Susan K Perry Ph.D.

Creating in Flow

Do You Misuse These 7 Tricky Word Pairs?

Writing good clear English need not be torture.

Posted Dec 01, 2018

Matthew Trow/FreeImages
Source: Matthew Trow/FreeImages

I love words and value their appropriate usage a lot. You may very well agree. Then why do so many people have such a hard time with good usage, often saying and writing in ways that make language-lovers blink in dismay?

If you've ever been blinked at like that, check out the recent helpful book called That Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means: The 150 Most Commonly Misused Words and Their Tangled Histories by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras. Here are a few examples from the book.


* assure / ensure / insure: Ensure means to make certain (a law can ensure that...). Assure means to reassure (assure someone of something), and insure (as when you're talking about an insurance policy). The authors add this handy sentence as a reminder for all three words: "I assure you I will ensure that I insure my house."

* bimonthly / biweekly: As these bi-words can be used to mean either twice a month (or week) or once every two months (or weeks), the authors suggest using semi- to describe something that occurs twice in a given period, or for most clarity, simply say "twice a month," etc.  

* farther / further: Stylebooks prefer "farther" when referring to physical distance, and "further" if you're writing about figurative distance. A handy hint the authors provide is that the word "farther" has the word "far" in it, thus a physical distance. And though it doesn't matter much these days (or in centuries past, or in other English-speaking nations) which word you use to indicate "couldn't be further from the truth," "farther" is still the preferred American English usage for actual distance.

* loath / loathe: Did you know there were two spellings and two meanings for the word pronounced "loath/loathe"? "I am loath to let a strange dog lick my face" versus "I loathe all members of that political party."

* nauseous / nauseated: An editor once caught me using nauseous incorrectly in a book manuscript. I thought she was being picky, but she was correct. "I feel nauseated when I read the morning newspaper with its many tales of greed and mean behavior." Save the word "nauseous" for something causing you to feel "nauseated."

* stanch / staunch: Less commonly used these days, the word "stanch" means "to stop the flow of." "Staunch" has an entirely unrelated meaning of "loyal, steadfast." Still, write the authors, the spelling with that "u" has come to mean the same as the spelling without the "u." Some of us will try to hold the fort on that change. Wish us luck.

* tortuous / torturous: Is reading paragraphs like these a torturous task for you?  "Tortuous," on the other hand, means twisting and turning, so save it as an adjective for roads or other objects that are twisty.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel