Aught vs. Naught

Aught and naught both mean “nothing.” Ought they to be antonyms rather than synonyms? Actually, aught means “something” or “anything”; it’s from the Old English word awiht, meaning “ever a thing.” (The second syllable is cognate with whit, meaning “very small thing,” and wight, meaning “living being,” though the latter is also used sometimes in … Read more

Infuse vs. Suffuse

What’s the difference between infuse and suffuse? To infuse something is to literally or figuratively fill it; the senses include “animate,” “inject,” “inspire,” “introduce,” “permeate,” and “steep.” One that or who infuses is an infuser, the act of infusing is called infusion. Suffusion is a closely related concept, but suffuse means, in addition to “fill,” … Read more

Swath vs. Swatch

A reader sent me this extract, asking if it might provide material for a post topic: Charles Darwin did a fine job of showing why his theory of evolution explained the living world better than any creationist ideas could, and evidence has piled up ever since, but a swatch of the American public remain unconvinced. … Read more

Top 10 Confused English Words [U-Z]

Having come to the end of the alphabet with my series of “words often confused with one another,” I find myself hard-pressed to come up with a final set of ten for the remaining letters, U-Z. I can’t think of any for U or Z, but here are some for V, W, and Y. 1. … Read more

Certainty vs. Certitude

What’s the difference between certainty and certitude? My hunch was that they’re interchangeable, but it turns out that they have a slight but significant difference in connotation—of that I am certain. Certainty and certitude, of course, share a root word: the Latin term certus, meaning “fixed” or “settled.” Certainty originally meant “pledge” or “surety,” then … Read more

Classic vs. Classical

What’s the difference between classic and classical? Both words, befitting their roots in the word class, refer to quality, but the meanings are distinct. Classic and classical, both first attested around the turn of the seventeenth century, derive from the French term classique, a descendant of the Latin word classicus, which (in turn stemming from … Read more

What’s the Difference Between Socialism and Communism?

The terms socialism and communism, and the concepts they are labels for, are often confused. The following post attempts to clarify the distinction. In short, socialism is often the goal, while communism is the result. Those who advocate for socialism, as well as those who discuss it neutrally from a scholarly perspective, see it as … Read more

Top Ten Confused Words [T]

My cumulative list of “words commonly confused” continues with ten that begin with the letter T. The confusion relates to spelling or meaning. 1. taught / taut The word taught is the past tense of the verb to teach. It is also used as an adjective to mean instructed: “Howard Phillips Lovecraft, weird fiction writer … Read more

Educational vs. Educative

A reader asks, Is there any difference between the adjectives educational and educative? I’m beginning to see the latter in contexts where I’d expect the former. My first response to the question was that educative is simply a less familiar word for educational. Both the OED and Merriam-Webster indicate that this is so: OED educational … Read more

Paraphrase vs. Summary

A reader asks for clarification of the difference between a paraphrase and a summary: I was in a large classroom with other teachers when the science teacher told the students to read a 2-page article and then to “paraphrase it [in] three sentences.” What the teacher should have said was to “summarize” the article in … Read more

Definite vs. Definitive

A reader asks, Would you please explain what is the difference between “definite” and “definitive.” Definite is the adjective to use in the sense of clear, certain, unambiguous. For example: Think carefully before choosing 24-bit and 96kHz, unless you have a definite reason for wanting these options.  One sets out into the forest for a definite reason and with … Read more

Top 10 Confused Words in English [S]

My cumulative list of “words commonly confused” continues with ten that begin with the letter S. The confusion relates to spelling or meaning. 1. sight / site Both words function as nouns and verbs. As a noun, sight is a thing seen. Ex. The Pont du Garde is an astounding sight. As a verb, sight … Read more