15 Frequently Confused Pairs of Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

Some of these similar-looking words do have, among various meanings, the same sense, but their primary definitions are quite different. Know these distinctions:

1. ambiguous/ambivalent: To be ambiguous is be able to be understood in more than one way (or, less commonly, of uncertain identity); to be ambivalent is to express uncertainty or contradictory opinions. (The latter term is also distinct from indifferent, which implies a lack of opinion or concern.)

2. alternate/alternative: To be alternate is to occur by turns or in a pattern that skips from one side to the other, or to provide another possibility; to be alternative is to offer a choice, or to be a variation from a norm.

3. abstruse/obtuse: Something abstruse is, because of complexity, something not easily comprehended; something obtuse is unclear because or careless or imprecise information. (Obtuse also describes someone who is dull or insensitive, or an object that is blunt or round, and alternatively refers to an angle greater than 90 degrees.)

4. arrant/errant: Arrant means “immoderate” or “extreme”; errant means “traveling” or “being aimless, or “straying” or “misbehaving.”

5. celibate/chaste: A celibate person is one who abstains from sex or marriage; chaste is a synonym but can also mean “modest” or even “spotless” or “austere.”

6. climatic/climactic: Climatic refers to climate; climactic applies to a climax.

7. concerted/concentrated: Something concerted has been conducted in a coordinated manner; concentrated means “focused” in the sense of organizing toward a common goal.

8. desirable/desirous: Something desirable is attractive or advantageous; desirous refers to being driven by desire.

9. disinterested/uninterested: Both terms can mean “apathetic,” but disinterested also has the sense of “neutral.”

10. drastic/dramatic: Drastic means “extreme”; dramatic refers to something suggestive of drama, or emphatic.

11. exceptional/exceptionable: Something exceptional is superior, or rare (it is also employed to refer to those with mental or physical abilities); something exceptionable is offensive or undesirable — people take exception to it.

12. extended/extensive: Extended means “lengthened” (though it is also sometimes used as a synonym for extensive); extensive means “to a great degree” or “of a great magnitude.”

13. forceful/forcible: To be forceful is to be strong or persuasive; something forcible is accomplished by using force (though it can mean “powerful,” too). Forced, meanwhile, refers to involuntary action or something done only with effort.

14. ironic/sarcastic: An ironic statement is one meant to be understood as meaning something other than its literal meaning indicates; a sarcastic statement can be ironic, but the word sarcastic generally refers to something said facetiously to express ridicule.

15. luxurious/luxuriant: Something luxurious is resplendent in luxury; something luxuriant is fertile and lush, though the word may also be used as a synonym for luxurious.

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12 Responses to “15 Frequently Confused Pairs of Adjectives”

  • Michael

    Useful list. I also recently saw ‘credulous’ used in place of ‘credible’.

  • jake

    I had always thought that disinterested in the sense of ‘apathetic’ was incorrect. Is this a new sense of the word?

  • Jane

    A marriage can also be chaste: if neither spouse had premarital sex, and both are faithful, then their sexual relationship is considered chaste (for religious purposes)

  • Richard – Accessibleweb

    disinterested doesn’t mean apathetic, it only means impartial, unbiased, objective etc. A judge may show an interest in testimony but must always be disinterested.

  • Lise

    Great list. The other pair I see people mix up is illegible/eligible. I explain the difference in this way:

    “This town’s only eligible bachelor scribbles such illegible prescriptions for his patients. I’m sure that if a Messy Writers’ Walk of Fame existed here, then he’d be eligible for a star on it.”

  • Paul M

    You’re very brave Mark, lets hope this doesn’t spark another explosive debate over irony and sarcasm.

  • shirley in berkeley

    Disinterested does not mean apathetic, although it is frequently misused that way. (Fingernails on a blackboard response from me and all who sail with me.) A disinterested reviewer might be uninterested in the subject of an article, but still manage to give it a fair reading.

    “An ironic statement is one meant to be understood as meaning something other than its literal meaning indicates . . . . ” While “Oh, yes, I really wanted to fall down those stairs!” might qualify, this is a very limited use of “ironic.” Situations are more often ironic than statements. Remember the old Alfred Hitchcock story about the man who longs for undisturbed time to read, but when a catastrophe leaves him the last man on earth, alone in a library, he accidentally drops his glasses and breaks them? Ironic.

  • Mark Nichol

    Those of you who questioned my reference to the sense of “apathetic” for disinterested should read this usage note.

    Then continue helping enrich the language by making a distinction, using only the sense of “impartial,” and retaining uninterested for the “apathetic” sense.

  • shirley in berkeley

    Mark —
    I read the Miriam Webster entry; point understood. I do value subtle distinctions in language and try to honor them when I know them (which, obviously, isn’t always). A difference between uninterested and disinterested is worth observing (as I think you agree).

  • shirley in berkeley

    Ooops! I first wrote Mirriam Webster, got a spelling flag, and changed it to one r. Rats.

  • Joseph

    I’ve checked the “Arrant” definition in the dictionary but it doesn’t say the same as what is defined here.

    Can I check what was the basis for Arrant to be defined as “immoderate” or “extreme”?

    Arrant as per the dictionary means “complete”, “utter” or “notorious”.

  • Mark Nichol

    Joseph:

    See this definition.

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