Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Commonly Confused Words

“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”

That old quote proved itself when I tried to confirm exactly who said it. A dozen famous characters are credited with originating the phrase—and each has advocates who “know this for a fact” and are ready to tear into anyone who disagrees. I’m sure I’ll hear from some of these if I personally credit anyone besides their top candidates; so I’m going to take the coward’s way out and avoid even mentioning any of the possibilities.

Some “things we know that ain’t so” have uglier consequences than heated arguments. Ask anyone who has mistaken the accelerator for the brake, or spoken condescendingly to a “receptionist” who turned out to be the company president. And though few people have been sued for confusing “principal” and “principle,” avoiding vocabulary mistakes is crucial to projecting a conscientious, intelligent professional image.

Last week’s post talked about commonly misspelled words. Today, we go on to commonly confused words. Here are ten pairs for starters:

1. Accept/Except: “Accept” means “to receive”; “except” means “excluding.”
2. Benefactor/Beneficiary: The benefactor does the giving, the beneficiary the receiving.
3. Complement/Compliment: “Complement” means “a necessary part of” or “to supplement something”; “compliment” means “a flattering statement.” (And the word that refers to free gifts is complimentary—like gift, it has an i in it.)
4. Continual/Continuous: “Continual” means “regularly recurring”; “continuous” means “uninterrupted.”
5. Disinterested/Uninterested: “Disinterested” means “objective” and may refer to someone, such as an arbitrator, who is very much involved in a situation. “Uninterested” means that someone is totally uninvolved and couldn’t care less.
6. E.g./I.e.: “E.g.” means “for example”; “i.e.” means “in other words.”
7. Farther/Further: Generally, “farther” refers to material, physical distance and “further” to less measurable quantities. Hence, “three miles farther” but “for further consideration.”
8. It’s/Its: “It’s” means “it is” or “it has”; “its” is the possessive form of “it.” One sentence demonstrating the difference: “It’s a wise dog that scratches its own fleas.”
9. Mean/Median: Both are mathematical terms roughly meaning “average,” but they are calculated in different ways. When a sum is divided by the number of calculations that went into it (as in [3+9+12]/3=8), the result is the mean. A median is the midpoint of a list of numbers that is arranged from lowest to highest.
10. Principal/Principle: “Principal” means “first in rank” or “the person first in rank.” (The head of a public school is the principal. The amount of a loan before interest is the principal. The central issue in a situation is the principal issue.) “Principle” means “a basic standard or truth.”

Dozens more “Common Errors in English” are posted at http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html#errors. You may be surprised to learn what you’ve been getting wrong!

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