50 Problem Words and Phrases

By Mark Nichol

Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to conceive written communication. So many pairs or trios of words and phrases stymie us with their resemblance to each other. Here’s a quick guide to alleviate (or is it ameliorate?) your suffering:

1. a while / awhile: “A while” is a noun phrase; awhile is an adverb.

2. all together / altogether: All together now — “We will refrain from using that two-word phrase to end sentences like this one altogether.”

3. amend / emend: To amend is to change; to emend is to correct.

4. amount / number: Amount refers to a mass (“The amount saved is considerable”); number refers to a quantity (“The number of dollars saved is considerable”).

5. between / among: The distinction is not whether you refer to two people or things or to three or more; it’s whether you refer to one thing and another or to a collective or undefined number — “Walk among the trees,” but “Walk between two trees.”

6. biannual / biennial: Biannual means twice a year; biennial means once every two years.

7. bring / take: If it’s coming toward you, it’s being brought. If it’s headed away from you, it’s being taken.

8. compare to / compare with: “Comparing to” implies similarity alone; “compare with” implies contrast as well.

9. compliment / complement: To compliment is to praise; to complement is to complete.

10. comprise, consist of / compose, constitute: Comprise means “include,” so test by replacement — “is included of” is nonsense, and so is “is comprised of.” The whole comprises the parts or consists of the parts, but the parts compose or constitute the whole.

11. connote / denote: To connote is to convey (“Air quotes connote skepticism or irony”); to denote is to specify (“A stop sign denotes the requirement to halt”).

12. continual / continuous: Continual events are frequently repeated, or intermittent. Continuous events are uninterrupted, or constant.

13. credible / credulous: To be credible is to be authoritative; to be credulous is to be gullible.

14. deserts / desserts: If you eat only cake, pie, ice cream, and the like, you eat just desserts. If you have it coming to you, you get your just deserts as well. (However, the connotation is negative, so hit the gym.)

15. different from / different than: The former phrase is preferred in formal writing; but “differently than” is always correct usage.

16. discreet / discrete: Discreet means “subtle”; discrete means “separate.” (“He discreetly reminded them of their discrete meanings.”)

17. each other / one another: “One another” is preferred in formal writing when more than two of something are being discussed.

18. economic / economical: Economic refers to the science of economics; economical suggests frugality.

19. elemental/elementary: What’s elemental is essential or integral to nature; what’s elementary is basic.

20. ensure / insure / assure: To ensure is to guarantee, to insure is to indemnify, and to assure is to comfort or convince.

21. epidemic / endemic / pandemic: An epidemic is the outbreak of disease in a limited place and time; an endemic disease is a recurring one peculiar to a place or population; a pandemic is pervasive over a wide geographical area.

22. forgo / forego: To forgo is to go without; to forego is to go before (and is generally used only in the forms foregoing and foregone, which are themselves rare).

23. gibe / jibe / jive: To gibe (soft g, as in gym) is to taunt or insult (though jibe is an alternate spelling), to jibe with is to coincide or fit, to jive is to deceive.

24. historic / historical: Something historic is remarkable for its impact on history; something historical is simply an event in history.

25. home in / hone in: To home in is to close in; to hone in is to confuse one word for another. (“Hone in” has no meaning.)

26. jealousy / envy: Jealousy is resentment; envy is covetousness.

27. lay / lie: Lay is transitive, associated with a direct object — “Lay that pencil down.” “Yesterday, I laid that pencil down.” “That pencil has been laid down.” Lie is intransitive, not so associated — “Lie down.” “Last night, I lay down.” “It was my plan to have lain down already.

28. leach / leech: To leach is to dissolve by percolation; to leech is to remove blood with a leech or to exhaust; as a noun, it means a parasitic worm or the human figurative equivalent, or the edge of a sail (also spelled leach).

29. libel / slander: Libel is written defamation; slander is the spoken equivalent.

30. may / might: May refers to factual or possible; might is appropriate for the hypothetical or counterfactual.

31. nauseous / nauseated: To be nauseous is to cause sickness. To be nauseated is to feel sick.

32. notable / noticeable / noteworthy: Something notable is worthy of note. Something noticeable is capable of being noticed. Noteworthy is a synonym of notable, though the former implies the unusual and the latter the commendable.

33. partly / partially: Partly means “in part”; partially means “incomplete” or, rarely, is an antonym for unfairly.

34. peak / pique: To peak is to reach the pinnacle; to pique is to arouse interest or to bother.

35. people / persons: People has assumed primacy; persons is reserved mostly as a synonym for bodies (“those belongings carried on their persons”).

36. persuade / convince: To persuade someone is to motivate them to do something; to convince someone is to lead them to understand or believe.

37. predominantly / predominately: Both forms are correct, but predominantly predominates.

38. purposely / purposefully: What’s done purposely is done on purpose; what’s done purposefully is done with a purpose.

39. regrettably / regretfully: Regrettably is a synonym for unfortunately; regretfully means just that — full of regret.

40. repetitive / repetitious: Both terms have acquired a negative connotation, but the former retains a more neutral meaning.

41. sensual / sensuous: Sensual has an erotic connotation; sensuous refers more neutrally to what is pleasurable to the senses.

42. since / because: Informally, these terms are interchangeable, but in formal writing, since should be used only to refer to time.

43. stationary / stationery: To be stationary is to stand still; stationery refers to letter-writing materials.

44. that / which: That is used restrictively (“The pencil that is sharp” — among more than one pencil, the one with that characteristic); which is employed nonrestrictively (“The pencil, which is sharp” — one pencil alone, possessing that characteristic). The distinction is rarely observed other than in American English.

45. tortuous / torturous: A tortuous experience is a winding one; a torturous one is painful.

46. transcript / transcription: A transcript is a thing; a transcription is the process of creating it.

47. verbal / oral: Verbal refers to both written and spoken communication, but oral is useful for distinguishing the latter from the former.

48. while / although / whereas: Informally, while is a synonym for the other two terms, but in formal writing it should be reserved for temporal connotations.

49. wreak / wreck: These terms do not share etymological origin; you wreck a party, but you do so by wreaking havoc.

50. whether / if: Both words are correct in expressing a choice, but the former is more appropriate in formal writing (“I can’t decide whether to go”), whereas the latter is better reserved for reference to possibility or probability (“I’ll go if you do”).

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102 Responses to “50 Problem Words and Phrases”

  • Paul

    Another one to consider for the next fifty:

    alternately / alternatively

    One is taken in turn, the other is a separate proposed option.

  • Deborah K. Mitchell

    Great tips for teachers and parents too! Will use them in my class. Thank you!

  • Xoandre

    Hysterical / Hilarious:

    Being Hysterical is someone who is emotionally uncontrollable and / or panicking physically. Chicken Little was hysterical when he ran around yelling “The sky is falling!”

    Being Hilarious is funny beyond humorous. Robin Williams live on stage (or pretty much any time he is turned “on”) can be hilarious to the point no one in their right mind is not weeping with hilarity.

    One can be both hysterical and hilarious, but the words are NOT interchangeable, despite common misuse by the general public and the media.

  • venqax

    Tom: I can symphatize. I work at a university and I found that their commencement programs had referred to the Grand *Marshall* of the ceremony for at least 15 years. I pointed this out to the head of the English Dept, and he didn’t even see the problem. I was the one gravely disappointed!

  • Marie

    This is really helpful! I am a trancriptionist and run into affect vs effect often. This is the most complete list I have seen like this. Thanks for putting it together!!!

  • Tom

    After I had just started with an engineering firm I found “gravely” instead of “gravelly” on one of their report figures to describe soil with gravel. It had been used for at least 10 years and hundreds of reports.

    I brought it to the attention to the senior engineer, who minored in English. He was “gravely” disappointed.

  • venqax

    Eldergee, that would be always and never, respectively.

  • Mark Nichol

    Eldergee:

    I have no idea; I speak and write American English and had never heard of this word until I saw it in your comment. According to Merriam-Webster Online, it’s a direct synonym of timely used primarily in Scotland and South Africa; perhaps a site visitor from one of those countries can enlighten you about any nuance.

  • Eldergee

    When does one use ‘timely’ and when is it appropriate to use ‘timeously’?

  • venqax

    Shannon: And don’t forget *iffect*– what would possibly happen if something affected something else, and *offect*– what happens when the affect is effectively to knock off something that was, theretofore, on.

  • venqax

    The *add* for subscribing to the site? You can have an ad- vertisement for your site…o you can have something that is an add-ition of some kind for your site, I suppose. Or maybe add itself is a noun we aren’t aware of…:)

  • LaVonn

    You didn’t discuss the difference between more than (opposite of fewer!) and over (a location) Not only didn’t you discuss it – you have the misuse of “over” on your page in the add for subscribing to your site. You can have more than 50,000 people subscribe to your site … or you can hover over a football stadium filled with more than 50,000 people.

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