Commonly confused words

Continual or continuous? Enormity or enormousness? Certain pairs of words are often used as if they are interchangeable, despite their sometimes wildly different meanings. Here are some common examples to watch out for

A photo of a man and woman standing side by side to illustrate a post about commonly confused wordsPhotograph by Josh Felise

Sometimes a word comes out of your mouth (or keyboard) and you think, “Hang on, that doesn’t sound quite right.” In fact there are many words that have a little friend that sounds – or looks – similar but means something different. Sometimes the difference is subtle, hence the confusion, and sometimes the meanings are practically opposite to each other (which is kind of unfortunate). Often it’s just a spelling thing – the words are homophones, ie, they sound the same but are spelt differently and have different definitions.

There are also a few examples in which a word is wrongly used so often that it’s become almost acceptable. In some cases this really is fine – no one is going to protest if you say, “I will see you later,” as opposed to “I shall see you later”.  But there are times when it does matter, because otherwise we risk losing useful words. For instance, the word infer, which means conclude or deduce, is regularly used when the speaker really means imply: “What are you saying? Are you inferring that I’m a liar?” If we let this slip then we lose the real meaning of infer – which would be a shame as it’s a perfectly good word that doesn’t haven’t an exact alternative.

So I reckon it’s worth making the effort to get these right. Here are some basic (very much non-exhaustive and non-comprehensive) definitions of commonly confused words:

Agnostic/atheist
Agnostic: a person who believes that nothing can be known about the existence of God
Atheist: a person who believes there is no God

Alternate/alternative
Alternate: arranged by turns/every other
Alternative: available as a choice/non-conventional

Amiable/amicable
Amiable: likeable (used to describe people)
Amicable: friendly (used to describe situations)

Amoral/immoral
Amoral: having no moral standards or principles/not caring about morals
Immoral: morally wrong/deliberately doing wrong

Antisocial/unsociable/unsocial
Antisocial: harmful or annoying (used to describe behaviour)
Unsociable: disliking or avoiding the company of others
Unsocial: outside the normal working day

Astronaut/cosmonaut
Astronaut: space traveller
Cosmonaut: Russian space traveller

Aural/oral
Aural: relating to hearing or the ears
Oral: spoken/verbal, relating to the mouth

Bathos/pathos
Bathos: a sudden change from very important or beautiful ideas to ordinary or trivial ones
Pathos: a quality (of a situation) that moves one to pity

Beside/besides
Beside: next to
Besides: in addition to/apart from/moreover

Classic/classical
Classic: an outstanding/highly representative example of its type
Classical: very precisely this means relating to the ancient Roman and Greek period, but more generally it means more than 200(ish) years old and of a formal and ordered appearance

Compare/contrast
Compare: to examine things of the same kind in order to look for similarities or differences (compare to means to liken something to something else, as in, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”; compare with is used in the context of putting things side by side to see how they are similar or different from each other)
Contrast: to look specifically for differences

Complex/complicated
Complex: composed of many interrelated parts, intricate, difficult to analyse – it usually implies that something is clever and intriguing
Complicated: involving many different and confusing aspects – it usually implies that something is difficult to understand, often unnecessarily so

Complementary/complimentary
Complementary: serving to complete or enhance
Complimentary: admiring/approving; free of charge (usually to those who are already clients or customers, eg, a hotel might give complimentary chocolates to its paying guests – so free of extra charge might be more accurate)

Comprise/consist
Comprise: contain, include – it is never followed by the word of, eg, “The set menu comprises a starter, main and pudding.”
Consist (of): to be composed or made up of several elements – needs the of

Continual/continuous
Continual: Constant, frequent, regular (but with breaks)
Continuous: never ceasing, uninterrupted, unbroken

Contradiction/paradox
Contradiction: an inconsistency in viewpoint – usually implies unclear thinking
Paradox: a statement that appears contradictory but contains truth – usually implies complex, clever thinking

Different/differing
Different: not the same – generally used for fundamental, inherent qualities
Differing: not the same – generally used for shifting qualities, such as mood or opinion

Discreet/discrete
Discreet: careful to prevent embarrassment or suspicion/avoiding notice
Discrete: Separate, distinct

Disinterested/uninterested
Disinterested: impartial, objective, neutral, with no stake or involvement in a situation or issue
Uninterested: not taking an interest, bored by

Dominant/domineering
Dominant: leading, commanding (of beliefs, styles, genes, etc)
Domineering: bullying, overbearing (of a person)

Economic/economical
Economic: relating to the economy
Economical: not wasteful of money or resources

Elegy/eulogy
Elegy: a mournful or thoughtful song or poem
Eulogy: a speech or piece of writing in praise of someone – confusingly a eulogy is often read at a funeral

Elicit/illicit
Elicit: evoke, draw out
Illicit: unlawful, against the rules

Enormity/enormousness
Enormity: Outrageousness, extreme wickedness or evil
Enormousness: enormous size, hugeness
(ie, the enormity of his crime, but the enormousness of his house)

Enquiry/inquiry
Enquiry: a question or request for information
Inquiry: an official investigation

Every day/everyday
Every day: each day
Everyday: ordinary

Evoke/invoke
Evoke: to cause or produce a reaction; to bring into the mind
Invoke: to make an appeal to a higher authority; to conjure a spirit

Famous/infamous
Famous: well known
Infamous: having a bad reputation, notoriously bad

Farther/further
Farther is specifically used to refer to physical distances, whereas further can refer to either physical or figurative distances, eg, “His reputation has fallen further”; it can also mean additional, as in “I have no further questions”

Foolish/foolhardy
Foolish: unwise
Foolhardy: taking foolish risks

Formally/formerly
Formally: performed according to etiquette or convention
Formerly: previously, in the past

Imply/infer
Imply: to suggest indirectly; to hint at
Infer: to conclude from observation and deduction

Intense/intensive
Intense: very great or extreme; very deeply felt
Intensive: done with or requiring considerable effort within a short period of time

Invariably/variable
Invariably: constantly, without variation, ie, all the time
Variable: changeable, not regular

Loath/loathe
Loath: unwilling, reluctant
Loathe: hate, feel intense disgust for

Majority/most of
Majority: the greater number
Most of: the greater part of
(ie, majority refers to something that can be split into individual elements, such as a group of people, whereas most of can also refer to a mass of something such as, erm, mud or jam

May/might
May: generally used when talking about a present or future possibility
Might: generally used when taking about something that was a possibility in the past
(Although there are exceptions and the distinction is becoming increasingly blurred)

May be/maybe
May be: used when talking about a possibility, as in, “It may be that he is caught in traffic.”
Maybe: perhaps

Plaintiff/plaintive
Plaintiff: a person who brings a case against someone else in court
Plaintive: mournful sounding, sad

Practice/practise
Practice: (noun) repeated exercise in order to improve; a habit or activity; the process of carrying something out
Practise: (verb) to work at something repeatedly; make a habit of

Refute/reject
Refute: to invalidate or prove wrong with evidence
Reject: refuse to accept; throw away

Reign/rein
Reign: the time during which something or someone rules over others
Rein: a strap for guiding or controlling

Shall/will
Super strictly speaking, when expressing futurity shall is used with the first person singular and plural (I/we) and will is used with you/she/he/they: “I shall do it at once”, “She will eat her lunch at noon”. UNLESS there is an element of determination involved, in which case you do it the other way round, so: “I will prove you wrong, however long it takes me”, “You shall win the competition and claim the golden cup”.

Stationary/stationery
Stationary: still, unmoving
Stationery: pens, paper, etc

Tortuous/torturous
Tortuous: full of twists and turns; not straightforward
Torturous: causing torture; feeling like torture

Tragedy/travesty
Tragedy: a serious disaster or sad event
Travesty: a grotesque or ludicrous distortion

Did any of these surprise you? Can you think of any others?

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