This course will help you improve your vocabulary and clarify easily confused words.

We obviously can’t cover all cases, and sometimes the problem has more to with spelling or dyslexia. For example, some people write defiantly when they mean definitely, even though in ordinary speech they would not confuse them.

Our focus is on some of the most frequent mistakes, and even if you think you’re immune to these errors, you might still check out some of the entries. You might be surprised to find out what some of these words actually mean.

Migrate, Emigrate, Immigrate


The verb migrate comes from Latin (migrare) and means to move from one place to another. It is often used to refer to the seasonal migration of animals, but it can also be used more loosely to mean any act of resettlement or relocation.


The Canada geese are migrating south.

Many unemployed farm works have been migrating to the big city.

Some students migrated to the back of the class.


To emigrate means to leave one country in order to settle in another. The comes from Latin ex, which means out of (as in exit).


My grandparents emigrated from Austria in the 1930s.


To immigrate means to enter into another country with the goal of settling permanently. The “im” prefix comes from Latin in, which, not surprisingly, means in or into.


We immigrated to India three years ago.


All three words are usually used as verbs, but they also have other forms. For instance, we can speak of migratory birds (adjective), migration (noun), and immigrant (noun).

The most important thing to remember is that emigrate means to move out of a country, whereas immigrate means to move into a country. Usually the one implies the other, and usually the goal is some type of permanent resettlement and citizenship.

Immanent, Imminent, Eminent


The word immanent means inherent, in-dwelling, within. It comes from Latin in manere (to remain). It is often used in theology to refer to the way God dwells within things.


The poet Gerald Manley Hopkins described God’s immanence in all living things.


Imminent is an adjective that means that something is about to happen. It also comes from Latin–in this case in minere (to project, overhang, impend). Think of a cliff that looms over you. Because of this origin the word is often associated with danger.


A crisis is imminent.


To be eminent is to be famous and respected. Interesting, it has a similar origin as imminent. It is a combination of ex (out of) and minere (to project, overhang). Literally, then, eminent means to stick out, to be prominent.


If you want to be eminent (respected), it may help you to remember that immanent refers to things that are inherent and innate, whereas imminent refers to things that are about to happen.


The eminent theologian Ernest Wainscotting believed in God’s immanence, but he did not think the end of the world was imminent.

Less, Fewer


Less and fewer both mean a smaller amount of something. However, grammarians argue endlessly about when you should use one over the other. Here’s what you need to know.

Countable Nouns

The basic rule is that you should use fewer with plural nouns, and less with singular or uncountable nouns:

There is now less time on the clock, but we are fewer points behind.

In this example, time is a singular noun, whereas points is plural and countable. Here are some more examples:

Their cows produced less milk this week. (milk is an uncountable noun)

The conference had fewer attendees this time. (attendees is plural and countable)

We took less luggage this time. (luggage is treated as an uncountable noun)

We took fewer items of luggage this time. (items is a plural noun and can be counted)

However, people break the rules all the time. For example, many groceries stores have a sign that reads “10 items or less.” Sticklers would argue that this should be fewer, but the usage is so widespread that many grammarians have accepted that sometimes less can be used in the plural.

Time, Money, Distance, Units of Measurements

You can also break the basic rule by using less in relation to time, money, distance, or units of measurements. Here are some examples of acceptable usage:

Less than two hours are left until the test.

We have less than $100 in the bank.

It’s less than three kilometers till the finish line.

You need less than three tablespoons of sugar.

All of these are acceptable uses, and often may be superior to fewer. However, if your writing in a formal context you may be better off using fewer–at least if you don’t want to defend your word choices constantly!

One Less

The phrase one less is perfectly acceptable, as one is singular:

I shot one less duck this time.


Whereas fewer is used exclusively for plural nouns that are countable, less has a wider range and can often take the place of fewer. This is especially the case in popular usage and when referring to time, money, distance, or units of measurement.

Begging the Question


The phrase begging the question is often used to mean “raising the question.” This usage is so common that to call it incorrect is probably pointless. However, you might like to know the history of the phrase as well as its original meaning.

A Logical Fallacy

Begging the question is a loose translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii. The first bit (petitio) comes from the verb peto (to request, seek), which in late Latin also referred to assuming something. The last word (principii) refers to principles or premises. Since principii is in the genitive case, it shows possession (like adding ’s or of). That’s why we can translate the whole phrase as “an assuming of first principles” or “an assumption of the starting premise.”  

Petitio principii is the name for a logical fallacy (a mistake in reasoning), a kind of circular argument where you try to prove something but your conclusion simply restates one of your original assumptions. In other words, you try to prove something, but one of your original premises requires proof.

Here’s an example of a statement that is begging the question:

We want less bureaucracy and political involvement in the economy. After all, big government is bad for business.

In this example, the conclusion simply assumes what has been stated before, namely that government (bureaucracy) hurts business (the economy).

Here is another example of a question begging argument:

Drinking more wine will raise your spirits, because wine makes people happy.

You can see that the conclusion (because …) assumes what has been stated before, namely that wine will make you happy (raise your spirits).


While it’s not a grave error to use begging the question to mean raising the question, the phrase is properly reserved for statements that contain a circular argument.

Frequently Confused Words


Watch out for the following words. They are easily confused, and a spell check will not necessarily help you with these.


They’re is a contraction of they are. Their is a possessive pronoun:

They’re writing their obituaries.


There refers to a place (compare where), whereas their is a pronoun that shows possession:

Their tombstones are over there.


Lose is a verb. Loose is typically an adverb:

If your wedding ring is loose, you might lose it.

However, sometimes loose can be a verb, in which case it means to set free, let go:

Jimmy loosed a shot at the keeper.

The ropes were loosed and the ship left the harbour.


When used as a verb, bare means to reveal and bear means to carry:

If you bare your bum, you will bear responsibility for the consequences.


Illusive (think illusion) means that something is deceptive, a mirage. Elusive means that something can’t be captured and escapes your grasp:

The ghost seemed elusive (hard to catch), but was really illusive (an illusion, not real).


These two have very similar meanings, but adverse (harmful, antagonistic) is not usually applied to people, whereas averse (loath, unwilling, opposed) tends to describe people’s feelings and is usually followed by to:

We faced adverse conditions on the high seas.

I guess I’m not averse to attending your Christmas concert.


The word tortuous means winding, full of twists and turns, and should be distinguished from torturous, though both can cause pain and suffering:

Reading your essay was a torturous experience, as I couldn’t follow the tortuous path of your argument.


Ascetic people abstain from the pleasures of the world. They practice self-discipline and lead an austere life. Aesthetics has to do with the study and appreciation of beauty:

His decadent aesthetics did not match my minimalist, ascetic lifestyle.


To compliment is to praise someoneTo complement means to add something in order to improve:

“Your scarf complements your outfit.”

“Thanks for the compliment!”


Sometimes it can be difficult to keep words separate. Take disinterested. It’s primary meaning is unbiased or objective. Being disinterested therefore does not mean being uninterested. However, a quarter of all uses of disinterested do mean uninterested, which of course infuriates the purists. The point is that language change is driven by confusion and laziness, so, if you make a mistake, take heart: you may be making history.

Additional Resources


We’re not a dictionary, so we won’t provide an explanation of every last word. If you’re interested in expanding your vocabulary further, here are some website recommendations.


If you like to learn more about the origins of words, check out the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Obscure Words and Expressions

For a treasure trove of articles about particular words and phrases, have a look at Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words. Although Quinion is no longer adding new content, there is a wealth of information here.

You might also check out the quirky Phrontistery or subscribe to a dictionary of your choice to learn the “word of the day.” In fact, if you want to make a game out of learning new words, we would particularly recommend

Fooling Around

If you just want to play around with language, check out Rhymezone for rhymes, the Urban Dictionary for sometimes strange definitions, or an anagram solver for your new pseudonym.


There are countless other websites dedicated to words, but hopefully these suggestions should get you started!