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.


FACTIOUS, FRACTIOUS

Factious means "characterized by dissent and internal disputes." A factious group is liable to split off into factions.

Fractious means "irritable," "quarrelsome," "ill-tempered."


FAINT, FEINT

Faint: to go unconscious.

Feint: a distracting move meant to throw an opponent off guard (from feign).


FAIR, FARE

Fair: an exhibition (noun); just, impartial (adjectives).

Fare: payment for travel (noun); to have an experience (verb); to go through something (verb): How did you fare on your test?


FARTHER, FURTHER

The general rule: farther refers to real, physical distance: Let's walk a little farther.

Further deals with degree or extent: Let's discuss this further.


FAZE, PHASE

When something or someone fazes you, you are disturbed or troubled: Her behavior doesn't faze me.

A phase is a period or chapter: He's going through a difficult phase right now.


FEAT, FEET

Feat: an extraordinary act or accomplishment.

Feet: twelve-inch increments; appendages below the ankles.


FEWER, LESS

Here's a seemingly innocent sentence: I now have two less reasons for going. Make it two fewer reasons. If you can count the commodity (two reasons), less will be wrong. You have less justification, but fewer reasons.

Exception: When the amount is one, such a sentence should read, "I now have one reason fewer" or "one less reason, but not "one fewer reason." Admittedly, this is a head-scratcher, but that's English for you.

Use less for specific measurements of money, distance, time, or weight: It costs less than a million dollars. We walked less than fifty feet. Less than thirty minutes had passed. It weighs less than five pounds. The book Modern American Usage explains why: "We take a million dollars as a sum of money, not as a number of units; fifty feet as a measure of distance, not as one foot added to forty-nine other feet; thirty minutes as a stretch of time, exactly like half an hour … and the quantitative less is therefore correct in comparisons; fewer would sound absurd."


FIR, FUR

Fir: a type of tree.

Fur: animal hair.


FIRSTLY

See secondly, thirdly, fourthly.


FLAIR, FLARE

Flair: style; talent.

Flare: to erupt; to blaze.


FLAMMABLE, INFLAMMABLE

Let's see: flammable means "combustible." Inflammable means "combustible." Any questions?


FLAUNT, FLOUT

He was a rebel who flaunted the rules. That sentence is incorrect. Make it flouted the rules. To flout is to ignore, disregard, defy.

To flaunt is to make a big display: She flaunted her diamond necklace.


FLEA, FLEE

Flea: a type of insect.

Flee: to run away.


FLOUNDER, FOUNDER

One way to avoid confusing these two verbs is to think of flounder, the fish. Something that is floundering is thrashing around helplessly, like a fish out of water.

Founder means "to fail." If a business is floundering, it is in distress but may yet be saved. If a business founders, nothing can revive it.


FLOUR, FLOWER

Flour: an edible powder prepared by grinding grains.

Flower: the bloom of a plant.


FOREGO, FORGO

Many permissive editors allow forego in place of forgo. But forego means "to go before," "precede": A good stretching session should forego rigorous exercise.

To forgo is to abstain from, do without: If you forgo a good stretching session, you might pull a muscle.


FOREWORD, FORWARD

A foreword is an introduction, usually to a book. It's sometimes confused with forward, meaning "ahead," "forth."


FORMER

See latter.


FORTH, FOURTH

Forth: onward.

Fourth: coming directly after whatever is third.


FORTUITOUS, FORTUNATE

Fortuitous is a chronically misunderstood word. To purists, it most emphatically does not mean "lucky" or "fortunate"; it simply means "by chance." You are fortunate if you win the lottery fortuitously, but you can also get flattened by a truck fortuitously.


FOUL, FOWL

Foul: tainted; sickening.

Fowl: edible bird or birds.


FRACTIOUS

See factious, fractious.


FREE GIFT

A curious term for gift.


FULSOME

Many people take fulsome to mean "abundant" or "lavish." But be wary of writing the likes of He received a fulsome tribute or Please accept my fulsome apology. The word actually means something darker: "excessive," "fawning," even "disgusting."


FUN

Fun is a noun, not an adjective. Sentences like It was a fun time or the ghastly It was so fun have no place in serious writing.


FUR

See fir, fur.


FURTHER

See farther, further.


Misused Words

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