Commonly confused words and word pairs
mrs malaprop: If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!
Richard Brinsley Sheridan
The Rivals (1775)
The mistaken use of a word for a similar-sounding one is known as a malapropism, after the character of Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s comedy The Rivals (1775), who excels at this sort of error, to humorous effect. An earlier literary personification of this kind of misspeaking is Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1598), though his name has less currency today.
Of course, many words in English resemble one another in spelling, sound or some other feature, while being unrelated or only partly related in meaning, so mistakes are all too easy to make. The word groups in this chapter give some hints as to possible pitfalls. Some are more obvious than others, but are included nonetheless, for good measure.
Whatever arrangement of epithets (adjectives), or indeed ’derangement of epitaphs’, one has in mind, it is always advisable to take care. As a writer, it is doubtless amusing to exercise one’s wit, even at a fictional character’s expense, but perhaps more awkward to end up on the receiving end of the joke.
accept and except
These words with similar pronunciations have no other features in common.
✵ Accept functions only as a verb. It means variously ’take (something offered)’, ’believe’ or ’agree to’, as in
We cannot accept [not except] such a pathetic excuse.
✵ Except can be a PREPOSITION (see chapter 1, here) meaning ’to the exclusion of’, as in
All students except [not accept] the freshers are eligible.
It’s also a CONJUNCTION (see chapter 1, here) meaning ’if it were not for the fact that’ and ’otherwise than’, as in
I would have finished the course except [not accept] that I became ill at the end of term.
The demonstrators did not quieten down except [not accept] to regroup and create new slogans for later use.
Finally, it’s a verb used most often in the passive voice in the meaning ’leave out’ or ’exclude’, as in
Only children were excepted [not accepted] from attendance.
adapt and adopt
These similar-sounding verbs are unrelated in meaning.
✵ Adapt means ’change to meet requirements’, ’adjust’ or ’rewrite’, as in
adapt [not adopt] the cottage to a year-round dwelling
flora and fauna that had adapted [not adopted] to an arid climate
adapt [not adopt] the novel for television.
✵ Adopt means ’legally bring up (another’s child)’, ’choose and decide to use’ or ’assume (a behaviour pattern)’, as in
adopt [not adapt] two boys
adopt [not adapt] a new ideology
adopt [not adapt] an attitude of superiority.
Note that both adapt and adopt can be either TRANSITIVE or INTRANSITIVE (see chapter 1, here).
adjacent and adjoining
These adjectives are similar but not identical in meaning.
✵ Two houses are said to be adjoining when they are next to each other with a common wall. And, adjoining tables are next to each other end to end, forming one long unit. In other words, adjoining items join or touch.
✵ Houses that are adjacent, on the other hand, can have a space between them or even be on opposite sides of a road, so long as there is nothing significant between them (for example, another house) and they are close enough for someone to pass easily from one to the other. Similarly, adjacent tables are next to each other but not necessarily touching.
Note also that adjoining, when used as a present participle, can govern an object (the house adjoining ours), whereas adjacent needs the addition of to (the house adjacent to ours).
adverse and averse
These adjectives have related meanings but are used in different constructions.
Both words mean ’opposed’ in different ways.
✵ Adverse is normally used before an abstract noun such as circumstances or conditions when they are unfavourable or likely to cause difficulties:
His tweet has brought them some adverse publicity.
✵ Averse describes a person who is disinclined to do something or has a strong dislike for something. Sometimes it is used in the negative with a touch of irony. The pattern is averse to, as in
He is not averse to eating out.
Averse is never used ATTRIBUTIVELY (that is to say, before a noun, see chapter 1, here), as adverse normally is.
affect and effect
These words not only sound similar but are also very close in meaning.
✵ In everyday conversation and writing, affect is usually a verb meaning ’influence’ or ’change’. Something that, or someone who, affects another person or thing, influences and/or changes that other person or thing.
The weather is unlikely to affect the result.
The new bus schedules won’t affect me. I drive to work.
✵ Effect, on the other hand, in everyday use, is usually a noun meaning ’change’, ’influence’ or ’changed state’. When someone or something does something to another person or thing, the result is an effect.
What would be the likely effect of raising the price by £10?
The effect was instantaneous: everyone fell silent.
Effect is often used in the phrase have an effect on (which is very similar in meaning to affect):
The weather is unlikely to have any effect on the result.
In formal English, effect can also be used as a verb meaning ’succeed in carrying out’:
The thieves effected an entry by smashing the lock on the back door of the house.
It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that someone can effect only a thing like an entry, a change or an escape (whereas someone can affect either a person or a wider range of things).
afflict and inflict
The difference between these related words is largely one of how they are used in constructions.
Afflict and inflict both express the idea of causing pain or trouble for someone or something. The chief difference between these verbs is in how they are used in grammatical constructions.
✵ A person inflicts something unpleasant on someone or something:
They promoted measures to avoid inflicting further harm on the environment.
✵ But a thing afflicts someone, or, more usually, a person is afflicted (in the PASSIVE, see chapter 1, here) with or by something unpleasant:
The population was afflicted by a series of natural disasters.
allusion, delusion and illusion
The common sounds in these words belie the differences in their meanings.
While all three words can be traced back to the Latin verb ludere, which means ’play’, their modern meanings are quite distinct. Allusion and illusion are the closest in sound but the furthest apart in sense, while delusion shares some meaning with illusion.
✵ An allusion is an indirect reference to a person, thing or event:
The story contains allusions to her childhood in Africa.
✵ An illusion is something that deceives the senses or mind:
The shimmering effect above a hot road is an optical illusion.
By shutting himself in his room for hours, he kept up an illusion of studying hard.
✵ A delusion is something falsely believed, often to the believer’s disadvantage (while an illusion is a wrong impression received):
Visitors often labour under the delusion that the weather is always hot here.
already and all ready
These word forms have distinct functions and meanings, and slightly different pronunciations.
Already and all ready don’t mean the same thing, so they’re not interchangeable.
✵ Already, an adverb, means ’at a time earlier than expected’, as in
When we got there they’d already left.
Adverbial already usually either precedes or follows a verb, and is pronounced in short syllables.
✵ All ready means ’all or totally prepared’, as in
Are the provisions all ready for tomorrow?
It typically follows a noun and a linking verb as a PREDICATE ADJECTIVE (see chapter 1, here), and the all receives a slight stress in pronunciation that is missing from already.
alternate and alternative
These adjectives have related but different meanings.
✵ The word alternative is often used to mean ’available as a possible substitute’, as in
The band decided to go with the song’s alternative title.
(Note that in American English alternate is the preferred word in this context.)
Alternative also has an established sense of ’mutually exclusive’, as in
Scientists are examining two alternative theories as to the origin of the universe.
A more modern meaning of alternative is ’departing from or challenging traditional norms’, for example
He is an enthusiast for alternative therapies.
✵ Alternate, on the other hand, tends to mean ’every second’, as in
The year groups come into school on alternate days.
although and however
These words have similar meanings, but belong to different parts of speech and have a different emphasis.
These two words both have the function of showing up a contrast.
✵ Although is a conjunction, and tends to soften the contrast. For example,
We got along very well, although we were from different backgrounds.
Here, although, meaning ’despite the fact that’, is used to play down any expectation of contrast. The positive statement comes first in the sentence, but the effect would be the same if the clauses were reversed. If the SUBORDINATE (or dependent) CLAUSE (see chapter 2, here) came first, this would suggest from the outset that one would be wrong if one thought this might cause us not to get along.
Although is not usually followed by a comma, but it is often preceded by one.
✵ However, on the other hand, is an adverb, and tends to emphasise a contrast. For example,
We were from different backgrounds. However, we got along very well.
Here, the initial sentence sets up an expectation: we were from different backgrounds and so might not be expected to get along. The purpose of however is to introduce a statement that contrasts with the first.
However in this sense (but not when it is used in phrases such as however hard you try) is always set apart by commas when it comes in the middle of a sentence:
She, however, had other ideas.
It can also be preceded by a stronger punctuation mark when it comes in the middle of a sentence:
The mistake was a very obvious one; however, the examiner still managed to miss it.
although and though
These words have very similar meanings.
In many cases although and though are interchangeable.
✵ Although is a conjunction meaning ’in spite of the fact that’. For example,
Although she is clever, she lacks emotional intelligence.
In this example, although could be safely replaced by though.
✵ Though, however, is generally more versatile, in that it can occupy different positions in a sentence with more grammatical flexibility. Though can function as either a conjunction or an adverb. It’s the only option in the phrases as though and even though, and in the following types of uses:
I don’t like them, though.
It is true, though, that they have been kind to us.
The chair, though damaged, could still be used.
We enjoyed the day outside, cold though it was.
altogether and all together
These word forms have different meanings and are distinct parts of speech.
These words mean different things.
✵ Altogether means ’completely’, ’in total’ or ’on the whole’, and is an adverb:
It was an altogether spectacular tennis championship.
Altogether seventeen people are missing.
✵ All together means ’everyone together’ or ’all at the same place or time’; it functions as an adjectival phrase. Usually the word all can be removed without affecting the grammar or the sense:
They arrived (all) together at nine.
The plates are (all) together on a separate shelf.
ambiguous and ambivalent
These adjectives share some of the same sense, but differ in their application.
Both words describe uncertainty in understanding what is meant.
✵ Ambivalent is used of people and their attitudes. If people are ambivalent about, for example, Scottish independence, they are unsure about the advantages and disadvantages and cannot easily decide between the various arguments.
✵ In contrast, ambiguous refers to information or context. If a person makes an ambiguous statement about, for example, nuclear power, then the statement has more than one possible interpretation.
amount and number
These nouns are interchangeable in some informal contexts, but should be distinguished in formal writing.
✵ Amount is normally used with singular words that have no plural, that is, so-called NON-COUNT NOUNS (see chapter 1, here), such as coal, happiness and warfare:
a large amount of coal; any amount of happiness.
✵ In contrast, number is used with plural count nouns, such as books, questions, ships and cheeses (= types of cheese):
a large number of books; an excessive number of questions; a fair number of cheeses.
Note that, in everyday speech, amount is sometimes used when number is strictly called for: a large amount of books. It is better to avoid this usage in formal speaking and writing.
anxious and eager
These adjectives have some overlap in meaning but different overtones.
Anxious and eager both refer to feelings regarding a future event. In informal contexts, these two adjectives appear interchangeably:
I am anxious to attend the concert.
I am eager to attend the concert.
✵ In writing, and in correct speaking, it is better to use eager when there are feelings of eagerness or enthusiasm, as in
Sheila has never been more eager for the school year to start.
✵ And anxious is more appropriate when there are feelings of anxiety, for example
We are anxious to hear news of the missing students.
anymore and any more
These word forms have distinct meanings and are different parts of speech.
✵ Anymore is an adverb:
She doesn’t live here anymore.
Don’t you eat out anymore?
✵ The two-word any more is a common collocation (juxtaposition) of two DETERMINERS (see chapter 2, here) and refers to any unspecified additional amount, as in
Is there any more pasta left?
anyone and any one
These word forms have distinct senses.
✵ Anyone is somewhat more common than anybody (which has the same meaning). They both are used only of human beings after a NEGATIVE (see chapter 2, here) or a question:
Has anyone seen my pen?
They don’t let in anyone who doesn’t have ID.
✵ The words any and one are written separately as any one when they mean any one particular person or thing:
Any one of them could have started the fire.
The tables are all free, so you can sit at any one you like.
aural and oral
These adjectives are pronounced in a similar way but their meanings are distinct.
These two words are often confused because they are homonyms (sound the same) and have meanings that are close.
✵ Aural relates to hearing and sounds. An aural test is an examination testing hearing or comprehension by listening.
✵ Oral, on the other hand, relates to speaking or the mouth. In an oral test the answers are spoken rather than written.
avenge and revenge
These related words cannot always be used interchangeably, and differ as to the parts of speech they can be assigned.
Both these words are associated with inflicting harm to repay a wrong and related to the abstract noun vengeance. The differences between them have to do with grammar and shades of meaning, though there is a lot of overlap in meaning, dictated by usage over time.
✵ Avenge is a verb, meaning ’inflict harm in return for (a wrong)’, and implying getting some sort of justice on someone’s behalf:
They avenged their sister’s murder by securing life imprisonment for the perpetrator.
’When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?’
Eleanor Roosevelt, ’My Day’ (February 16, 1946)
✵ Revenge is a verb but more usually a noun. It too implies hurting someone in response to an injury, perhaps with overtones of malice. Traditionally it suggests getting even with an adversary by inflicting punishment or harm:
In an act of revenge for the bombing of our ship, the navy shelled the terrorists’ training camps.
Bands of irregular soldiers set out to revenge their leader’s assassination.
’Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal.’
Elizabeth Fry, Note among her papers (1848)
avoid, evade and elude
These three verbs have related meanings but vary in tone and nuance.
✵ Avoid is neutral in tone. If one avoids a responsibility, one takes measures to prevent it from being necessary. Avoid can be followed by a verbal noun ending in -ing, as in
We avoided having to pay.
✵ If one evades a responsibility, on the other hand, one gets out of it in an underhand or deceitful way. Unlike avoid, evade must be followed by an ordinary noun:
We evaded payment.
✵ Elude implies clever or ingenious avoidance:
We eluded our pursuers by hiding in the rafters of an old hay barn.
It also has an extended meaning ’fail to be recalled by’, as in
Her name eludes me.
await and wait for
These word forms are almost identical in meaning.
Await is slightly more formal in register. Someone awaits or waits for test results or the arrival of a teacher, and travels to exotic lands where great adventures wait or await. However, await is not used with a for construction, for example,
Let’s review our notes as we await the judge.
Let’s review our notes as we wait for the judge to arrive in the courtroom.
awhile and a while
These word forms are different parts of speech and so behave differently.
Both these expressions are derived from the word while, but they have different roles in sentences.
✵ Awhile is an adverb:
Let us wait awhile [not for awhile].
✵ A while — written as two words — is a NOUN PHRASE (see chapter 2, here) and is normally preceded by for:
I’m going to be away for a while.
Sometimes, however, the word for is left out, making a while look more like an adverbial phrase, though it is still strictly a noun phrase:
We had to wait quite a while.
This use is fairly easy to identify because while is qualified in some way, for example, quite a while or a long while.
backward and backwards
While the sense of these words is similar, they are different parts of speech.
✵ Backward is the only form available for the adjective: a backward glance.
✵ Backwards is more usual for the adverb.
The vehicle moved slowly backwards.
(Note that in American usage, backward is more frequently used in such adverbial contexts.)
because, as, for and since
These conjunctions can all be used to introduce explanatory subordinate clauses, but they have slightly different meanings and functions.
✵ The conjunction since is used to introduce a dependent clause giving a reason for the statement in the main clause. The reason is either already well known or considered not as important as the main statement:
Since you’re only staying a little while, we’d better eat now.
✵ The same is true of because, but this conjunction puts a greater emphasis on the cause:
He liked her because she was witty and lively.
✵ The conjunction for functions in a similar way to since and because, but is more formal in register. For tends to introduce reasons that justify a statement (as because can too), rather than explaining it:
She must have forgotten to invite them, for they didn’t turn up.
Note that for as a conjunction is never used at the beginning of a sentence.
✵ As can function in a similar way to the other conjunctions. However, its use can lead to ambiguity, for example:
As Luisa went back to work, Tony stayed at home to look after the baby.
In this example, as can also be understood to mean either ’because’ or ’at the time that’. In such cases, it may be better to avoid ambiguity and use either because or while depending on the intended sense.
beside and besides
These words largely have distinct meanings and functions.
✵ Beside is a preposition referring to physical position meaning ’next to’:
Come and sit beside me.
It’s also used to mean ’in addition to’, and this can lead to potential ambiguity in respect of the ’next to’ sense:
She owns another property beside this one.
✵ Besides is an adverb meaning ’moreover’:
It’s late — besides, the weather’s too cold.
It’s also a preposition meaning ’in addition to’:
They’ve already spent a considerable sum on the house, besides the cost of the extension.
between and among
As prepositions, these words function slightly differently.
✵ Some people insist on using among, and not between, when more than two people or things are under consideration:
Her estate was divided equally among her five children.
In some instances, though, between may sound just as natural:
We need to address the ongoing tensions between the sales team, the art department and the management office.
✵ Certainly, when there are only two people or things are under consideration, between should be used:
Conflict between East and West is not inevitable.
Among is never used in such cases.
biannual and biennial
These adjectives have distinct meanings.
✵ Biannual means ’twice a year’. Semi-annual is a synonym for biannual. For example,
Payment of interest is biannual.
✵ Biennial, on the other hand, means ’every two years’. For example,
They met at a biennial conference on the environment.
Owing to general potential confusion as to which is which, it may be advisable to use more straightforward expressions. For example,
Interest is paid twice a year.
They met at a conference on the environment held every two years.
blatant and flagrant
These adjectives have meanings that are similar but also quite distinct.
Both these words describe openly offensive behaviour, but there’s a difference.
✵ Blatant emphasises the brazen conspicuousness of the offence, as in
a blatant breach of good faith in the negotiations
A blatant lie is one so bare-faced that no one can miss it.
✵ Flagrant, on the other hand, emphasises the shocking seriousness or gravity of the offense, for example
Flagrant disregard for human life is unforgivably shameless or outrageous.
Note that blatant should not be used to mean merely ’obvious’. Instead, use obvious, clear or glaring:
There is a glaring [not blatant] contradiction….
borne and born
These words have a common root but are differentiated by conventions as to usage.
✵ Borne is the primary PAST PARTICIPLE (see chapter 1, here) of the verb bear:
The following points should be borne in mind.
His account is simply not borne out by the facts.
In meanings relating to birth, borne is used when the mother is the subject of the verb, or when the verb is passive followed by the preposition by:
Michelle had already borne six children.
The twins were borne by an Italian mother.
✵ When the subject is the child, born is the form used:
He was not born in hospital.
Born is also the adjective used in a combination, to indicate condition, location or status of birth:
newly born pups; a northern-born poet.
borrow, loan and lend
These three verbs have related meanings, but differ in their application.
All these verbs are used in connection with the temporary use or possession of something that belongs to someone else.
✵ When a person borrows something from someone they get it:
Can I borrow your car for an hour?
I borrowed £100 from my brother.
✵ When a person lends or loans something to someone they give it:
Will you loan me your car for an hour?
My brother lent me £100.
Lend can be used figuratively, whereas loan cannot:
The old silver lends [not loans] an air of elegance to an otherwise drab room.
censor and censure
These words have different pronunciations and distinct meanings.
Though spelt similarly, and from a common root, Latin censere, which means ’assess’, these two nouns have different meanings.
✵ A censor is a person who suppresses or removes information:
Film board censors have cut some of the more violent scenes.
✵ Meanwhile censure is severe criticism or condemnation:
The political manoeuvre came under censure.
Both words can also work as verbs, and as such they preserve their distinct meanings.
centre on and centre around
These phrasal verbs have slightly different meanings.
While the PHRASAL VERBS (see chapter 1, here) centre on and centre around are close in meaning, there is a difference in nuance.
✵ If one uses the verb centre to mean ’focus on something’, it can be used with the prepositions on or upon, as in
The court’s interpretation of the law centred on the issue of freedom of speech.
Here, the idea of a specific, narrow focus is implicit.
✵ In the above example, substitution of around, which signifies circular or diffuse movement, is imprecise. Centre around is more acceptable if one wishes to convey a generalised focus on a number of things, as in
Discussions centred around the witness’s credibility, his previously conflicting statements and their admissibility.
An alternative to centre around is revolve around.
ceremonial and ceremonious
These adjectives are related but have slightly different meanings.
✵ Ceremonial is the more neutral of the two words, describing things that involve ceremony or are a part of it, for example, ceremonial occasions. It’s not now used of people.
✵ Ceremonious is used of people or their behaviour. A ceremonious person, or a person with a ceremonious manner, is one who likes and adheres to formalities. It is advisable to avoid ceremonious where ceremonial can be used.
childish and childlike
These adjectives are broadly alike in meaning, but with crucial distinctions.
Both words describe people or behaviour that have qualities associated with children.
✵ However, childlike is complimentary and even affectionate (childlike innocence).
✵ Meanwhile, childish is a dismissive and disapproving term (a childish tantrum).
classic and classical
These closely related words differ in their usage.
The meanings of the two words overlap.
✵ Essentially, classic as an adjective describes the value or status of something (a classic example of Art Deco).
The noun classic means something created or made that is of the highest quality. With an upper-case initial, Classics is the study of the languages and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.
✵ The adjective classical, though often implying a judgement of value or worth, is a more factual reference to the literature, art and culture of the ancient world or to the high period of an art form (a classical education, classical music, classical ballet).
climactic and climatic
These adjectives derive from different root words, and so have separate meanings.
✵ Climactic means ’forming an exciting climax’, as in
In a climactic [not climatic] passage, the author kills off the heroine.
✵ Climatic, deriving from climate, means ’relating to weather’, as in
These severe climatic [not climactic] changes are caused by global heating.
collaborate and corroborate
These verbs are unrelated in meaning, despite their superficial similar appearance.
✵ Collaborate means ’work with others to achieve something’:
Two authors collaborated on the biography.
✵ Corroborate means ’present evidence in support of the truth of something’:
As any language teacher can corroborate, spelling and grammar are important.
The two words are not interchangeable.
compare to and compare with
These collocations have slightly different meanings.
✵ In careful usage, compare to is preferred when two unlike things are being likened:
She compared her skin to ivory.
✵ Compare with is used when the comparison is between similar things and implies differences as well as similarities:
We can compare this hotel with the ones we visited in Europe last year.
When compare is used intransitively (that is, without a direct object), with should always be used:
The new model compares well with others in the same price range.
Note that the adjective comparable follows compare in being followed either by to or with, depending on whether unlike or like things are being considered:
The agency provides a service comparable to that of a good library.
The fires are comparable with the ones that recently hit Australia.
complement and compliment
These words, while pronounced in a similar way, have unrelated meanings.
The words are close in spelling but their meanings are quite different.
✵ As a noun, a complement is something added to perfect a thing and make it complete, as in
A fine wine is the perfect complement to good cooking.
There is also a specifically grammatical sense of COMPLEMENT , a noun or adjective that relates back to the subject after a linking verb (see chapter 1, here).
✵ A compliment, on the other hand, is an expression of praise:
The cook received many compliments from the guests that evening.
Both words are also used as verbs, and both have adjectival forms: complementary and complimentary. Complimentary has the special meaning ’given free’, so a complimentary copy of a book is one given without charge. A complementary copy, on the other hand, is a book that completes a set.
consist of, comprise, include, compose and constitute
These five verbs overlap in meaning, but are distinct in usage.
✵ Consist of is concerned with a whole having a number of parts. It is used in the active voice, with the whole as their subject and the parts as their object:
The meal consisted of several small dishes that everybody dipped into.
✵ Comprise can be used in the same way as consist of:
The house comprises three bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a living room.
But it also has another sense of ’form’, so:
Retirees now comprise 20 per cent of the population.
And, so, potentially confusingly, can also be used in the passive:
The house is comprised of three bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a living room.
✵ If some but not all the parts of the whole are mentioned, include is used instead:
The house includes a kitchen and a living room on the first floor.
✵ Compose and constitute are also concerned with parts making up a whole. Compose is usually used in the passive, and constitute in the active:
The team is composed of experts in the field.
The following commodities constitute the average household diet.
connote and denote
These verbs have related but distinct meanings.
Denote refers to the main or literal meaning of a word, whereas connote refers to its implications or associations. The word family, for example, denotes a group of people related by blood or marriage, but connotes the bonds of affection, trust and loyalty that unite them.
continual and continuous
These related adjectives differ in usage.
✵ Something continual continues, with breaks, over a period of time. So a continual noise is one that is constantly repeated, such as a dog barking.
✵ Something continuous goes on without a break, and a continuous noise is one that continues without stopping, such as the roar of a waterfall.
The same distinction applies to the adverbs continually and continuously:
Hecklers continually interrupted the speaker.
She drove continuously for two hours.
In popular usage, however, continual and continually are now frequently used to mean ’without stopping’.
corporal and corporeal
These adjectives with a common root have developed independent meanings.
Both these words derive from the Latin corpus, which means ’body’.
✵ Corporal means ’relating to the body’ and is mainly used in the expression corporal punishment, referring to the infliction of physical hurt.
✵ Corporeal means ’material or physical rather than spiritual’:
The gods of antiquity were not just spirits but enjoyed a corporeal existence.
council and counsel
These words are pronounced in a similar way but have distinct meanings.
✵ Council is a noun only, meaning a body of people, especially in an advisory or administrative context.
✵ Counsel is both a noun and a verb, and is associated with advice, particularly of a professional nature, and the giving of it. The noun counsel means either ’advice’ itself, or a barrister or other legal adviser. The verb counsel describes the activity of professional advisers:
The company psychologist counsels employees coping with stress problems.
International financial analysts counselled caution.
credible, credulous and creditable
These three adjectives are related but have different meanings.
These adjectives, and the corresponding nouns credibility, credit and credulity come from the same root, Latin credere, which means ’believe’, but have distinct meanings.
✵ A person or thing is credible when he, she or it can be easily believed:
My story may sound barely credible but I assure you it’s true.
Credible also has the newer meaning ’inspiring confidence’:
The government needs to develop a credible monetary policy.
✵ Someone is credulous when he or she is all too ready to believe:
Only the most credulous person would believe such a story.
✵ Creditable is connected with the word credit and means ’bringing credit’:
An excellent squash player, she plays a creditable game of tennis as well.
defective and deficient
These adjectives are related but have different senses.
Both words describe things that are less than perfect.
✵ Defective means ’faulty’ and describes functional things, whether processes, machines or the human senses:
If the workmanship is defective, they’ll replace the shoes with a new pair.
Artillery officers sometimes have defective hearing.
✵ Deficient describes things that lack a quality, element or ingredient necessary to their working:
Her voice is beautiful but a little deficient in power.
Their diet is deficient in vitamin D.
definite and definitive
These adjectives are closely related but differ in sense.
✵ Definite describes something as being distinct or precise without making any strong judgement about it:
He has definite ideas on the subject.
✵ Definitive denotes something authoritative, conclusive or decisive; it is therefore a more evaluative word:
She wrote the definitive book on the subject.
denote and represent
These verbs have similar but distinct meanings.
✵ Denote is used to express ’mean’, ’refer to’ or ’signify’:
That word denotes ’life’ in Spanish.
For our purposes, the word ’corporation’ will denote the XYZ Foundation.
✵ Represent is used to mean ’symbolise’:
The red maple leaf represents Canada.
dependant and dependent
These words are interchangeable in only one context.
Dependant is interchangeable with dependent only in the noun sense, which means ’family member supported financially’.
deprecate and depreciate
These verbs have similar meanings, but also differ.
✵ To deprecate something is to express disapproval of it:
We deprecate the use of public money for non-essential purposes.
The adjective self-deprecating is derived from deprecate, and means ’criticising oneself’, and hence ’being modest’.
Deprecate also has a technological sense, meaning ’become obsolete’, as in
The app is being deprecated.
✵ To depreciate something is to belittle or disparage it, even though it may not be wrong or bad in itself:
They were constantly depreciating our attempts to speak Italian.
This use is increasingly rare.
Depreciate is also commonly used intransitively (without an object), in financial contexts, to mean ’lose value’:
The yen has depreciated 20 per cent in real terms.
derisive and derisory
These related adjectives have very similar meanings but are applied differently.
✵ Derisive usually refers to a person or action and means ’showing contempt or ridicule’:
He gave a derisive laugh.
✵ Derisory is often used of a thing and means ’deserving contempt or ridicule’:
They made us a derisory offer.
Derisory is sometimes substituted for derisive, as in
She looked at me with a derisive [or derisory] smile.
Careful writers try to maintain the distinction, however, and it is advisable to avoid the use of derisory where derisive is correct.
dessert and desert
These words have quite different meanings.
✵ Dessert is a noun, pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, and has only one modern meaning: ’sweet course eaten at the end of a meal’.
✵ Desert is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable when it is a noun meaning ’arid area’. The stress is on the second syllable when it is a noun meaning ’something someone deserves’, in such expressions as
They got their just deserts.
The stress is also on the second syllable when desert is used as a verb, meaning ’abandon something’ or ’run away’.
discreet and discrete
These adjectives are unrelated in meaning, despite identical pronunciation.
The homonyms discreet and discrete have quite different meanings.
✵ Discreet is the more frequent word in general use and means ’tactful’, ’not revealing secret information’ or ’subtle and unobtrusive’:
I made a few discreet enquiries.
✵ Discrete is a formal or technical word meaning ’separate, unconnected and distinct’:
Several discrete strands of evidence were pursued.
disinterested and uninterested
These adjectives have different senses.
Both words are related to the noun interest, and the adjective interested.
✵ Uninterested is connected with the sense of interest ’feeling of curiosity and concern’ (She has no interest in cooking). If a thing doesn’t interest someone, it’s uninteresting. If a person is not interested in something, they are uninterested in it:
They seemed completely uninterested in what was going on around them.
✵ Disinterested, on the other hand, is connected with the sense of interest ’personal stake or connection’ (She has interests in various pharmaceutical companies). Disinterested means ’impartial’ or ’not having a personal stake’. A disinterested observer of a contest between two sides wouldn’t be concerned who won, because they would have no personal commitment to either side. (An uninterested observer, on the other hand, would take no interest in what was going on.)
If you were really disinterested, you’d have given Bobby as much help as you gave Sal.
Increasingly, the word disinterested can be observed in use to mean uninterested. This is strictly speaking incorrect.
each and every
These determiners have similar meanings but with different connotations, and sometimes require different syntax.
Each and every both designate all the members of a group. In some contexts, they follow the same SYNTAX (see chapter 2, here) and are almost interchangeable, as in
I examined each puppy in the litter.
I examined every puppy.
Here, there is just a slight shift in perspective from considering the animals individually, with each, to considering them collectively, with every.
✵ Each (like every), when placed before the noun, requires the noun and the verb to be singular:
Each puppy is affectionate.
Each (though not every) may also be placed after a plural noun, with the effect that the plural governs the verb:
The puppies each have their own toys.
Each can refer to two or more (whereas every cannot refer to two). Moreover, each can function not only like an adjective (each puppy), but also as a pronoun (each of them) or an adverb (Give them a bowlful each).
✵ As already noted, every (like each) placed before the noun requires the noun and the verb to be singular:
Every puppy is affectionate.
However, every (unlike each) cannot follow a plural noun, and it can only refer to three or more. Moreover while it can function like an adjective (every puppy), it cannot (unlike each) be other parts of speech.
economic and economical
Long-established usage preferences dictate the differences between these adjectives.
✵ The adjective economic relates to economics or the economy, and is concerned with aspects of the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services:
He’s writing a comparison of Nobel Laureates’ economic theories.
✵ The adjective economical, on the other hand, means ’good value’ or ’careful with money’:
Public transport is economical, compared with taking taxis.
She was economical in her spending.
An area of overlap is the sense ’justified in terms of avoiding expenditure’:
an economical [or economic] use of electricity.
fewer and less
These determiners both indicate a comparison of quantities, but they are used differently.
✵ Fewer is generally used with things one can count (fewer meetings, fewer people).
The same rule applies to fewer than (fewer than twenty people).
✵ Less is generally used with things one cannot count (less time, less prestige).
The same rule applies to less than (less than a two-thirds majority).
In an exception to the rule, less than is used with nouns that indicate distance, weight, volume, amounts of money, or units of time, because they are thought of as collective amounts instead of numbers:
a house less than two miles down the road
use less than five gallons of petrol
presents for less than £50
take less than four hours
Furthermore, plural nouns often precede the set phrase or less:
You may use the express checkout lane if you have eight items or less.
Explain your career goals in one hundred words or less.
Here, the plural nouns are regarded as collective amounts.
flammable and inflammable
These adjectives have the same meaning.
Although inflammable may at first glance look like the opposite of flammable, the two words actually have the same meaning: both describe something that is easily set on fire. In view of the potentially disastrous consequences of misinterpretation, flammable has become the word of choice, especially in the labelling of commercial and industrial products. The word most frequently used to convey the opposite meaning is non-flammable.
flounder and founder
Despite apparent similarities, these verbs are different in meaning.
Both verbs indicate that someone or something is in distress.
✵ Flounder means struggle to regain one’s balance, or to know how to proceed. Its literal sense is ’flail about in water’.
Someone who is floundering is typically in a temporarily bad situation that can be overcome with effort.
✵ Founder means fail, become disabled or collapse. Its literal sense refers to a ship and is ’fill with water and sink’.
It’s usually too late for someone or something that is foundering or has foundered.
forebear and forbear
The noun has two possible spellings, but the verb only one.
Either spelling may be used for the noun, meaning ’ancestor’.
✵ But forebear is the more frequent of the two:
The walls were lined with portraits of his illustrious forebears [or forbears].
✵ Forbear is the only acceptable spelling for the verb, meaning ’hold back’ or ’refrain’:
We should forbear [not forebear] from judging people on first impressions.
historical and historic
These adjectives are derived from the same noun, but they are used in different ways.
Both these adjectives relate to the noun history.
✵ Historical means ’belonging to or concerning the past’ and may describe people or things, as in
a historical figure; a historical novel.
✵ The principal meaning of historic, on the other hand, is ’important enough to go down in history’:
The election of the United States’ first African—American president was a historic moment.
We support preservation of our city’s historic district.
Historic can sometimes be used in place of historical, but historical should not be used in the sense of historic given above.
idyll and ideal
These words are unrelated, can be assigned different parts of speech, and have distinct meanings.
The noun idyll (and its related adjective idyllic) and the noun (and adjective) ideal are quite distinct.
✵ Idyll (and idyllic) are narrower in meaning, referring to a ’carefree and happy situation or period, often featuring unspoilt beauty and serenity’, as in
a pastoral idyll; an idyllic way to spend a summer afternoon
The title of Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1885), a set of poems about Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, references the poetic form known as the idyll, which focuses on rustic life.
✵ Ideal refers to perfection, or to being the best in every respect, as in
the ideal of beauty; the ideal way to tackle the problem
Note that an idyllic setting for a hotel, in the heart of the countryside, is not necessarily ideal; an ideal setting for a hotel, near a major airport, may be far from idyllic.
in, into and in to
These word forms are used differently.
✵ In formal written English, the preposition for inward movement is into, not in:
She came into the room.
We welcomed him into the family.
It’s sometimes acceptable to use either in or into, but the latter is usually preferable in formal English:
He put it into [or in] his pocket.
Using in for into can be misleading, as in
She jumped in the pool.
(Did she jump into the pool, or was she already standing in the pool when she jumped?)
✵ Into should not be confused with in to. The preposition into is never written as two separate words:
I went into [not in to] the house.
When the separate words in and to are juxtaposed, they should not be joined together:
I went in to [not into] get my jacket.
Here, in is an adverb, and to the prepositional marker for the INFINITIVE (see chapter 1, here).
imply and infer
These verbs have distinct meanings.
Both these verbs deal with communication that takes place indirectly, without words that make the message explicit. But the critical distinction relates to who:
✵ Imply is something a writer or speaker does. To imply something is to suggest that it is true without actually saying so.
Her testimony implied that she had seen her husband plant the evidence.
✵ Infer is something a reader or listener does. To infer something is to conclude that it is true without having actually read it or heard it.
We inferred from her testimony that she had seen her husband plant the evidence.
It is important to resist the temptation to substitute infer when imply is intended. For example,
She didn’t actually say who was going to chair the meeting but she implied [not inferred] that she was.
it’s and its
These word forms have different grammatical functions and senses.
The confusion of its with it’s is one of the commonest mistakes in the writing of English, and one of the easiest to avoid.
✵ It’s is a contraction of it is. Because the contraction it’s is more frequent than its, it may be tempting to get into the habit of always putting an apostrophe in this combination of three letters. To avoid errors, after writing it’s, read what your text aloud, substituting it is for it’s. If it doesn’t make sense, then you are using the wrong form.
✵ Its is the possessive form of the pronoun it (see PERSONAL PRONOUNS , chapter 2, here); its is always followed by a noun. Here are examples of the correct use of the possessive pronoun its (no apostrophe).
Every dog has its day.
Sales of the book have skyrocketed; its success is attributed to recent events in the news.
The station is struggling to keep its advertisers.
lay and lie
These verbs have different meanings, despite overlapping inflections.
✵ The verb lay is mainly transitive (that is, takes an object), as in
Lay the blanket across the bed.
The past tense of the verb lay is laid:
I laid [not lay] the blanket across the bed.
✵ The verb lie is intransitive (that is, does not take an object). A common error is to use lay in place of the present tense or PRESENT PARTICIPLE (see chapter 1, here, and chapter 4, here) of lie, but this is unacceptable in standard English:
Lie [not Lay] down on the bed.
The letter was lying [not laying] on the table.
Confusion may arise because lay is the SIMPLE PAST (see chapter 1, here) of the verb lie:
I lay down on the bed.
lose and loose
These similar-appearing words have distinct pronunciations and meanings, and can be assigned different parts of speech.
✵ Lose is a verb only, meaning variously ’mislay’, ’fail to win’ or ’be deprived of’, as in
I’ve lost my purse.
If we don’t improve our form, we’ll lose the game.
✵ Loose is an adjective, adverb and verb. As an adjective it means variously ’not firmly fixed’ or ’not restrained’, as in
loose [not lose] floorboards; loose [not lose] dogs.
As an adverb, loose means ’freely’, as in
dogs running loose [not lose].
As a verb it means variously ’make less tight’, ’untie’ or ’fire a projectile’, as in
She loosed her grip.
When they are about to set sail, they first loose the mooring rope.
He loosed a volley of arrows.
luxuriant and luxurious
These adjectives have a common root but different meanings.
Both these adjectives are related to the noun luxury, but their meanings don’t overlap.
✵ Luxuriant is used to describe something that grows in rich profusion, for example, hair or vegetation.
✵ Luxurious means ’characterised by or suggestive of luxury’ as in
a luxurious bedroom; a luxurious lifestyle
mythological, mythical and mythic
These adjectives are interchangeable in some contexts, but have slightly different meanings.
These adjectives are interchangeable in the senses of ’relating to myth’ and ’lacking factual basis’.
✵ Mythological has the narrowest range of meanings, as indicated above. For example,
The unicorn is a mythological creature.
✵ Mythical can also be used in such contexts. In addition, it has a sense of ’fictitious’, for example,
a mythical client who gives rave endorsements
✵ Meanwhile, the variant mythic is the best option for the sense ’befitting or suitable to myth’, though mythical is also possible:
the orator’s mythic [or mythical] ability to excite audiences
a mythic [or mythical] figure in global politics
nauseating, nauseated and nauseous
These closely related adjectives have distinct meanings.
✵ If a person experiences something sickening (that is, suffers nausea or feels inclined to vomit), that thing is nauseating, as in
a nauseating odour in the barn
Something that is disgusting in a moral sense is also nauseating, as in
The way she flatters the boss is nauseating.
✵ If one feels sick (inclined to vomit) or disgusted, one is nauseated.
I feel nauseated by the smell of food.
He is nauseated by their behaviour.
✵ Meanwhile, nauseous can mean either nauseated (in the physical sense) or nauseating (in either the physical or the moral sense). For example,
She woke up feeling nauseous.
The stench was nauseous.
Their xenophobia is nauseous.
neither and none
These negating words are used in different ways.
Both words are used to effect NEGATION (see chapter 2, here).
✵ Neither is used when two items are under discussion; it means ’not either’. When only two things are involved, neither is an appropriate choice:
Neither of the twins made it to the reunion.
When neither is used as a conjunction, it should be followed with nor, not or, and the verb should AGREE (see chapter 2, here) with the nearest noun:
Neither rain nor snow is going to stop mail delivery.
✵ The pronoun none is used when there are more than two items under discussion; it means ’not one’ or ’not any’.
None, rather than neither, is the appropriate choice in the sense ’not one of several’:
None [or Not one] of these (four) options has any appeal.
number and quantity
These quantifying nouns have distinct areas of application.
Careful writers distinguish between quantity (’amount of something’) and number (’total of countable persons or things’.
✵ Number is used for count nouns, as in
A large number [better than quantity] of people had gathered in the square.
✵ Quantity is best reserved for references to inanimate objects or inanimate non-count nouns, as in
a huge quantity of rotten wheat; a large quantity of fuel
on, on to and onto
These word forms are used in different contexts.
✵ Despite the objections of traditionalists, who hold that on to is the correct choice, the preposition onto is now largely established as the one to use when onward movement is indicated:
The kids jumped onto the trampoline
This means that the kids moved from the ground to the surface of the trampoline. Potentially confusingly, on is sometimes alternatively used in this context:
The kids jumped on the trampoline
But this is ambiguous, since it could mean that the kids, already on the trampoline, jumped up and down on it.
✵ On to, spelt as two separate words, should certainly be used with verbs, where on is an adverb, as in
Let’s move on to [not onto] another topic.
partly and partially
These related adverbs are not always interchangeable.
Both these adverbs mean ’in part’, ’not completely’ or ’to some extent’, and are sometimes interchangeable:
Our first attempt was only partly [or partially] successful.
However, there are subtle distinctions.
✵ Partly can be seen as meaning ’in part’ or ’with regard to the part not the whole’, as in
He left early, partly [not partially] because he was bored.
Partly is always preferred when there is a distinct division into parts:
The houses were built partly of wood and partly of stone.
✵ Partially means ’incompletely’ or ’not fully’, as in
Her mother is partially [not partly] sighted.
Partially should, of course, be avoided when there is any risk of confusion with its other sense of ’in a biased way’.
passed and past
Despite being pronounced alike and having related meanings, these words are distinct in meaning and belong to different parts of speech.
These homonyms are both derived from the verb pass.
✵ Passed is the past tense of the verb pass, as in
He passed me at 80 mph.
✵ Past is an adjective meaning ’one-time’ or ’former’, as in
She is the past president of our mountaineering club.
people and persons
These plural nouns are used in different contexts.
✵ The plural noun people is the preferred form for designating human beings generally:
Thousands of people [not persons] jammed the stadium.
What on earth will people [not persons] think if you do that?
✵ Persons is used only in certain narrow, typically legalistic or otherwise official, contexts:
the Bureau of Missing Persons
the arrest of three suspicious persons loitering in Parliament Square
plain and plane
These words with identical pronunciation have separate meanings.
✵ Plain is more frequently used as an adjective meaning ’simple’, ’clear’ or ’not patterned’, as in
a plain fabric
As a noun, plain simply denotes a large expanse of flat land, as in
a treeless plain
✵ Plane is more commonly used as a noun denoting (among other things) a flat surface or a level, as in
different planes of existence
As an adjective, plane means ’flat and level’ or ’two-dimensional’, as in
a plane surface
practicable and practical
These adjectives overlap in meaning, but certain contexts require one or the other.
These adjectives have overlapping meanings. Both indicate that something can be done.
✵ Practicable means no more than ’can be done’, as in
It is practicable to do the calculation in the traditional way.
Relatedly, impracticable means ’impossible’.
✵ In contrast, practical additionally implies that it is appropriate, useful or sensible:
It is far more practical to use a computer to do the calculation.
Again, relatedly, impractical means ’inadvisable because of having little practical value’.
principle and principal
These words are pronounced the same but their meanings are different.
These homonyms have not only different meanings but also different functions.
✵ Principle is a noun only, meaning ’basic assumption’, ’ethical standard’ and ’way of operating or working’, as in
the principles of a democratic system
a woman of principle
study the principles of the internal-combustion engine
✵ In contrast, principal, as a noun, is often a person, perhaps a ’college administrator’, ’important participant’ or ’lead performer’, or an ’amount of money invested’, as in
be sent to the principal’s office
a principal in an accounting firm
a principal of £500,000.
As an adjective it means ’primary’:
our principal [not principle] reason for an appeal.
prophecy and prophesy
A single letter distinguishes the noun from the verb.
Though spelt almost alike, these words are pronounced differently and have different grammatical functions.
✵ Prophecy, a noun only, means ’prediction’ or ’ability to predict the future’, as in
a dire economic prophecy
✵ Prophesy, a verb, means ’predict’, as in
I would not go so far as to prophesy a recession just yet.
purposely and purposefully
These adverbs with a common root are not used interchangeably.
These adverbs are sometimes confused. Although both imply that someone has a specific purpose in mind, they’re used in different contexts and aren’t interchangeable.
✵ Purposely means ’on purpose’ or ’intentionally’:
I purposely left the door unlocked.
✵ Purposefully means ’in a determined way’ or ’with a particular goal’:
She strode purposefully across the garden.
read and red
These words are entirely different.
✵ The verb read has two pronunciations. In the infinitive or present tense it rhymes with weed, and as the simple past or past participle it rhymes with wed:
I read [not red] the letter aloud.
Have you read [not red] this book?
✵ The adjective or noun red denotes the colour of blood. It sounds the same as read as a past form but is not a variant spelling.
Confusion may arise because the past tense and past participle of the verb lead is led.
rebound and redound
These verbs are unrelated, but have similar contexts for usage.
✵ In its figurative use, rebound is a metaphor based on an object bouncing and returning. A ball that rebounds on the person who threw it affects that person. In a similar way, an action or statement can rebound on its creator, affecting him or her directly and usually in a negative or unwelcome way:
The decision to cut library services rebounded on local officials when they were unable to get the information they required.
Rebound can also be used as a noun.
✵ Redound is a much rarer word and is sometimes used in a similar way to rebound. But in its primary meaning it’s followed by to and means ’have a particular consequence’, with something good or positive as the object (the opposite connotation of rebound):
His efforts redounded to his credit.
Redound cannot be used as a noun.
regrettable and regretful
These related adjectives are applied to different sorts of noun.
✵ Regrettable describes something that is a cause for regret:
These mistakes are regrettable.
The related adverb regrettably similarly refers to a cause of regret:
The exam results are regrettably poor.
✵ Regretful often describes someone who has feelings of regret for something:
They felt regretful at missing the opportunity.
The adverb regretfully follows a similar pattern, referring to feelings of regret:
She regretfully turned down the invitation.
reverend and reverent
These related words have different meanings.
✵ Reverend is an adjective or noun which refers to a member of the clergy. For example,
the Reverend John Wesley
✵ Reverent is an adjective meaning ’feeling or expressing reverence’. For example,
a reverent silence; reverent pilgrims
review and revue
Though they sound alike, these words have different meanings.
✵ Review is a common noun, for example
The novel had both good and bad reviews.
It is also the only acceptable spelling for the verb, meaning ’examine again’ or ’write a critique of’.
✵ The spelling revue is restricted to the noun denoting a form of theatrical entertainment.
sensual and sensuous
These adjectives are related but have different connotations.
Both words are connected with gratification of the senses.
✵ Sensual is the older word. In the 17th century it developed special meanings associated with bodily appetites, for example, eating and especially sexual satisfaction:
Her mouth looked sensual and inviting.
They enjoyed the sensual pleasures of the table.
✵ At about the same time the poet John Milton seems to have invented the word sensuous to refer more specifically to the aesthetic and spiritual senses (for example, seeing and hearing). It was taken up by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 19th century. In current use, the two sets of meanings increasingly overlap, since the senses are not readily compartmentalised. Sensuous remains associated with the physical senses in contradistinction to the intellect. It is the word to use, for example, in connection with music or poetry:
The conductor relished the sensuous parts of Ravel’s score.
should and would
These modal verbs are interchangeable in some instances, but in other contexts they are distinct.
Teasing out the differences between these two MODAL VERBS (see chapter 1, here) is not at all easy.
✵ Broadly, would is more usual than should in CONDITIONAL scenarios (see chapter 2, here) or in expressing desire:
If it were to rain, I would shelter in the cave. [conditional]
They would like to come. [desire]
In British English, there is a lingering distinction made between first person and second or third person uses.
Would [not should] you like to go to the cinema? [second person]
I would [or should] like a cup of tea. [first person]
Would is also required when referring to habitual past action:
On Wednesdays I would go to the library.
✵ Should has the special role of denoting obligation, validity or likelihood:
I should stay until they arrive.
Should you be lifting that?
That should be our visitors now.
As already noted, in British English there are some minor distinctions made on account of person. For example,
Should I open the window? [compare Would you open the window?]
Should must be used in inverted constructions expressing a condition:
Should it rain, the party will be held indoors.
Note that in conversational English, the contracted forms I’d, you’d, etc., are regularly used instead of the full forms of would and should in making simple statements (They’d like to come), but these cannot be used in place of should in its senses of obligation or likelihood.
social and sociable
These related adjectives differ in meaning.
✵ Social is a general classifying adjective. It is a neutral word that classifies a person or thing as being concerned in some way with society or its organisation. For example, a social club is a place provided for people to enjoy themselves, and a social worker is involved in work done for people’s welfare.
✵ Sociable, in contrast, describes a particular quality. It refers to a person’s capacity to deal in social ways with other people, so, for example, a sociable worker is a worker who enjoys the company of colleagues.
stationary and stationery
These adjectives are pronounced the same way but are unrelated in meaning.
The homonyms stationary and stationery are distantly related, but have quite different meanings.
✵ Stationary is an adjective meaning ’not moving’ (normally used of vehicles),
✵ Stationery, on the other hand, is a noun meaning ’paper products used for writing’.
straight and strait
These words are pronounced the same but are unrelated.
Straight and strait, despite some apparent similarities in meaning, are unrelated in origin.
✵ Straight is an adjective meaning ’not bent, curved or crooked’, as in
a straight line
Note that the related word straightened, from the verb straighten, means ’made straight’.
✵ Strait is a noun denoting a narrow body of water or a difficult situation, as in
Strait was formerly used as an adjective meaning ’narrow’, ’confined’ or ’strict’. But these senses survive only in derived or combined forms, for example
straitened; straitjacket; strait-laced
Straitened, meaning ’restricted’ (not to be confused with straightened) is used chiefly in the phrase straitened circumstances.
Note that straitjacket and strait-laced, however, are also spelt straightjacket and straight-laced.
such as and such that
These conjunctive phrases introduce different sorts of clauses or phrases.
✵ Such as and such as, where the space is filled by a noun, are used to introduce an item or items that exemplify the thing already mentioned:
He quotes such illustrious writers as Shakespeare, Milton and Austen.
The curriculum includes readings from illustrious writers such as Shakespeare, Milton and Austen.
The new law affects only such people as are eligible for supplementary benefits.
✵ The construction such that, where a noun fills the space, indicates the consequence of a stated circumstance:
The country faces such hardship that it will need a great deal of foreign aid.
suspicious and suspect
These adjectives overlap slightly in meaning but have particular applications.
These adjectives have overlapping meanings and so are readily confused.
✵ Suspicious, the more frequent and versatile of the two, may describe either a person who suspects, or a person or thing that causes suspicion:
Her behaviour made us suspicious.
There were a couple of suspicious characters lurking by the cash machine.
His behaviour was suspicious.
✵ Suspect is used chiefly of things that cause doubt, suspicion or distrust because they seem likely to be false, illegal or dangerous:
His claims sounded suspect.
The police confiscated a suspect package.
The remains of a suspect tuna sandwich were sent away for analysis.
their, there, and they’re
These three word forms sound alike, and all relate to pronouns.
Even seasoned writers may on occasion be lured into the pitfall of misusing these words.
✵ Their is a pronominal adjective, that is, an adjective derived from a pronoun. It shows possession:
They have made their decision.
✵ There can be an adverb or a pronoun, for example,
Look over there quickly. [adverb]
There are several unanswered questions. [pronoun]
✵ They’re is a contraction of they are:
They’re sitting in the front row.
A similar confusion may arise in relation to theirs and there’s. Theirs is an independent possessive pronoun:
Take your coats but leave theirs on the rail.
There’s is a contraction of there is:
There’s no good reason for you to stay here.
till and until
These words have the same meaning and differ mainly in register.
Both words have the same meaning and function (conjunction and preposition), and are largely interchangeable.
✵ Till (the older form) is more likely to be heard in speech:
Just wait till we get home!
✵ Until is more usual at the beginning of a sentence:
Until last week none of the post-graduate students had arrived back at the university.
tortuous and torturous
These adjectives have a common root but different modern meanings.
Both words come ultimately from Latin torquere, which means ’twist’, but their meanings diverge in English.
✵ A mountain pass is tortuous (’with many turns or bends’). By figurative extension, a legal argument can be tortuous (’complex or intricate’).
✵ Torturous is more immediately derived from torture. This may function as a reminder that a severe illness can be torturous (’causing pain’), as can a decision.
troop and troupe
These related words have similar meanings, but their range is different.
Both these words can be used as nouns denoting a group of people.
✵ Troop can apply generally to any large group or specifically to a military unit.
The verb meaning ’go in a large group’ is spelt troop (not troupe):
We trooped in to school assembly.
✵ Troupe is more limited, applying only to a group of actors, dancers or other entertainers.
unaware and unawares
This pair of words are different parts of speech.
✵ Unaware is usually used as an adjective:
They ran forward, unaware of the danger.
✵ Unawares is an adverb only, used especially in the idiom catch (or take) someone unawares, but also in other ways:
They crept up on us unawares.
wave and waive
These words are pronounced the same, but are unrelated and have different meanings.
These homonyms have distinct meanings and spellings.
✵ The more common, wave, is a noun and verb with various meanings. For example,
radio waves; tidal wave; wave goodbye
✵ To waive is to surrender or refrain from enforcing something:
She waived her right to remain silent.
They decided to waive the restrictions.
The related noun is spelt waiver.
whose and who’s
These word forms sound alike, and have a shared relation to pronouns.
✵ Whose means ’of whom’ or ’of which’ and denotes possession or association:
These are the children whose father [= the father of whom] we saw yesterday.
There was a church whose steeple [= the steeple of which] had been struck by lightning.
Some people feel uncomfortable with the use of whose to mean ’of which’, but it’s established usage, and the alternatives are usually awkward.
✵ Who’s is a contraction of ’who is’ or ’who has’:
She’s the one who’s [= who is] coming to dinner next week.
Who’s [= who has] got my pen?
your and you’re
These word forms sound alike and are related to the same pronoun.
✵ The word your, like their, is a pronominal adjective:
Your e-mail password must be protected.
✵ You’re is a contraction of ’you are’:
You’re protecting your e-mail password, aren’t you?