumes
    that a person with more than five ounces of marijuana possesses it for purpose of selling
    it"). Except for math professors, people do not like to be caught assuming things. Yet,
    presuming things is reasonable.

bad/badly: If you have lost the sense of touch say, "I feel badly." If you are ill, say "I feel
    bad." In the latter example, the word "bad" is a predicate adjective, not an incorrect use
    of an adjective.

blond/blonde: Anyone can be blond. Yet, only women can be blonde.

can/may: "Can" refers to one’s ability. "May" concerns whether one has permission. Hence
    you "may" smoke in the smoking section of the restaurant if you "can" find a match to
    light your cigarette.

capital/capitol: The "capital" is the location of the government. The "capitol" is the building
    that government leaders occupy.

chauvinist/male chauvinist: A chauvinist is anyone (male or female) who follows the lead of
    Nicolas Chauvin, a character in Theodore and Hyppolyte Cogniard’s play La Cocarde
    tricolore, whose excessive patriotism and devotion to Napoleon was used to justify
    doubtful warlike actions. Male chauvinism refers to one who believes in the superiority
    of men.

compare/contrast: You compare like objects ("He compared the two letters for similar
    writing style") for both similarities and differences. You contrast any two things (like or
    unlike) by identifying dissimilarities ("He contrasted the dietary rules of Islam and
    Hinduism"). In nearly all settings, the appropriate prepositions matched with these
    words are "compared to" and "contrasted with."

compliment/complement: Though pronounced the same way, a "compliment" is praise,
     whereas a "complement" is something added to complete a whole.

convince/persuade: We persuade people to act. We convince when using proof to accept a
    belief. Hence, we usually are "convinced" something is true, but others try to
    "persuade" us to do something.

debut: See "premier/debut."

definite/definitive: "Definite" means certain (a word you can do without since it adds
    redundant stress). "Definitive" means conclusive and unamendable.

discreet/discrete: You are "discreet" when you are tactful with others. Things are "discrete"
    elements if they are separate, distinct, and nonoverlapping ("In true experiments,
    independent variables must be discrete conditions").

disinterested/uninterested: Uninteresting people are bored, but disinterested people are
    impartial. We are tried by "a disinterested jury of our peers."

doubt if/doubt whether/doubt that: Do not write, "I doubt if he really cares," since this
    construction states that you question the "if" part of the phrase. The sentence actually
    states that you have no doubt. In this case (and most cases) write, "I doubt that he really
    cares." If there really is doubt, use "doubt whether" as in, "I have doubt whether we
    may end the meeting on time."

effect: See "affect/effect."

eminent/imminent: A person who is highly regarded is "eminent." An event that will happen
    soon is "imminent."

enormous/enormity: Big things are enormous. A heinous or atrocious thing has enormity
    ("The enormity of the crime called for special punishment").

etymology/entomology: "Etymology" is the study of the origins of words. "Entomology" is the
    study of insects.

farther/further: "Farther" refers to measurable distance. "Further" deals with matters other
    than distance. Thus, instead of writing, "Burke went farther into the subject," state
    "Burke went further into the subject.

feel/believe: Do not say "feel" when you mean "believe." Do not say "I feel people should
    act responsibly." Instead, state "I believe people should act responsibly." You can feel
    tired, feel happy, or feel angry, but a belief describes your assessment of a proposition.
    One way to tell if you are dealing with true feelings is this test: Restate the sentence and
    substitute the word "am" for the word "feel." If the sentence makes sense, you have
    isolated a feeling. If not, substitute the word belief. Thus, you could say "I am tired" or
    "I feel tired," but you cannot say "I am that people should act responsibly."

fewer/less: If you can put the concept in numbers, use "fewer." If the concept cannot be
    quantified, use "less." Thus, the supermarket signs should (but, regrettably, most do
    not) say, "Use the express lane if you have ten or fewer items." Since it cannot be
    enumerated, we must write "Captain Hook should have had less ambition than he did."

flair/flare: A flair is a special talent. A flare is a bright light.

flaunt/flout: When you show off something or boast about it, you flaunt it (as in "If you’ve
    got it, baby, flaunt it"). When you flout something you show your contempt for it ("His
    actions flouted the law"). In passing, it might be noted that a flautist also is one who plays
    the flute and in Middle English "to flout" meant to play the flute).

flounder/founder: When something thrashes about, it flounders. When it fails completely, it

fortunate/fortuitous: If something fortunate happens, we got lucky. If it happened by
    chance, it is fortuitous ("It was fortunate for us that we fortuitously stumbled across a cabin
    in the woods").

full/fulsome: When things are full they contain abundant supplies of something ("The class
    was full of information"). When things are fulsome they are fat, excessive, and offensive to
    good taste ("His fulsome compliment made me cringe").

gamut/gantlet/gauntlet: Though they sound alike, these words refer to different things. A
    "gamut" is a full range or scope of things ("His book covered the full gamut of emotional
    situations"). A gantlet is a form of punishment in which people run between rows of people
    who attempt to beat them. A gauntlet is a glove thrown down when a person is challenged
    to a duel.

gender/sex: There is nothing salacious about the word "sex." Do not substitute the word
    "gender" to avoid embarrassment. People and animals differ by sex. Words differ by
    gender. Thus, unless a study involves gender classifications of words, it is a study of sex

hanged/hung: When people are executed they may be hanged. When a person is hung, the
    term has another slang meaning altogether. The stockings may be "hung by the chimney
    with care" but horse thieves are "hanged by the neck until dead."

if/whether: Use "whether" when alternatives are involved ("I do not know whether I should
    complain or remain silent"). Otherwise "if" is acceptable ("I do not know if I should
    reconsider my decision").

imminent: See "eminent/imminent."

illusion/delusion: Illusions are images of nonexistent things. Delusions are misguided beliefs
    people hold despite evidence to the contrary. Thus, "Daydreams can be enjoyable
    illusions, but delusions of grandeur come from self deceit or mental imbalance."

imply/infer: We imply things when we suggest them without actually saying so. We infer
    conclusions from evidence by reasoning from data to claims.

laudable/laudatory: Something laudable is worth praising. Laudatory activity is the
    expression of such praise.

lay/lie: When you recline, you lie down. If you tell someone you will lay down, you may
    risk embarrassment. For reclining, the past tense is "lay" and the past participle is "lain."
    Thus, you may say "I have lain on my bed for half an hour," but you cannot write "I
    have laid on the lounge chair for half an hour." On the other hand, you may "lay the
    plate on the table," in which case all past tense forms are the word "laid." By the way,
    once you "lay" the plate on the table, it "lies" there until moved.

lend/loan: "Lend" is a verb. "Loan" is a noun. Hence, write "The loan company would not
    lend me any money."

less: See "fewer/less."

like/as: Do not confuse them. "Like" means that one is drawing a similarity from dissimilar
    groups ("Her voice was like parrot’s squawk"). The error is created when one uses
    "like" as a conjunction. Writing "I am lucky to have a good friend like Sue" means that
    one has a good friend similar to Sue, but excluding Sue. The person should substitute
    "as" for "like" ("I am lucky to have such a good friend as Sue"). Do not say, "Tell it like
    it is;" say, "Tell it as it is."

literally/figuratively: Do not confuse these words. "Literally" means that one’s words
    describe what actually occurred. Most of the time, the word is tossed into sentences in
    which it is unnecessary. The word "figuratively" means that one is using language
    metaphorically. Thus, you should not say "The Rams literally were slaughtered by the
    Cowboys" unless the Rams football team was taken to a meat packing house run by the
    Cowboys. Instead one should say "The Rams figuratively were slaughtered by the

lose/loose: If you lose your keys, you cannot find them. Any loose keys may jingle in your

luxurious/luxuriant: Luxurious living means that you enjoy luxuries. "Luxuriant" means that
    something (such as a plant) is growing abundantly.

madding/maddening: "A madding crowd" is a group of people who can drive you insane. "A
    maddening crowd" is a group of people who make you angry. Hardy’s novel was Far
    from the Madding Crowd

may: See "can/may."

media/medium: "Media" is a plural word. One mass media form is a medium. Thus, one
    should not state "The mass media reports news inaccurately." Instead one should say,
    "The mass media report news inaccurately."

minimal/minimum: A minimal amount is the minimum in a data set. "Minimal" is an
    adjective and "minimum" may be used either as a noun or an adjective.

most unique: If something is unique, it is as singular as it can be. Thus, do not write that
    something is "more unique" or "most unique." It is either unique or it is not.

mutual/common: Mutual refers to two people who share the same emotion, as in "My
    fiancée and I have mutual respect" (the exception is in the phrase "our mutual friend,"
    following the title of Dickens’ novel). Common refers to something shared by at least
    two people, such as "a common goal" or "a common point of departure."

number: See "amount/number."

parameter/perimeter: Do not confuse these words. A "parameter" is a number that
    describes a population or, metaphorically, a distinctive characteristic of a population of
    events. A "perimeter" is a boundary.

percent/percentage: Use "percent" when identifying a particular number. Use "percentage"
    when there is no definite figure. Thus, you may write "A full fifteen percent of women
    in the company are executives," but "A small percentage of women in the company is
    on the executive level."

perfect/perfectly: "Perfect" is as singular as it gets. The phrasing in the preamble to the U.S.
    Constitution notwithstanding, something cannot be "more perfect." "Perfectly" is an
    adverb used emphasize another concept, such as "The current staff arrangement is
    perfectly fine as it is."

persons/people: Use "people" if you can. "Persons" usually involves a collection of people
    who are counted or numbered. "People" can refer to a large group of people, usually
    unnumbered. Thus, "people" often can be substituted for "persons," but "persons"
    cannot be substituted for "people."

phenomenon/phenomena: One phenomenon or many phenomena may exist.

precedence/precedents: Things have "precedence" over others if they are given preference.
    "Precedents" are events that serve as standards ("The Martin v. Hunter's Lessee Supreme
    Court decision set a precedent on federal authority over state courts.").

premier/debut: These words are nouns, not verbs. A movie may have "a premier in Los
     Angeles," but it is not possible for a movie "to premier in Los Angeles." The same rule
     applies to "debut."

presume: See "assume/presume."

pretty/very: Do not use "pretty" as a synonym for "very." Ill-mannered members of a rock
    concert crowd may become "very ugly," but describing them as "pretty ugly" is just
    plain stupid.

principle/principal: A principle is a rule, standard, or general guide. A principal is a chief or
     primary factor. Thus, write "the principal researcher guided a team of scholars
     investigating the principle of uncertainty reduction."

purposely/purposefully: Actions are done purposely if they are intended. Actions are done
     purposefully if the person doing them is very determined.

quotation/quote: "Quote" is a verb; "Quotation" is a noun. You quote people, but you read

raise/rise: You ask the boss for a raise. You rise to your feet to raise a point of order.

ravage/ravish: When armies destroy cities, they ravage them. If a criminal commits a rape,
     the victim has been ravished.

sex: See "gender/sex."

sick/ill: Use "sick" when you mean a person is nauseated. Use "ill" when the person is not
     well, but not necessarily nauseated.

specially/especially: When something is special, it is not ordinary ("This program was
    specially designed for preschool children"). "Especially" refers to things that are
    pre-eminent or primary ("He was an especially talented musician").

sure/surely: Do not confuse the adverb with the adjective. Thus, write "He surely is a good
     cook," for "He sure is a good cook." If it sounds odd to you, substitute "certain" for
     "sure" and "certainly" for "surely."

that: See "who/that."

very: See "pretty/very."

viable/vie/workable: Something that is viable is capable of living (from the Latin vita or
     "life"). Something that is competitive with others vies for superiority (from the Latin
     invitare or "invite"). Do not substitute these words for each other. People usually misuse
     the word "viable" when they actually intend to claim that something is "workable" (not
     derived from Latin at all, thank heavens).

vita/vitae: Many job announcements ask applicants to submit their "curriculum vita" or
     complete resume. Yet, this misspelling of vitae is not the plural form. The plural form is
     "curricula vita." Your resume may be a full "vitae" but not a "vita." Since this word is
     so inconvenient to use, perhaps we can do without it completely. Nobody needs to read
     "Vitae" above your name on a resume. Your name should be good enough.

ways/way: Use "way" when referring to distance ("I work a long way from my home"). Use
     "ways" when referring to methods ("There are many ways to make money in the stock

while/although: Use "while" when you are referring to "at the same time," as in "While I
     washed the dishes, she finished her homework." Do not write "while" when you mean
     "although" or "though." Hence, do not write "While I wanted to hear the speech, I had
     too many other things to do." Instead, write "Although I wanted to hear the speech, I
     had too many other things to do."

who/that: Use "who" when referring to people (not animals). Use "that" for non-human
     things. Try to delete unnecessary uses of these words in your writing.