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Five Commonly Confused Words in English

Using the wrong one can be jarring for the reader

By Joe YoungPublished 5 months ago 5 min read
Small change, big difference

The English language is awash with words that are erroneously, but in some cases widely, considered to be interchangeable. This is often not the case, and a misused word can jar on the eye of the reader, particularly on a platform where many of those readers are writers themselves. Here are five pairs of words that are often used incorrectly.

Uninterested and Disinterested

I’ll get this one out of the way first, because I was guilty of misuse myself for a while. I’d always used the word uninterested, but then disinterested crept in and began to take over. When I checked the dictionary, I learned that the two words are not interchangeable.

Uninterested means not having an interest in something.

Disinterested means unbiased, and not having a preference for one over another. Check out the difference in these examples.

I don’t know why they dragged me along to the game. I’m completely uninterested in football (I have no interest).

They chose me to referee the game, because I was the only disinterested party they could find (I have no bias).

This misuse is so prevalent, it may come to pass that disinterested eventually becomes synonymous with uninterested. After all, in my youth things that were available free, are now available for free. Language is constantly changing.

Sympathy and Empathy

This is another really common one. We can’t simply choose between sympathise and empathise in a sentence, as there is a subtle, but important difference. Here it is.

Tom had been to have his old, sick dog put to sleep at the vet’s. On the way home, Tom bumped into his friend Alice, and he told her his sad news. Alice sympathised with Tom.

Further down the road, Tom bumped into another friend, Jane, and he told her the sad news too. Jane empathised with Tom.

The reason for the difference is that Jane herself had a dog that was put to sleep, so she knows exactly how Tom feels, and can empathise with him. Alice hasn’t been through that pain, but she feels sorry for her friend’s loss, and she shows sympathy.

That’s basically it; we show empathy when we have been through a similar experience. So if, for example, you are replying to a friend’s email in which he says he was fired from his job because he inadvertently gave his boss an exploding cigar, you can only empathise with him if you too had been fired under similar circumstances. If you haven’t, offer your sympathy.

Imply and Infer

Again, I grew up believing these two words to have the same meaning. I was in good company though. In an episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, the word infer was once used when imply was called for. Now, I bow to the writing skills of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who have an enormous catalogue of first rate work to their names. But that one definitely sneaked through.

So what was wrong with a character saying what are you inferring?

He should have used the word implying. The simple rule for discerning between these two is that the speaker, or writer implies, while the listener, or reader infers. Lisa Simpson once summed up the difference very succinctly, when she said, “You imply, I infer.” Here are the two in action.

“Yes, well, some of us have never seen the inside of a police station, have we?”

“What are you implying?”

The first speaker is making an implication. What are you inferring would not go there. But,

“I’ve never seen the inside of a police station in my life.”

“Why are you telling me this? Am I supposed to infer that you are some kind of saint?”

In that example, the listener makes an inference in reaction to the speaker.

Bottom line: we imply when we speak or write, and we infer when we listen or read.

Adverse and Averse

This is rather different to the examples above, in that its misuse is pretty much a one-way street, where adverse is used when averse was called for. I don’t recall ever having seen it the other way around. Here’s an example of the error.

Ed is not adverse to smoking a cigar on his birthday.

Oh dear. Mrs Malaprop would be proud of that one, given its prevalence. While averse and adverse each has a negative connotation, that is where the similarity ends.

Averse means to be opposed to something

Tom is averse to mowing the lawn, on account of being lazy.

Ed is not averse to smoking a cigar on his birthday.

Adverse refers to something that may be harmful or unfavourable.

Tom stayed home because of the adverse weather conditions.

Ed quit because he couldn’t take the adverse criticism that came his way.

If you keep an eye out for this one, you’ll see it’s quite a common error.

Compliment and Complement

These two are identical on the ear, and only one letter different in print. But what a difference that single letter makes.

Complement with an e is used when one thing adds to, completes or goes well with another. Compliment with an i means to say something nice, or to express approval.

So we could write, ketchup complements fried bread, which means that ketchup goes well with fried bread. Subjective, I know, but go with it.

If we were to write that ketchup compliments fried bread, it could mean that ketchup tells fried bread that it has been crisped to perfection, and looks delicious.

Here are examples of the two words in sentences.

The police were able to return all of the stolen goods to the vicarage, including a full complement of silver cutlery.

Tom loved the way Jane’s pale yellow blouse complemented her tanned skin.

The vicar used a column in the church magazine to compliment the police on their swift recovery of the stolen items.

Tom complimented Jane on her choice of blouse.

Of course, the two words can appear in the same sentence:

The teacher paid a heartfelt compliment to the coach driver, for keeping a full complement of children entertained during the journey.

Committing these different words to memory will help you avoid making slipshod errors that will be like fingernails down a blackboard to some readers. And your work may even earn compliments from other writers.

(Originally published in Medium)

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About the Creator

Joe Young

Blogger and freelance writer from the north-east coast of England

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