10 Pairs of Words and Their Useful Distinctions

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Writers should take care when determining which word among two or more synonyms or near synonyms to employ, because the sense of a word can be subtly or significantly different from that of a similar term, as the following examples illustrate.

1. Childish/Childlike
Childish refers to immature behavior characteristic of a child, while childlike pertains to more positive qualities such as innocence and curiosity.

2. Illegible/Unreadable
Something that is difficult to read because the text has been damaged or obscured is illegible or unreadable, but the latter term may alternatively refer to the poor quality of the content.

3. Incomparable/Uncomparable
Incomparable is used as an intensifier to mean that the person, place, or thing so described is so excellent that no other person, place, or thing can compare; uncomparable, meanwhile, means that something about the person, place, or thing prevents it from being compared to someone, someplace, or something else.

4. Inequality/Inequity
Inequality has a quantitative connotation; inequity implies an inequality borne of injustice or unfairness. However, inequality also has this sense in sociological contexts, as in references to gender or racial discrimination.

5. Inexplicable and Unexplainable
These words are nearly identical in meaning, but inexplicable has developed a unique connotation of an illogical or irrational quality, as in references to odd behavior or supernatural phenomena.

6. Invaluable/Valuable
Something valuable has value; something invaluable has value that, because of its quality or intangible importance, cannot be quantified.

7. Lonely/Lonesome
Lonely and lonesome are nearly synonymous, but while lonely simply means “desiring companionship,” lonesome can have a slightly different connotation, one that is more existential or philosophical — although, contradictorily, it is also more colloquial. Lonesome is also sometimes used to refer to a desolate landscape, as in “the lonesome prairie.”

8. Melted/Molten
Something that has melted has, often because of heat, changed from a solid state to a liquid state; something that is molten is presently in a liquid state due to melting. The connotation is of extremely hot liquid, such as steel or lava, and the term also refers figuratively to a glowing quality.

9. Misinformed/Uninformed
Someone who is misinformed has received erroneous information, whereas someone who is uninformed lacks information.

10. Nauseating/Nauseous
Someone or something that is nauseating causes nausea; someone who is nauseated is experiencing nausea. This distinction is often not observed in colloquial writing, but careful writers maintain it.

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13 thoughts on “10 Pairs of Words and Their Useful Distinctions”

  1. Clear. However, I think it would have been better also give us some explanatory sentences for each of them.

  2. You inadvertently missed defining “nauseous” in item 10. “Nauseous” means causing nausea, while “nauseated” means experiencing nausea. “I’m feeling nauseous” is one of the most often-used erroneous expressions.

    I would also submit “uninterested/disinterested.” One who is uninterested is apathetic; while one who is disinterested in unbiased.

    Great post!

  3. A couple of times I’ve had to try to explain to my children the distinction between “tiring” and “tiresome.”

  4. @Julie: I, too, was surprised by the confusion obvious in #10 and I certainly agree with your disinterested/uninterested suggestion. I also propose continual/continuous, compose/comprise, pour/poor/pore, adverse/averse, etc. In fact, all those listed at .

    Abbreviations are also problematic for the poorly educated, inexperienced writer. The most puzzling abbreviation I had to decipher was “ness.” It was supposedly an abbreviation for “necessary.” That’s both imaginative and pathetic, but somewhat understandable: the person responsible also misused “except” for “accept”—she was a GS11 with the Department of the Army! Our tax dollars at work.

  5. To Matt Gaffney: I agree – “ness.” is truly a pathetic appreviation of “necessary”, a word that doesn’t need an abbreviation. Furthermore, whenever novel abbreviations are to be used, they should be explained upon their first appearance, rather than being dumped onto the reader baldly.

    Likewise, for foreigners and for Americans who are not familiar with how our Civil Service works, it needs to be explained that “GS11” is a pay grade (or rank) in our Civil Service. The numbers run from 1 to about 17, though employees with the numbner 15, 16, and 17 are very rare. “GS” means “government service”, and people with this designation are considered to be “permanent” employees of the Federal government. Hence GS11 is an upper-middle-level employee, usually with years and years of experience.

    The other kind of federal employee is a political employee who works for someone like the president, the vice-president, a senator, a member of the House of Representatives, or certain members of the Cabinet. If you have this kind of appointment, then when that person loses his/her job, then so do you. You are back on the market, and you don’t have the kind of job security that a person in the GS categories have.

  6. #8 Melted/Molten: Molten can also refer to objects made in molds from melted materials. “As Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments that forbade worshiping graven images, his brother Aaron was making the molten image of a calf for the people to worship.”

  7. Quoting: Lonesome is also sometimes used to refer to a desolate landscape, as in “the lonesome prairie”.

    Nobody explained “why?”. One explanation is that “the lonesome prairie” is purely an idiomatic phrase, one that is a figure of speech.
    Another explanation is that it is a phrase drawn from the writings of novelists like Willa Cather (1873-1947). Cather was from a family that had lived in eastern Virginia for generations as farmers. Then the soil got worn out, and when Willa was quite young, her father moved his family to a sparsely-populated part of Nebraska where the soil was good. Thus, Willa grew up in isolation with very few neighbors: “the lonesome prairie”. Later on she wrote several novels with the theme of the effects of isolation, especially on the womenfolk of the prairies. See O PIONEERS! and MY ANTONIA for examples. Apparently, she found the men with their responsibilities on the farms to be more resistant.
    Cather went to college at a school that was quite new at the time: the University of Nebraska. Not too many years later in her life, she lived for decades in Pittsburgh and then New York City.

  8. The explanation of the difference between “melted” and “molten” is not clear here – not clear at all.
    Also, some materials melt at extremely cold temperatures, such as solid hydrogen, which melts to liquid hydrogen, solid methane, solid nitrogen, solid oxygen, and solid argon – all of which are “sure-as-hell-cold”.

    By the way, for all such materials, their melting temperatures are the same as their freezing temperatures. As to why takes some knowledge of thermodynamics. As for liquid helium, it wil never freeze under sheer refrigeration, but it takes compression, too. Liquid helium solidifies under a presure of about 28 atmospheres and at a temperature of about four degrees kelvin. ,

  9. I agree #10 needs a bit of clarification. Something nauseous causes nausea or one to be nauseated. So when anyone tells me they are nauseous, I give them a good look, up and down, and tell them, “No, you’re not.” Which, of course, doesn’t help their condition but may distract them for a bit. They don’t usually thank me, though…

  10. Concerning: 6. Invaluable/Valuable

    There is also the word “unvaluable”, and you can look it up in http://www.dictionary.reference.com .
    Naturally, “unvaluable” means “not valuable” or “having a low value”.

    Thus, the two words to contrast are “invaluable” and “unvaluable”.
    “Invaluable” means “so extraordinatily as to be impossible to put a value on”. In other words, “invaluable” and “priceless” are exact synonyms, not just approximate synpnyms.

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