Prescriptivist’s Corner: Confusing Word Pairs (Part I)

English has many pairs of words that are spelled almost identically or have meanings that are almost, but not quite synonymous. These words are often confused and writers frequently use one when they mean to use the other.

So here, with the help of our favorite loan shark, Vinnie “The Squid” Calamari, we present some of these word pairs and examples of how to use them correctly.

Adverse/averse. The first means negative or hostile (cf. adversary) and is usually used to describe things, not people; the second means disinclined or reluctant and since it denotes feeling or opinion can only be applied to people. If you are risk averse, then the potential adverse consequences of not paying a loan back to Vinnie are enough to dissuade you from taking his money in the first place.

Ambiguous/equivocal. They both mean vague or capable of multiple meanings and interpretations, but ambiguous connotes no information about intent. An ambiguous statement can be accidental or intentional, while equivocal connotes that the statement is intended to be vague. Because of his bad handwriting, Vinnie’s message was ambiguous. Vinnie’s statement to the grand jury was equivocal.

Amoral/immoral. Amoral is used to mean without regard for ethics or outside the sphere of morality, while immoral is used to denote evil or depravity, the polar opposite of moral. Because his customers were all adults who willingly took his money knowing the consequences of failing to repay, Vinnie considered his business to be amoral, but he thought those who hurt innocent children were immoral.

Auger/augur. An auger is a drill. Augur is a verb meaning to predict or a noun for one who predicts the future. Things do not augur well if you see Vinnie approaching with an auger in his hand.

Blatant/flagrant. The first is used to denote something that is obvious or glaring. The second denotes something that is reprehensible and shocking. Telling Vinnie that you will have the money next week is a blatant lie. Taking the money out of your children’s college fund to repay Vinnie is a flagrant act.

Breach/breech. A breach is a gap, hole, or break, while breech refers to the rear or lower portion of something. Henry V charged once more into the breach. A breech birth is a baby delivered feet first. Vinnie owed him a few swift kicks in the breeches for breaching the loan agreement.

Capital/capitol. A capitol is a building where a legislature gathers. Capital is used for all other senses. Vinnie made his first loan on the steps of the capitol in Trenton, the capital of New Jersey.

Climactic/climatic. The high point in a play or movie is climactic. A change in the weather patterns is climatic.

Compose/Comprise. These are opposites. Compose means to make up, to constitute. Comprise means to contain. The Five Families compose the New York Mob. The New York Mob comprises the Five Families. The phrase comprised of is always incorrect.

Continual/continuous. Continual means frequently recurring, intermittent. Continuous is uninterrupted, without let up. Vinnie stayed at the phones taking Superbowl bets continually for a week. Vinnie stayed at the phones taking Superbowl bets continuously until he had to go the bathroom.

Discreet/discrete. These are very often confused. Discreet means to be cautious, to do something without fanfare or publicity. Discrete means separate or distinct. Vinnie kept his loan sharking and bookmaking businesses discrete from one another. With all the cops and judges on the payroll, Vinnie did not need to be discreet, but he still was.

Flack/flak. A flack is a public relations executive. To flack is to engage in public relations. Flak is anti-aircraft fire, either real or figurative. Vinnie liked to be discreet, so Tony came in for a lot of flak when he started to flack the loan business.

Flounder/founder. Both are metaphorically used to mean failure, but the literal meanings, and the images they evoke, are different. Flounder means to flail about, like a fish out of water. Founder means to sink. Tony floundered about the track, losing bet after bet, as he foundered in a sea of debt.

Gantlet/gauntlet. A gantlet is a form of punishment where the victim runs down a line of people who beat him with blunt objects. A gauntlet is a glove. Many people ignore the difference and use gauntlet for both. But there are still some who make the distinction, so be careful when writing or saying running the gauntlet lest someone who still makes the distinction thinks less of you. Tony threw down the gauntlet, challenging Vinnie by refusing to pay back the loan. So, Vinnie made him run the gantlet.

Historic/historical. Something historic is famous or notable. Something historical pertains to the study of the past. Vinnie consulted the historical ledgers to see if this Superbowl’s take was historic in proportions.

Impracticable/Impractical. Doing something impractical is more trouble than it is worth. Something impracticable cannot be done at all. Vinnie quit the numbers business when he realized competing with the state lottery was impractical. Vinnie does not like to injure customers too badly because it is impracticable to collect from a seriously injured man.

Jerry-built/jury rigged. Something that is jerry-built is poorly made. Something that is jury-rigged is hastily repaired or made to work from ad hoc materials. Jerry-built is shoddy construction. Jury-rigged is an emergency and temporary measure. The jerry-built blackjack that Vinnie had bought on the cheap came apart on the first head he cracked. Vinnie jury-rigged a blackjack with two rolls of quarters and an old sock.

Lectern/podium. A lectern is a stand on which a speaker places his or her notes. A podium is a raised platform on which stand the speaker and the lectern.

Loath/loathe. If one is loath to do something, one does not want to. If one loathes something, then one does not like it. Loath is an adjective, to loathe a verb. Vinnie was loath to take bets on hockey, a sport he loathed.

Mantel/Mantle. A mantel is a shelf or structure above or around a fireplace. A mantle is cloak or robe and is frequently used metaphorically to mean a quality that is inherited or bestowed. Mantle is also a geologic term for the regolith or interior of a planet. Vinnie placed the Smith and Wesson on the mantel. Vinnie assumed the mantle of leadership when the old don died.

Naval/navel. Naval pertains to the navy, navel to the belly. The naval officer was slow to pay up, so Vinnie hit him in the navel to speed him along.

Oral/verbal. Oral refers to something that is spoken. Verbal refers to something expressed in words, either spoken or written. Vinnie preferred to give oral instructions, leaving no paper trail. The man ignored Vinnie’s verbal warnings; now it was time for Vinnie to demonstrate that he expected to be paid back.

Pail/pale. A pail is a bucket. Pale means ashen or lacking color. The man became pale when he realized what Vinnie was going to use pail for.

Presumptive/presumptuous. The first means expected. The second means to be impudent or bold. Vinnie is the presumptive heir to the don. To ask Vinnie for a decrease in the interest rate would be presumptuous.

Rack/wrack. Wrack is an archaic verb meaning to ruin or destroy. It is also a noun meaning the remnants after destruction. It is almost never used anymore except in the idiomatic phrase wrack and ruin. Rack is a verb meaning to put under strain, to torture. Vinnie had to rack his brain to think of a reason why he should not bring wrack and ruin upon the recalcitrant client.

Servicing/serving. To service means to install and maintain. To serve means to perform a useful task for someone. These are frequently confused in business writing. You often see servicing the customer when it should be serving the customer. Vinnie’s loan business served the entire tri-state area. Vinnie’s regular customers knew they had best keep up servicing their loans.

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