7 confusing word pairs

The English language is full of confusing word pairs. How many times have you changed accept to except or stationary to stationery when editing another’s work?

The word pair that I correct most frequently  — comprise and compose.

Considering that there are an estimated 250,000 distinct English words, it’s easy to understand the confusion. Those of us who ply our trade with words are in a unique position to understand their shades of meaning. Others who are less experienced may not understand the distinctions. Take note of the following word pairs . . .

Adverse and averse
means unfavorable or harmful.
Report any adverse effects from the drug to your physician.

Averse means opposed or strong disliking.
He was averse to the idea of starting a new diet.

Biannual and biennial
A biannual event occurs twice per year.
The report is published biannually in March and October.

A biennial event takes place every two years.

The Texas legislature meets biennially, during odd-numbered years.

Comprise and compose
To comprise is to enclose or include. Comprise is always used in the active voice; therefore, comprised of is not correct. The university comprises 6 colleges and 9 divisions.

Compose means to make up or be a constituent of. Compose can be used in the passive voice.
The company is composed of four employees.

The parts compose the whole; the whole comprises the parts.

Complacent and complaisant

To be complacent is to be smug, self-satisfied, or untroubled.
Years of success had made her complacent.

To be complaisant is to be willing to please or cheerfully obliging.
The leadership was divided, complaisant, and powerless.

Eminent an imminent
describes a person who is famous and respected in an area or profession.
At age 22, she had become one of the country’s most eminent paleontologists.

Imminent means about to happen.
Given all the traffic on the site, the crash was imminent.

Imply and infer
To imply is to speak indirectly or suggest.
You are implying that piracy is our only alternative.

To infer is to surmise or conclude.
I infer from your statement that you agree with this solution.

In The Careful Writer, Theodore Bernstein explains it this way, “The implier is the pitcher; the inferrer is the catcher.

Nauseous and nauseated
To be nauseous is to cause nausea.
Emetics are meant to be nauseous.

To be nauseated is to become ill.
I felt nauseated after riding in his car.

It is incorrect to say, “I feel nauseous,” unless you are causing nausea in another person.

Readers, any others?

A version of this story first appeared on Ragan Communication’s PR Daily.

3 Responses to “7 confusing word pairs”

  1. G says:

    Nauseous: Affected with nausea; inclined to vomit.

    I feel nauseous is EXACTLY the correct usage. I feel nauseaated is the kind of thing this British English speaker would expect from an American English speaker – why use the original and shorter form when a longer and more tortuous form can be used (or, often as not, invented).

    • laurajane says:

      I only want to point out the difference because one is an adjective (nauseous) and one is a verb (nauseated) . . . distinctions well worth preserving.

  2. Compliment and complement

    To compliment something is, in essence, “to pay a compliment to” or express esteem and admiration.

    To complement is make complete or perfect.