Saying What You Intend

27 distinctions you should make.

Posted Jun 02, 2017

Public Domain Pictures
Source: Public Domain Pictures

This is the fourth installment in a five -part series  It is designed to help professionals take their vocabulary to the highest level likely needed.

"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." Lewis Carroll

We all claim to value clear communication but often don’t use the quite-right word. Perhaps this article will help.

I describe 27 examples of pairs or trios of words that are often thought to be interchangeable but aren't. Of course, these can only be the tip of the lexical iceberg but might heighten our sensitivity to the importance of precise language.

Because this is Psychology Today, I’ve chosen words that helping professionals might use and I’ve used psychologically oriented sentences to illustrate.

repress vs. suppress. Repression implies involuntariness while suppression connotes a voluntary decision. For example, After years of trying to analyze her way out of her fear of death, she decided to try suppressing all thought of it.”

unconscious vs. unaware. “Unconscious” implies that the thought comes from a reservoir of repressed thoughts. In contrast, a person could be unaware of a thought because s/he lacks that information. He was unaware of how severely his personality repelled others.

depression vs. sadness. Sadness tends to be caused by external circumstances and often refers to a temporary state of being. “Depression” describes a more ongoing, more internally caused state of being in which sadness may be only one component, with numbness or indifference being at least as germane. For example, He suffered a lifetime of depression, exacerbated by sad external events that often beset him.

self-centered vs. narcissistic. Self-centered people focus on themselves but are open to others and care, at least in theory, about fairness. Narcissists care less about other people and fairness. A narcissist, she loved the adrenaline rush of cutting-off  other drivers, indifferent to the risk to them.

moral vs. ethical. “Moral” has a religious or punitive connotation, while “ethics” has a secular and positive one. While religious people considered his promiscuity immoral, others considered it ethical as long as the experience was consensual.

stubborn vs. in denial.  A person could be stubborn about an issue and be correct or not. She stubbornly insisted that there are better uses of the time and money than to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. In contrast, “in denial” connotes certitude that the person is wrong. "He was in denial that his grandfather was a hauptsturmfuhrer at Dachau."

manipulate vs. convince. “Manipulate” implies going beyond the facts to convince a person of something, perhaps using a psychological ploy. Using research on the art of influence, the candidate manipulated the electorate to vote for the tax increase.

praise vs. flattery. “Flattery” implies that a praise is exaggerated. Although she thought ill of her boss, she used flattery to diffuse his anger with her.

childish vs. childlike. “Childish” is a pejorative, referring to an adult behaving immaturely. “Childlike” is neutral, connoting innocence or purity. He retained a childlike sense of wonder while avoiding a childish refusal to be realistic.

angry vs. irritable or cantankerous.  Anger refers to a temporary state while. “Irritable” and “cantankerous” refer to a person’s enduring character. “Cantankerous” differs from “irritable” in that “cantankerous” usually refers to a person who is older and expressive of an angry personality. The cantankerous bureaucrat was always fuming about some citizen's request..

neat vs. fastidious or meticulous. “Neat” connotes an appropriate balance between messiness and the excessive neatness of “fastidiousness.” “Meticulous” also has a positive connotation—that extreme care is justified. Her meticulous preparation helped ensure she had an answer for whatever the attorney might throw at her.

clever vs. intelligent. “Intelligent” refers to a person’s ability to learn, abstract, analyze, and synthesize in many contexts. Cleverness implies less gravitas, for example, the ability to come up with interesting one-liners or ingenious approaches to particular problems. The client always could devise a clever escape from the therapist’s probing questions.

intelligence vs. wisdom. Wisdom goes beyond intelligence. It is the ability to consider the larger implications. For example, the wise person will consider a policy in the arc of time and in terms of its justice in the universal rather than the particular. She was wise to realize that the media’s short-term win in drumming the president from office may be dwarfed by its long-term loss in credibility as a fair-minded reporter.

fervent versus fervid.  "Fervid" is an extreme form of fervency, driven by emotion. He had always been a fervent supporter of Hillary Clinton but when Donald Trump got elected, he became fervid.

can vs. may. “Can” connotes capability while “may” connotes doubt as to whether that capability will be used. She can grant the request and, in fact, may.

Lethargy and lassitude vs languor. Lethargy and lassitude are, outside of the medical profession, synonyms. Both refer to unpleasant exhaustion. In contrast, "languor" refers to pleasant tiredness, as in the feeling one may have at the end of a productive workday.

restive vs. restless. “Restive” implies external restraint. She became restive in having to stay yet longer in rehab. Compare that with The audience grew ever more restless waiting for the late keynoter to arrive.

reactionary vs reactive. "Reactionary" means reacting to liberalism by wanting a return to the status quo. The movement to assail white males as having unearned privilege is creating some reactionaries, including some Democrats who have become Republican. "Reactive" means impulsive, a person who reacts to a stimulus prematurely or unusually intensely. So, In a room of ten people, if a loud alarm unexpectedly sounds, the reactive person will secrete more adrenaline than most and so be more likely to jump out of his seat.

expedite vs. facilitate. “Expediting” refers to speed: fast-tracking a project. To facilitate is to ease a project’s accomplishment, which may include speed or other attributes. She facilitated creation of the program by instituting processes that ensured quality as well as speed.

Inane versus fatuous. "Inane" refers to behavior or opinion that’s annoying to most people. “Fatuous” refers to a person who, characterologically, is oblivious to his or her inanity.

integrity vs. probity. Both words mean ethical but probity implies unshakeable integrity. Even when tempted, we can count on the therapist’s probity.

querulous vs. fractious. Both words refer to irritable people but the result of that irritation is more likely to be a complaint if the person is querulous, a more aggressive response if the person is fractious.

beg or implore vs. importune. When someone importunes it’s continual begging or imploring. For example, “The therapist grew tired of the patient’s importuning for a reduced fee.”

abjure vs. abnegate vs. abdicate. "Abjure" means to retract from a view, He abjured the belief in God.  "Abnegate" means to retract from a responsibility. As a political statement, she abnegated all the job’s menial tasks. When a person prematurely leaves high office, the correct word is “abdicate.” After hearing the APA’s position on the issue, he abdicated his position as treasurer.

aver vs. assert. To aver is to state positively. “Assert” goes one step further. It implies there is evidence behind the assertion.

condemn vs contemn: to condemn is to act on your disdain, to contemn is merely to feel disdain.

dowager vs. widow. "Dowager" refers to a widow who lives on her deceased husband’s inheritance.

The Takeaway

These examples remind us that our robust language allows us to say what we really want to say. 

This series' other installments are:

46 Uncommon But Useful Words

The Meaning Behind the Meaning: A short-short story about lexical love.

The Beyond-the-GRE Words Quiz, plus the 325 words on my to-learn list.

41 Useful Words and a Fun Way to Learn Them.

The 2nd edition of The Best of Marty Nemko is available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at