Spelling, Vocabulary, and Confusing Words

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Many words in English sound or look alike, causing confusion and not a few headaches. This section lists some of these words, and other troublemakers.


I run five miles on a daily basis. In most cases, the windy and unwieldy on a daily basis can be replaced with daily or every day.


John B. Bremner, in Words on Words, states unequivocally, "The word is plural." This one is thorny, because the singular, datum, is virtually nonexistent in English. Many people see data as a synonym for "information," and to them, These data are very interesting sounds downright bizarre. Maybe, but it's also correct. Theodore M. Bernstein, in The Careful Writer, says, "Some respected and learned writers have used data as a singular. But a great many more have not."


Something definite is exact, clearly defined, with no ambiguity. But definite does not necessarily mean "correct": George has a definite belief that two and two are five.

Something definitive is authoritative, the best, the last word: This is the definitive biography of Lincoln.


See connote, denote.


The noun desert refers to a desolate area. As a verb, it means "to abandon."

A dessert is the final course of a meal.

Many misspell the phrase just deserts, meaning "proper punishment." In that usage, deserts is derived from deserve.


"Syme despised him and slightly disliked him," wrote George Orwell in the novel 1984. Orwell knew that, strictly speaking, despise means "to look down on" but not necessarily "to dislike," although that's usually part of the deal.


Device: an invention.

Devise: to invent.


Different from is the standard phrase. Traditionalists obstinately avoid different than, especially in simple comparisons, such as You are different from me.

More-liberal linguists point out that a sentence like It is no different for men than it is for women is clear and concise, and rewriting it with different from could result in a clumsy clunker like It is no different for men from the way it is for women.

They may have a point, but many fine writers have had no problem steering clear of different than for their entire careers.


Be careful when using dilemma as a synonym for predicament. The di- in dilemma (like that in dichotomy or dioxide) indicates two: if you have a dilemma, it means you're facing two tough choices.


To disburse is to distribute or pay out money or other financial assets.

Use disperse when something other than money is being distributed: The agency dispersed pamphlets after the meeting.

Disperse also means "to scatter" or "make disappear": The police dispersed the unruly mob.


The two are often confused. Discomfit originally meant "to defeat utterly." It has come to mean "to fluster," "to embarrass."

Discomfort is usually used as a noun meaning "anxiety," "nervousness."


Discreet: careful not to attract attention, tactful.

Discrete: separate, detached.

People often write discrete when they mean discreet. The situation is not helped by discretion, the noun form of discreet.


You can be both uninterested and disinterested, or one but not the other. Disinterested means "impartial"; uninterested means "unconcerned" or "apathetic."

Many would interpret The judge was disinterested to mean that the judge didn't care. But the sentence actually means that the judge was unbiased. Huge difference there. Would you rather have a judge who's fair or one who wants to go home?


What is often thought of as a dock is actually a pier or wharf. The book Modern American Usage (edited by Jacques Barzun, et al.) defines a dock as "the water-filled space in which the ship comes to rest. The pier is the structure on which the passengers stand or alight." Would Otis Redding's song still be a masterpiece if he'd called it Sittin' on the Pier of the Bay?


She drug Joe out of his office at midnight. When did "drug" replace dragged as the past tense of drag? The answer is: It didn't, and it couldn't, and it better not.


Dual: double; having two parts.

Duel: a two-sided conflict (noun); to fight a duel (verb).

Misused Words

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