The English language has a lot of words, and all too often, confusing words. Sometimes, two or more have similar spellings. Sometimes, two or more have similar meanings, but not similar enough to use them interchangeably.
I have a whole series of posts I call misused pears that finds the humor in some of the wrong choices writers make. My intention, here, however, is to provide some explanations for a few pairs of confusing words. I hope you’ll find some clarity here to make your choices with more confidence.
Accept / except
These two words sound the same, but they don’t look the same or mean the same.
“Accept” is a verb. It has various meanings:
- To agree with or receive something as true: The boss accepts my illness as a reason for my absence.
- To receive something willingly: I chose this hotel because it accepts my dog.
- To answer yes: I accept your apology and your invitation to your party.
“Except” is usually a preposition, but it can also be a conjunction or a verb. It points out some kind of separation or distinction.
- Preposition: I’m available any time this week except Thursday afternoon.
- Conjunction comparable to “but”: I like to hike, except that trail is too strenuous.
- Verb meaning exclude: Laura came home early because she was excepted from jury duty.
Among / between
These two prepositions describe either physical or metaphorical location, but differently. You may have heard to use “between” with two things and “among” for three or more. Well, usually. That, however, is not the real distinction.
“Between” portrays its objects as separate and distinct. Kentucky is between Ohio and Tennessee, for example. Or, in an election, we usually choose between two candidates. The first example states a geographical separation. The second states a more metaphorical separation. On the one hand, you could choose the orange party and on the other hand you could choose the purple one.
In this post, I am explaining how to choose between two related words. Mostly. The next entry shows how to choose between three separate and distinct words. That is, choose between assure, ensure, and insure.
A man’s will divides his property between his children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and selected charities. Wow! I just used “between” with five separate and distinct entities. The grammar police probably won’t bother you if you use “among” in that sentence, but “between” is technically correct.
“Among” portrays the notion of being part of a group. The object is very often a plural noun or pronoun, but not always. For example:
- Most of us feel comfortable among likeminded people.
- Sue was the only one among them who hadn’t yet seen the movie.
- After a disaster, rescue workers look for survivors among the wreckage.
Assure / ensure / insure
Sometimes confusion comes in threes.
“Assure” means to say with confidence or make a promise. Usually, we assure another person of something: I assure you that store is open until 11:00.
“Ensure,” on the other hand, means to make certain: Does washing my car ensure that it will rain?
“Insure” almost always has some kind of financial meaning. Insurance is compensation for some event such as an accident, disaster, or death. The verb insure, therefore, refers to buying or selling an insurance policy.
Beside / besides
These two confusing words differ by only one letter.
“Beside” means next to: A lot of people keep their phones beside them all the time. It also occurs in the common idiom “beside the point,” which means irrelevant or unimportant.
Add that final “s” and the meaning becomes “apart from” or “in addition to.” Examples:
- Only one person besides James arrived on time.
- Reading, Writing, Research offers writing tips and much more besides.
Besides, “besides” can be used as an adverb in the sense of moreover or furthermore.
Complement / compliment
Both of these confusing words express something positive and both can be either a noun or a verb.
“Complement” has the sense of enhancing or completing. A woman could be looking for a special necklace to complement her dress for a special occasion. Or, we could say, looking for the necklace as a complement to the dress.
“Compliment” has the sense of praise or admiration. If that woman in the previous paragraph finds just the right necklace, someone would be offering a compliment, or complimenting her, by saying that it looks beautiful.
Disinterested / uninterested
Both of these confusing words mean not having an interest, but “interest” can mean different things. We usually use it to refer to something we enjoy or care about or want to learn more about. On the other hand, it can refer to some advantage or benefit.
In the first sense, if you have no interest in sports, you are uninterested. You do not care about sports or want to be involved in any way.
In the second sense, something that gives you an advantage might be or seem to be in your best interest. Now, if you are asked to serve on a jury, justice demands that mrmbrtd have no interest in the outcome in that sense. You may find the case fascinating in the first sense, but you must be disinterested. That is, you have no personal advantage from one outcome or another.
Emigrate / immigrate
Both of these verbs mean to move from one country to another. “Emigrate” focuses on the country someone leaves. “Immigrate” focuses on the county one goes to with the intention of staying.
The US is a nation of immigrants, meaning that the ancestors of everyone living here moved here from somewhere else, either in recent centuries or millennia ago. Well, if we go back that far, every nation is a nation of immigrants, isn’t it? So let’s concentrate on the last couple of hundred years.
Most people who were born here are descendants of immigrants. Some people are immigrants to the US in the sense of personally moving here. They emigrated from their former home and immigrated here.
On the other hand, some people move from the US somewhere else. They are immigrants in their new home and emigrants from here.
Fewer / less
Use “less” to make a comparison of uncountable nouns: less meat, less money. Use “fewer” to make a comparison of countable nouns: fewer coins, fewer sausages.
But there is one quirk. Use “less than” when using some kind of measurement: less than four weeks, less than $100, less than 20º, less than 100 calories. Except some grammar buffs don’t consider calories to be a measurement and prefer fewer than 100 calories.
We don’t have that same trouble with “more.” We say more vegetables or more carrots. English doesn’t have alternative words in that direction.
More and more people accept less coins, less sausages, etc. instead of fewer. The distinction will likely go away before long. But for now, careful writers observe it in formal prose.
If / whether
Years ago, my landlord sent around a note requesting that I notify him if I intended to renew my lease. I didn’t, so I ignored the message. He was not happy that I didn’t notify him I was not renewing. He should have asked me to notify him whether I intended to renew.
Use “if” to introduce a condition: If it rains, we’ll meet indoors.
Use “whether” otherwise:
- to present alternatives: Let me know whether you want to renew your lease”
- after prepositions: Let’s talk about whether to go to the beach.
- before an infinitive verb, as in the last example
- at the start of a clause that functions as a subject or a complement: Whether you come today or tomorrow doesn’t matter.
In an implied yes or no question, if or whether can be used interchangeably: I don’t know if/whether I’ll attend the meeting. That sentence answers the implied question will I go? It expects a yes or no answer, and I can’t give one. But at least it doesn’t matter which word you choose to say so. “Whether” is more formal.
Moot / mute
These two confusing words have similar pronunciations but very different meanings. Although they can both be other parts of speech, they are mainly adjectives.
“Moot” has two different meanings. Mostly, it means debatable, disputable, or uncertain. A moot point, then, is an undecided issue that people can argue about.
Law students practice trial skills in a moot court, that is, a mock trial with that raises issues similar to what might be encountered in a real case.
More recently, however, “moot” has come to mean irrelevant or impractical. Typically, it might mean that not enough information is available to make a decision. Or it might mean some necessary condition is lacking. People play the lottery with the hope of big winnings. Most of them don’t win anything, making the question of how to spend the money moot.
“Mute,” on the other hand, means speechless or silent. The “k” in “know” is a mute letter. If you hold the hand of someone who is suffering but don’t say anything, you’re offering mute sympathy. The ashes of a burnt house offer mute testimony of a disaster.
“Mute” is less often an adjective than “moot,” however.
- A person who cannot or does not speak is a mute.
- A gadget jammed into the bell of a brass instrument to reduce the sound is a mute (although it also means to change the sound, in the sense of mutate).
- A certain button on the remote mutes the sound coming from a TV. We call it a mute button. Actually, the whole remote is mute in the sense of silent, but that one button performs the action of muting the sound.
In any case, “mute point” is incorrect.
Principal / principle
These two confusing words sound identical but mean something very different.
“Principal” is an adjective that means “main” or “chief.” We might speak of the principal cause of something or the principal point we want to make when writing an article. As a noun, “principal” refers to the head of the staff at a school or the amount of money you might borrow.
If you ever need an adjective, choose “principal,” because “principle” can only be a noun. It means something like a rule or general idea.
- The ideas of human rights or democracy are principles. If two people disagree about standards, they have different principles.
- If we disapprove of someone’s ethics, we might say he has no principles.
- And you may have heard of the Peter principle. Lawrence Peter proposed it centuries after Isaac Newton explained the principles of gravity.
The phrase “in principle” means in theory. Listening to a speech, we might agree in principle but reject some of the details.