Rifle vs. Riffle

A reader has a question about the verbs rifle and riffle in relation to papers: One word I so often see misspelled in books is riffle. Authors will say, “He rifled through the papers in the file.” More often than not, they do not use riffled. I even see it in bestsellers. Actually, papers may be … Read more

Top Ten Words Confused Words [Q-R]

My cumulative list of “words commonly confused” continues with ten that begin with the letters Q and R. The confusion relates to spelling or meaning. 1. quote / quotation Traditionally, quote is a verb and quotation is a noun: May I quote you on that? (verb) I used a quotation from Dr. Johnson as an … Read more

Drama vs. Melodrama

A reader asks, What is the difference between “dramatic” and “melodramatic” in common usage, such as “Don’t be so dramatic” or “Don’t be so melodramatic”? In common usage, both words are used interchangeably to mean something like “don’t make such a fuss.” A similar negative use of the noun drama is seen in the expression … Read more

Whence and Thence

A reader has a question about these two words: Could you please shed some light on the usage of ‘whence and thence’ in a sentence? I read these words many times but want to learn their exact usage in sentence. The words date from the early thirteenth century. In their original spellings, they were inflected … Read more

Top 10 Words Confused in English [N-P]

My cumulative list of words commonly confused continues with ten that begin with the letters N and P. The confusion relates to spelling or meaning. 1. nutritional / nutritious The adjective nutritional means, “related to the process of nutrition,” that is, using food to support life. Ex. The nutritional value of one egg is the equivalent … Read more

Trustworthy vs. Trustable

Hearing the word trustable used twice on National Public Radio (NPR) in what seemed to be a serious context, I decided to explore the usage. Although the form trustable can be documented—the OED cites examples dated 1606, 1884, and 1900—it’s a rarity in modern usage. Both, trustable and untrustable make a slight showing on the … Read more

Quest and Pursuit

A reader asks,   What’s the difference between ‘Quest’ and ‘Pursuit’?  Under which situation their usage should be preferred. Please offer some examples.    On one level, the words are synonyms:   The congressman himself has been fascinatingly silent in pursuit of the nomination.   He had resigned his ambassadorship to return home in quest of the nomination. … Read more

Effective, Efficient, Effectual, and Efficacious

My recent post on cost-effective and cost-efficient garnered a couple of emails from readers who suggested that I might not be aware that effective and efficient have different meanings. Despite the difference between the words effective and efficient when used alone, once the word cost is added to them to produce cost-effective and cost-efficient, the … Read more

Population vs Populace

Lately I have begun to notice speakers and writers using the word populace where I would expect to see the word population. For example: With a young and skilled workforce – 65% of Turkey’s 74 million populace is under the age of 34 – producing 500,000 graduates a year, Turkey is now classified as a … Read more

Jail vs. Prison

A reader asks, Can the words jail and prison be used interchangeably? In colloquial usage, the words jail and prison are often used interchangeably in reference to any place where people are locked up for a legal offense. Jail is the usual choice when speaking of imprisonment in the abstract. For example: A man like that … Read more

Minimize vs. Reduce

A reader feels there’s a difference between the words minimize and reduce: Writers often use “minimize” to mean “reduce.” To minimize something is to reduce it to the smallest amount or degree. To “reduce” something is simply to make it smaller. He offers two examples of perceived misuse of the word minimize and draws a … Read more

Metre, Meter, and Mete

Numerous readers wrote to correct me regarding the following entry in my post about commonly confused words that begin with M: 5. meter / metre Both words are nouns. A meter is a measuring device, like a gas meter. Metre is a metric unit or a type of rhythm in verse. American speakers wrote to point out that the … Read more