Last year I wrote about some “maddening” word choices that I encountered when I was teaching. No matter how many times I addressed five common mistakes in student essays, I still saw many of the errors repeated. There are so many confusing word choices; I admit that I have to take a few seconds with some of them to rehearse their meanings and use, and some I have to look up to be sure which choice to make. I looked at articles that listed “100 Confusing Word Choices,” but I decided to choose ten that challenge me. It may be just as important to know that these word choices exist as it is to know what the differences are.
Generally, affect is a verb (to influence), but effect (the result of an action) is a noun, “The effect of his mood affected everyone in the room.” As with so many English words, however, affect can sometimes be a noun (as in a psychological description: his affect was of great concern to his therapist.), and effect (to cause to come into being – to effect change) can be a verb.
Both of these words can be either a noun or a verb. Censure as a verb means “criticize” and as a noun means “a judgment involving condemnation” (e.g., The two senators were broadly censured for fist-fighting in the Senate Chambers.) Censor as a verb means “to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable” and as a noun means “a person who examines material for objectionable matter” (e.g., The prisoner’s letter was broadly censored, and, as a result, half the letter was blacked out.).
This pair may be moving closer together in meaning; in fact, one writer calls the difference “nitpicking.” Purists would say that mutual means “directed toward each other” as in “Mutual friends are people who reciprocate friendly feelings toward one another.” Besides meaning “ordinary,” common means “belonging to more than one” (e.g., Anne and Tyler have a friend in common, Shawna.). (Daily Writing Tips)
A compliment is usually welcome praise for something about you or something you did – “I compliment you on your attention to detail.” Complement, on the other hand, is a bringing to complete perfection – “That salad is the perfect complement to your main dish.”
I confess that this pair still confuses me. My first inclination is to use “is comprised of,” but that is incorrect. Comprise means “contain.” It should be in a sentence where the subject of the sentence is the group at large, and the direct object is the parts of the whole. For example, “The timeline (the whole group of years) in my book comprises 50 years (the parts of the whole).” Compose means “to make up,” and the parts of the whole are the subject and the whole group is the direct object. Consider this sentence: “Fifty-seven houses compose our subdivision.” (Quick and Dirty Tips)
Oxford Dictionaries defines discreet as “careful not to attract attention” (e.g., “The Amish dress in a discreet manner.”) Discrete means “separate and distinct” as in “The Bible has two discrete parts: the old and the new testaments.” One mnemonic device that might help in remembering these two is that the two “e’s” in discrete are separate and distinct from each other.
Disinterested means “impartial,” while uninterested means “bored or lacking connection with a subject.” Examples: “The principal acted as a disinterested third party between the teacher and the parent. The teacher seemed uninterested in coming to a resolution of the problem.”
Eminent refers to “someone that stands out or above others; prominent” (e.g., President Trump invited several eminent congress members to a meeting at the White House.) Imminent, on the other hand, means “something about to happen” (e.g., The arrival of the prince was imminent.).
The “far” in farther is a clue that this word deals with a physical distance as in “The trip to Colorado is farther than you think.” Further is more abstract as in “We looked further into which college choice is the best one.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines prescribe as “to lay down a rule/dictate” or “to specify with authority” (e.g., The city organized a prescribed burn in the empty common ground beside our house). Proscribe means “to condemn or forbid as harmful or unlawful; prohibit” as in “State law proscribes the use of marijuana.”
Did some of these examples surprise you, or are there confusing pairs that were new to you? It is enough to recognize that you may be dealing with confusing choices; you can always get a dictionary to define the uses of a word to see if your choice is correct.