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.


EAGER

See anxious, eager.


EFFECT

See affect, effect.


e.g., i.e.

These two helpful abbreviations are often used interchangeably, a sorry mistake that impoverishes the language. The term i.e. means "that is to say" or "in other words," whereas e.g. means "for example."

To illustrate: Artists like Marlon Brando and James Dean (i.e., the so-called "method actors") electrified audiences in the 1950s. Compare that sentence with The so-called "method actors" (e.g., Marlon Brando and James Dean) electrified audiences in the 1950s.


EKE OUT

It has come to mean "barely get by": I eke out a living as a writer. But its traditional meaning is either "to supplement": I eke out my living as a writer by working a day job, or "to make the most of": We eked out the small amount of food we had left.


ELUDE

See allude, elude, refer.


EMIGRATE, IMMIGRATE

Emigrate: to leave one country in order to live in another country. Emigrate takes the preposition from, as in He emigrated from Russia to America. It is incorrect to say. "He emigrated to America."

Immigrate: to enter a new country with the intention of living there. Immigrate takes the preposition to, as in He immigrated to America from Russia. It is incorrect to say, "He immigrated from Russia."


EMINENT, IMMINENT

Eminent: prominent; distinguished: an eminent scholar.

Imminent: about to happen: in imminent danger.


EMPATHY, SYMPATHY

When we have empathy, we are able to put ourselves in other people's place and even feel their pain, or think we do.

Sympathy is more removed than empathy. When we have sympathy, we may not suffer along with those who are hurting, but we have compassion and are often willing to help.


EMULATE, IMITATE

Emulate means "to try to be as good or successful as."

Imitate means "to copy or fashion oneself after."

A sentence like He tried to emulate her is repeating itself: He tried to try to be as good as she was. We don't "try to emulate." When we emulate, we're already trying.


ENORMITY

This word is frequently misused: the "enormity" of football linemen these days, or the "enormity" of the task. Enormity has nothing to do with something's size. For that, we have such words as immensity, vastness, hugeness, and enormousness.

Enormity is an ethical, judgmental word meaning "great wickedness," "a monstrous crime." The enormity of Jonestown doesn't mean Jonestown was a huge place, but rather that it was the site of a hugely outrageous tragedy.


ENSURE

See assure, ensure, insure.


ENTHUSE

Many writers, editors, scholars, and critics regard enthuse and enthused as unserious and unacceptable.


EPITAPH, EPITHET

An epitaph is a tribute inscribed on a tombstone in honor of the person buried there.

An epithet, unlike an epitaph, is often an insult based on race, class, religion, politics, etc.: The mob was shouting racial epithets.

Otherwise, an epithet is a kind of nickname. It is a word or brief phrase that illustrates a defining trait of someone or something: Alexander the Great, the wine-dark sea.


EPITOME

The epitome of means "the essence of." It does not mean "the best," "the height of." Sam is the epitome of humility means that Sam is a perfect example of a humble person. It doesn't necessarily mean that he's one of the humblest men who ever lived.


ERSTWHILE

It's often confused with worthwhile. But erstwhile means "previous" or "one-time." My erstwhile assistant does not mean "my valuable assistant." It means "my former assistant" and nothing more.


etc., et al.

These abbreviations are a scholarly way of saying, "You get the point."

The term etc. means "and the rest," "and so on." It is usually placed at the end of a short list of things to save the writer (and reader) the trouble of going on needlessly.

When a list of people, rather than things, is involved, use et al. in place of etc.: Joe Smith, Ray Jones, et al., led the team to victory.

Both etc. and et al. require periods, even midsentence.


EVERY DAY, EVERYDAY

The two-word term every day is an adverbial phrase that answers the questions when or how often, as in I learn something new every day.

As one word, everyday is an adjective that means "ordinary" or "part of a daily routine": These are my everyday clothes.


EXACERBATE, EXAGGERATE

To exacerbate is to make a difficult situation worse or more intense: The humidity exacerbated the intense heat.

To exaggerate (note the double g) is to overstate, to stretch the truth: He exaggerated when he said it was the hottest day on record.


EXCEPT

See accept, except.


Misused Words

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