Writing Workshops & Seminars               
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


Home       Topics & exercises       Seminars       Email courses       Books       Contact


Confusing word pairs

Some word-choice errors hurt more than others”

Don’t let confusing word pairs – or triples – get you down”

Also see word choice challenge and word choice errors.


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Some word-choice errors hurt more than others

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Not all mistakes are equal.

Consider the following sentences: (A) Their is no doubt that Sally has less socks in her drawer than Fred has. (B) To assure we meet our deadline, we need to complete the principle part of the report by tomorrow. (C) For over 20 minutes the team members argued with each other.

Some word-choice errors (their for there, less for fewer) are evident to nearly everyone with basic skills in literacy. Others (assure for ensure, principle for principal) are apparent to readers with average language skills. Still others (over for more than, with each other for with one another) are noticed only by particularly well-educated readers.

How would you assess your own writing and editing skills?

Test yourself on another three sentences: (A) The company waited to long to begin negotiations with it’s employees. (B) The delay effected many aspects of its operation (i.e., employee morale, productivity, customer relations). (C) As a result of this dilemma, management made the heartwrenching decision to lay off 10% of its work force.

The errors are (A) to for too, it’s for its; (B) effected for affected, i.e. for e.g.; and (C) dilemma for predicament, heartwrenching for heartrending.

Regarding the errors in sentence B, to affect means to influence, whereas to effect means to bring about, as in to effect change or to effect a transaction. The noun, meaning result, is spelled effect.

Also regarding B, i.e. is an abbreviation for the Latin words id est, meaning that is, whereas e.g. is an abbreviation for exempli gratia, meaning for example, so i.e. should be used to introduce a restatement; e.g. should be used to introduce an illustration or a list of examples.

Regarding sentence C, dilemma begins with the prefix di-, meaning two. It should be used to describe a situation requiring a choice between two alternatives. (Remember, the cliché is to be on the horns of a dilemma, not to be on the horn of a dilemma.) If there is no suggestion of alternatives, predicament or problem is the correct word.

Also regarding C, heartrending should not be confused with gut-wrenching. As Anne Stilman advises in Grammatically Correct, "Keep your internal organs straight!"

Of course, it’s one thing to identify errors when you are told they exist in a given sentence; it’s quite another to identify errors when you are editing large chunks of text that may or may not be correct.

Although I don’t mean to be straightlaced about all this, I’m not adverse to castigating writers who flaunt the rules of correct usage. Here are three lists comprised of common word-choice errors, categorized by how likely they are to be noticed by the reader:

Category A: borrow for lend; enthused for enthusiastic; except for accept; infer for imply; learn for teach; irregardless for regardless.

Category B: adverse (meaning unfavorable) for averse (meaning against); aggravate (meaning to worsen) for irritate (meaning to inflame or annoy); complementary (meaning supporting or compatible) for complimentary (meaning free); further (referring to time and quantity, as in "Let’s discuss this further" and "Do you have further questions?") for farther (indicating distance, as in "Let’s walk farther").

Category C: compared to (meaning to liken figuratively, as in "Sam compared his bunion to a mountain") for compared with (meaning to examine differences and similarities, as in "Compare this sentence with that sentence"); comprised of (meaning to embrace or take in, as in "The whole comprises its parts") for composed of (meaning made up of, as in "The whole is composed of its parts"); continuous (meaning over time, without interruption) for continual (meaning over time, at intervals); flaunt (meaning to show off) for flout (meaning to show contempt for); straightlaced for straitlaced.

Remember: The more obvious the error, the more likely it is to damage the writer’s credibility.

(To my sharp-eyed readers: In the paragraph beginning Although, I intentionally misused straightlaced, adverse, flaunt, and comprised of.)



Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Don’t let confusing word pairs – or triples – get you down

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Which is the correct word choice in the following sentences?

"I’m tired of people flaunting/flouting the rules."

"Here’s a complementary/complimentary copy of my book."

"Writers confuse certain look-alike words; e.g./i.e., they use capital for capitol, principle for principal, and stationary for stationery."

For years writers have written flaunt, which means "to show off" when they meant flout, which means "to show contempt for"; complementary, which means "something that completes or goes together" when they meant complimentary, which means "an expression of esteem or praise"; and i.e., a Latin abbreviation for id est, which means "that is" or "in other words" when they meant e.g., a Latin abbreviation for exempli gratia, which means "for example."

Likewise, they forget that every state has a capital whose capitol is a building with a dome in the shape of an o, that principle means "law" or "rule" whereas principal means "main or chief" whether a noun ("Who is the principal of Washburn High School?") or an adjective ("What is your principal reason for attending this seminar?"), and that an immobile object is stationary whereas paper is stationery, which you might write on with a pen containing the letter e.

Of course, people like you who read my column aren’t troubled by these confusing word pairs. Even you, however, might stumble over the following word triples.

Which is the correct word choice in the following sentences?

"As/Because/Since we are still recovering from the Great Recession, teachers will receive reduced bonuses of $1 million."

"This reduction will assure/ensure/insure lower deficits."

I’ll let you ponder those choices while I offer some clarification and guidelines.

Use because for cause, since for circumstance, and as for time. All three are used interchangeably, but because denotes reason, cause, or causal relationship, as in "Because we are smarter than you, we deserve $10 million bonuses." Considered a weak form of because, since is more appropriately used to denote circumstance, as in "Since I was already on my yacht, I decided to join the regatta." As is best used in reference to time, as in "As I was reading P.G. Downes’ Secret Island, I imagined myself exploring the Great Barren Lands of Canada by canoe." Using as in place of because or since is prone to ambiguity, as in "As we are experiencing problems, we must solve them," which might be taken to mean either "While we are experiencing problems . . ." or "Because we are experiencing problems . . ."

Assure, ensure, and insure all mean "to make secure or certain," but each has a different nuance. Often used with the word you, assure suggests making a promise that puts someone’s mind at rest. Ensure and insure are used interchangeably, but insure is used more specifically in reference to things that can be insured – life, health, or property – as in "Is your car insured for hail damage?" but "How can we ensure a positive outcome to our negotiations?"

For these reasons, the correct choices in the sentences above are because and ensure.




Home       Topics & exercises       Seminars       Email courses       Books       Contact