Introduction

This section of the website 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.

Affect, Effect

Affect

Affect is usually a verb. It means to have some kind of effect or impact on someone. To affect people is to influence them, often on an emotional level.

Examples:

The lousy weather affected Cindy’s mood.

We were greatly affected by the sadness in her voice.

In some rare instances, affect can be a noun. It is a technical term in psychology, and more generally it refers to the outward expression of emotion (especially on one’s face). However, you might be better off using the word affectation if you mean to describe an expression of feeling that is not genuinely felt.

Effect

Most of the time effect is a noun. It refers to the result or outcome of some kind of action.

Examples:

The rise in interest rates had a negative effect on the housing market.

One effect of the new law has been an increase in jaywalking.

Occasionally effect can be used to as a verb, to mean make, causeachieve, or create. It is often used in the expression “to effect change,” a rather hackneyed phrase.

Example:

If you want to effect change, join the police force!

Difference

The main thing to remember is that affect is a verb meaning to influence or have an impact, and effect is a noun that refers to the result of an action. In other words, whenever you affect people you have an effect on them. 

There are, however, some exceptions to these rules. Sometimes effect can be used as a verb to mean make or cause. In that case it should have a direct object (e.g., He effected a change of policy). Conversely, affect can be used as a noun to refer to a feeling or emotion expressed outwardly.

Exercises


Migrate, Emigrate, Immigrate

Migrate

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.

Examples:

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.

Emigrate

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).

Example:

My grandparents emigrated from Austria in the 1930s.

Immigrate

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.

Example:

We immigrated to India three years ago.

Difference

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

Immanent

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.

Example:

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

Imminent

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.

Example:

A crisis is imminent.

Eminent

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.

Difference

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.

Example:

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

 

Less, Fewer

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Easily Confused Words

Introduction

Watch out for the following words. They are easily confused, and a spell check will help you with these.

Their/They’re

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

They’re writing their obituaries.

There/Their

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

Their tombstones are over there.

Loose/Lose

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.

Bare/Bear

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/Elusive

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).

Adverse/Averse

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.

Tortuous/Torturous

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/Aesthetics

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.

Complement/Compliment

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

“Your scarf complements your outfit.”

“Thanks for the compliment!”

Conclusion

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

Introduction

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.

Etymology

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 Vocabulary.com.

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.

Conclusion

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

BONUS: Ten Ways To Annoy Your English Prof

Introduction

As an English prof, I have marked thousands of essays. Here are ten words or phrases that students tend to misuse.

Utilize

Even academics abuse this one. You can simply say “use” and be done with it.

Societal

Ditto for this one. Most of the time “social” will do the trick.

Interesting

This one occurs frequently in thesis statements. Saying that something is “interesting” often implies that you haven’t made up an actual argument, but are hoping that your attitude to the subject matter counts for something. It doesn’t.

Overexaggerate

This is not even a word, but a surprising number of students seem to feel that “exaggerate” doesn’t quite do the job. We need something stronger, which is rather ironic given the circumstances.

Relatable

You wouldn’t believe how often students write that the characters in a book are interesting because they are relatable. As long as we can spot that fictional people are in some sense human, our work is done. (Unless of course the characters are overexaggerated).

Theme

Some people like to go trainspotting; others go hunting for themes. These days anything in a text is a theme. Look, I’ve found a theme: it’s man vs. nature, or friendship, or love! There’s no need to make an argument about the theme. Spotting it is enough.

Reading

Some students are eager to show that they’ve actually read the book. That’s why they provide constant references to the reading process (“in my reading,” “to the reader,” “for the audience”). Don’t worry, if you’re writing about the text, we will assume that you have done some reading, even if it’s only SparkNotes.

Essentially

If you think you’ve really made your point, you add the word “essentially” for emphasis. Hamlet is essentially suicidal. Oscar Wilde is essentially gay. Plato’s shadows are essentially unreal.

Dictionary

As soon as I see the phrase “the dictionary definition,” I know I’m about to read a definition of a perfectly ordinary word. This invariably happens in the first sentence of the essay.

In conclusion

If you place this at the start of your last paragraph you’re not doing anyone a service. We can see that this is your last paragraph—there is no need to point out the obvious.

Bonus word: capture.

Some people seem to think that “captivate” and “captive” mean the same thing. By this logic even the best book will put you in chains, forced to read a story that you literally can’t put down.

Dishonorable mentions

It’s hard to stop, so here are some (dis)honorable mentions:

virtually

off of

Conclusion

In conclusion, that is essentially my list of ten interesting words that you should not utilize without thinking about whether they will capture the reader. So next time you analyze some themes, make sure you pick words from the dictionary (unlike overexaggerated) that are relatable and of societal use.