Below are a dozen pairs of words that are often confused and misused. Some may seem obvious and others may conjure up a familiar fog. Remember, language is a life-long and ever-changing adventure to be enjoyed!
Accept vs. Except
Accept means to receive something whereas except signifies exclusion. More often than not, like sale and sell, similar-sounding pronunciation within some dialects can confuse the differences.
Ex. I accept visitors every day except Sunday.
Affect vs. Effect
Affect means to influence something and effect to accomplish something or, in the case of a noun, the result of something. If you’re unsure, simply replace affect with the word influence and effect with result.
Ex. The affect of poverty on a community can be seen where homelessness is the most obvious effect. (The influence of poverty can be seen where homelessness is the most obvious result.)
Bemused vs. Amused
Bemused means bewildered whereas amused means to have enjoyed.
Ex. The movie, with its twists and turns, left me bemused.
Ex. His story about camping in the rain amused me.
Comprise vs. Compose
Comprise means to include and compose to make up. Confusing? Think about the two words as parts versus the whole.
The whole is the subject when you comprise:
Ex. A school is comprised of classrooms, teachers, and students.
When you compose, the individual elements are the subject of the sentence:
Ex. Three countries compose North America.
Disinterested vs. Uninterested
Disinterested means unbiased and does NOT mean uninterested.
Ex. The conflict was resolved by a disinterested third party.
Ex. The young children were uninterested in their father’s old story.
Enormity vs. Enormous
Enormity means extreme evil. Enormous means large.
Ex. The enormity of the Holocaust is to be remembered.
Ex. I have an enormous pimple on my nose.
Farther vs. Further
Remember that farther refers to physical distance (think far). Further refers to the degree of something and should be interchangeable with more or additional.
Ex. The old car would go no farther and nothing further could be done.
Fewer vs. Less
This is simply a matter of countable and uncountable nouns. Use fewer when referring to countable items like apples, and less when referencing uncountable nouns, like water.
Ex. This checkout lane is for 15 items or fewer.
Ex. I have less coffee than I thought.
Ironic vs. Coincidental
A coincidence is an unexpected circumstance or event without causal connection. Irony, either verbal or situational, is when a result is the opposite of what was expected. And, though I thought otherwise, ironical is a real word, just old fashioned.
When you unexpectedly run into your friend at the mall, it’s coincidental that you are both in the same place at the same time. If a fire station burns down it’s ironic as it is a site charged with fire fighting and fire prevention.
Imply vs. Infer
To imply is to suggest something without saying it outright. To infer is to draw a conclusion from what is implied. Remember, a speaker or writer implies, and a listener or reader infers.
Ex. He implied that his parents are dead and I can only infer that he has no one to take care of him.
Lie vs. Lay
Remembering the present, past tense, and past participles is the heart of most confusion: lie, lay, lain and lay, laid, laid. Juggling the similarities can be better recalled by keeping a simple example in mind.
Ex. Before I lie down I lay my glasses on the table.
Ex. Before I lay down I laid my glasses on the table.
Ex. Had I lain down, I would have laid my glasses on the table.
Nauseous vs. Nauseated
In a strict sense, nauseous means causing nausea whereas nauseated means experiencing nausea. Though “I feel nauseous” is frequently used and currently acceptable, don’t be surprised if someone tries to reassure that you’re not as repulsive a personality as you may think.
Ex. I felt nauseated while watching the film as there was a nauseous smell in the theater.
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