Top 10 Confused Words in English [E-F]

By Maeve Maddox

The words in the following list represent misunderstanding of the words’ meanings and not simply an inability to spell them correctly. This post covers words starting with the letters e and f (the a-b list is here, and the c-d one here).

1. economic / economical
Both adjectives are related, but have distinct meanings. Economic refers to economics or the economy: “Reagan’s economic policies came to be known as ‘Reaganomics.’ ”

Economical means, “giving good value in relation to the resources used”: “Buying in bulk is an economical way to shop.”

2. ensure / insure
To ensure is to guarantee: “The librarian held his passport to ensure that he would return the book before leaving.”

To insure is to enter into an agreement to assure against future loss: “The Joneses decided to insure their house against flood as well as fire.”

3. envelop / envelope
The word without the final e is a verb meaning “to surround”: “Come, let me envelop you in my arms.” The word with the final e is a noun, meaning “container for a letter”: “She placed the letter in the envelope and sealed it with a kiss.”

The verb is pronounced with stress on the second syllable. For the noun, the stress falls on the first syllable. As for the pronunciation of the noun’s first syllable, both EN and ON are heard. For an extended commentary on the pronunciation of envelope, see The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Elster.

4. famous / infamous
Many bloggers seem to be unaware that these two words are not interchangeable. Not only have I seen people like Hitler and Al Capone referred to as “famous,” I’ve recently seen infamous used in reference to people who, as far as I know, are not noted for doing bad things. Both adjectives mean “well known,” but famous means well known for admirable qualities, whereas infamous implies despicable behavior. Princess Diana is famous for her work in ridding the world of landmines. The gangster John Dillinger was an infamous bank robber.

5. farther / further
A great deal of ink, real and virtual, is spilled insisting that further must never be used in reference to physical distance. According to this argument, we may say, “I walked farther than you,” but not, “I walked further than you.” This is one of those prissy distinctions that has found its way into stylebooks, but is belied by centuries of usage. Either farther or further is acceptable in the context of physical distance. However, as Paul Brians (Common Errors in English Usage) puts it, “Some people get really testy about this.”

Further, on the other hand, is the preferred form in abstract and figurative senses:

“This office will be closed until further notice.” Further is the only choice as a verb: “Mr. Smith’s generous donation will enable us to further our plans for expanding the homeless shelter.”

6. flaunt / flout
“To flout” is to express contempt for something. If you’re showing something off, you’re flaunting it. If you’re disregarding a law, a rule, or a social convention, you’re flouting it. For example: “I unfriended Charlie because he was constantly flouting civil behavior with his vulgar language.” “She is unbelievably wealthy, but she doesn’t flaunt it.”

7. flounder / founder
Used as verbs, these two words are often confused.
Literally, to flounder means “to struggle”: “The cat floundered desperately in the water.”

Literally, founder may be used in any of the following senses:

[of a building] to fall down
[of a horse] to fall helplessly to the ground
[of a ship] to fill with water and sink

Figuratively, flounder retains the meaning of “to struggle” with the added connotations of ineptness, confusion, or embarrassment: “He floundered for a bit, trying to figure out how to rephrase the question.”

Figuratively, founder means “to fail”: “Even with that money, there’s no guarantee the daycare wouldn’t founder later.”

8. forbear / forebear
The first, forbear, is a verb meaning “to refrain from”: “Prince Charles will forbear from making political pronouncements when he becomes king, The Observer reported yesterday.” The second, forebear, is a noun meaning ancestor: “The British must rediscover the boldness and ambition of their Victorian forebears, say the politicians.”

9. forward / foreword
The confusion between these words is understandable. The adjective forward describes something that is in front of or ahead of something else. The noun foreword is a preface, a brief essay that stands at the front of a book. An easy way to keep them straight is to pay attention to the word in foreword. A foreword is made up of words.

10. fortuitous / fortunate
Both words derive from Latin fortuna, “luck or chance.” Fortuna could be either good or bad; it was what happened to a person. In modern English, fortunate has the connotation of good fortune only: “It was fortunate for him that someone heard his cries for help.”

Fortuitous, on the other hand, retains the notion of happenstance or accident. “A fortuitous meeting” is an accidental meeting. However, because of the similarity of fortuitous to fortunate, the expression “a fortuitous meeting” is most commonly understood to mean a meeting that was lucky as well as coincidental.

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9 Responses to “Top 10 Confused Words in English [E-F]”

  • opsimath

    Hello, Ms Maddox, and thank you for this fascinating blog. I don’t have anything particular to say regarding today’s post but it is a delight to see proper and sensible English usage discussed so clearly in your daily posts.

  • Rachel Cooper

    Excellent list – thank you. By the way, no. 7 should be corrected to “flounder.” (A finger slipped from the keyboard.)

  • Jim hertsch

    Nice, but I disagree about famous and infamous. Famous at its simplest means “widely known.” Hitler and Al Capone were at least once widely known so they are famous. They also are infamous because they are famous in a bad way.

  • Doc Adams

    “flounde”(sic)?

  • Bill

    What many American style guides don’t say but the surprisingly good Yahoo! Style Guide does is that “in British English, it’s acceptable for both farther and further to refer to distance.” The example it gives of typical American usage is: “He understood that to further his career in football, he’d have to throw the ball farther and faster.”
    Mr. Hertsch, though “famous” may just mean “widely known,” it’s taken on a positive meaning—you often hear lucky people described as having “great wealth and fame”—and I doubt you’d want to publicly describe Hitler as famous without elaborating.

  • Kathleen

    I’m puzzled by today’s headline:
    Top 10 Confused Words in English
    Doesn’t this imply that the words are confused rather than the people who use them?

  • Jean Kearsley

    The first word in the title line of #7 needs correction to “flounder.”

  • L. Keep pace

    Don’t flounder the spelling of flounder.

  • Gorick Teng

    But what about avenge and revenge? Although I’ve referred to some synoynym dictionaries, I’m still confused with these two words…

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