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

Here we have another installment of confused word pairs. These are words that, while they look similar, have distinct differences in meaning or usage and are often used improperly. Again, our favorite loan shark, Vinnie “The Squid” Calamari, takes us on a tour of how to use these words correctly.

Affect/effect. As a noun, the word that you almost always wants is effect. The noun affect is only used in psychological jargon. As a verb, affect means to influence, while effect means to bring about or accomplish. Vinnie effected the change in his collection policy, which positively affected the bottom line.

Amid/among. Both refer to being in the middle, but among is used with countable items, while amid is used for mass items that cannot be separated. Amidst and amongst carry the same distinction; these -st forms are more commonly found in British English than in American. If you are amid a sea of bad debt, Vinnie will make sure that you end up among the fishes.

Arbitrator/mediator. These are not the same. An arbitrator passes judgment in a dispute and his or her decision is binding. A mediator is a negotiator who attempts to reach a mutually agreeable solution to the dispute. Tony and Vito came to Vinnie and asked him to arbitrate their dispute, asking him to draw the boundary between their territories. Vinnie tried to mediate the dispute between Tony and Vito, but they would not listen to his suggestions.

Banzai/bonsai. The first is a Japanese war cry. The second is a Japanese gardening style involving very small trees.

Born/borne. These two are especially easy to confuse. Born is only used in the sense of childbirth. His wife had just given birth to their first-born son, so Vinnie let the interest payment slide for a week. Borne, on the other hand, is used for toleration or support. The debt he owed Vinnie was too much to be borne. Borne is also used to denote the action of giving birth. She has borne three children.

Calvary/cavalry. The first is the hill on which Jesus was crucified. It can also be used figuratively to denote an ordeal or great suffering. The second is a type of mounted military unit, on horseback in days gone by, on tanks and helicopters nowadays. Joe was undergoing his own Calvary of sorts at Vinnie’s hands in the alley when the flashing red and blue lights announced that the cavalry had arrived.

Chafe/chaff. To chafe is to make sore by rubbing. To chaff is to tease. Chaff can also be a noun, denoting waste products from threshing grain or other fine particles of debris. The chaffing that Vinnie received from the other capos really chafed him.

Complement/compliment. To complement something is to add to it. Compliment means to praise or to offer something for free. A simple mnemonic for this one is I like to receive compliments. Vinnie complimented Tony on how he used the thumbscrew to complement the body blows.

Contemporary/contemporaneous. Both terms refer to coincidence and temporal similarity, but the usages are slightly different. Contemporary is used in reference to people and contemporaneous to things and events. Vinnie and Tony were contemporaries, becoming made men at the same time. Vinnie refused the bet because the call was contemporaneous with post time. Contemporary also has a sense of modern, pertaining to the current age. Because of this, one should avoid using it in comparison to things past; use modern instead. To say “impressionist and contemporary styles” is confusing. Is one referring to impressionists and their contemporaries, or impressionists and modern artists?

Definite/definitive. To be definite is to be precise, explicit. Definitive means final, authoritative. Vinnie’s orders were definite; under no circumstances was a bookie to alter the odds. Whacking Tony before he entered the witness protection program was a definitive solution to the rat problem.

Disinterested/uninterested. Disinterested is to have no stake in the outcome. Uninterested means not caring about the outcome. Vinnie trusted Vito to set the odds, because Vito was disinterested, never placing a bet for himself. Tony had a lot of money riding on the game, but seemed distracted and uninterested in the outcome.

Flaunt/flout. Flaunt means to show off; flout means to disregard. Tony flaunted his new Cadillac, flouting Vinnie’s instructions not to make any big purchases immediately after the heist.

Forbear/forebear. Forbear is a verb. It means to stop or refrain from. A forebear is an ancestor. Vinnie forbore from hitting Tony, even though Tony had insulted the memory of his forebears.

Hail/hale. Hail is a greeting or a shower of rain or other objects. Hale is an adjective meaning healthy and full of vigor. Hale can also be a verb meaning to compel someone to go. After Vinnie hailed Tony with a hail of bullets, the second gangster could hardly be described as hale and hearty. The sheriff haled Vinnie into court.

Imply/infer. To imply is to suggest. To infer is to deduce. Vinnie implied the man’s family was in danger by showing him photos of his children at play. The man inferred from Vinnie’s stern gaze that he had better pay up soon.

Its/It’s. Its is the possessive form of the pronoun it. It’s is a contraction for it is.

Lead/led. Lead is a soft, gray metal. With a different pronunciation it can also be the present tense of a verb meaning to guide, to command. Led is the past tense of that verb. Vinnie tied lead weights to the man’s hands and feet and then led him onto the boat.

Libel/slander. A libel is a written statement that falsely defames and damages a person. A slander is a spoken statement that does the same. Libel, since it is written and more permanent, is considered more serious than slander. Vinnie sued the paper for libel, claiming he was just a consultant for the waste disposal and cartage industry and not a Mafioso as the paper claimed. Tony slandered Vinnie in the social club, saying that Vinnie didn’t take proper care of his mother.

Luxuriant/luxurious. A profusion of something is luxuriant. Something that is expensive and posh is luxurious. Vinnie’s new girlfriend had luxuriant red hair that complemented the luxurious mink coat that Vinnie had bought her.

Militate/mitigate. To militate is to work against or negate. To mitigate is to lessen in degree, to make something easier to bear. The phrase mitigate against is always wrong; the word here should be militate. Vinnie got his friends at city hall to militate against the police crackdown on illegal gambling. The judge reduced Vinnie’s sentence due to mitigating factors.

Obsolescent/Obsolete. If something is obsolescent, it is on its way to becoming useless and no longer needed. If something is obsolete, it has already got there. Vinnie liked the old bookie and respected his experience, but the man’s paper system of tracking bets was cumbersome and obsolete in this information age. The younger guys preferred nine-millimeters and called Vinnie’s old .45-caliber obsolescent, but Vinnie thought the old gun still got the job done.

Parlay/parley. To parlay is to use one’s winnings or achievements to accomplish a second goal. To parley is to talk or confer or a conference. Vinnie parlayed his winnings from the first race into a considerable sum in the second. Vinnie decided he needed to parley with those reluctant to pay up.

Premier/premiere. The first is a head of government or an adjective meaning of the highest rank. The second is an opening or debut. Vincent Calamari, the premier mobster in the city, attended the premiere of Pagliacci.

Principal/principle. The first means the primary or main. The second is a fundamental tenet or ethical belief. While he might give regular customers a break on the interest rate, as a matter of principle Vinnie never reduced the principal on a loan.

Raise/raze. The first means to lift up, to build. The second means to level to the ground. When writing, the phrase raze to the ground is redundant, although the addition of to the ground in some circumstances might avoid confusion when speaking. Vinnie raised the interest rate. The fire that Vinnie had started razed the sporting goods store. 

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