Some More of the Confusable Words

In one or two of the last articles, we have seen some confusable words as well as situations in which writers may confuse. Here is a list of words which may confuse your readers. Be careful to use them correctly. All or most of the words in the list are explained in professional publications like the American Heritage Book.

1. Assure, Insure, Ensure

These words all mean 'to make certain or convince somebody'. However, assure is the word to be used to console somebody by making something certain. Insure is used in the meaning to 'guarantee against damages' in the commercial way. Ensure is used in any other occasion to get the same meaning.

Jim assured me that he insured the property to ensure its preservation.

2. Bated, Baited

You can’t say, “We waited with baited breath” Use bated there. ‘Bate’ means ‘to hold something back’. It means we held the breath while waiting. Bait is on the other hand is the food to catch something like fish.

3. Augur, Auger

Augur is a prophet. Auger is a tool to make holes.

4. Forward, Forwards, Backward, Backwards

All these words are interchangeable. To mean ‘toward the front’, we use forward or forwards. And ‘toward the back’ the others. However, the adjective doesn’t end with ‘–s’.

We walked backwards to get out of sight.
It was a forward view.

5. Bimonthly, Semimonthly, Fortnightly

The word bimonthly, in noun form, can have two meanings: a publication published twice in a month or that published once in two months. But, a fortnightly is a publication published twice in a month or once in a fortnight (two weeks). Hence, you should avoid the confusing word ‘bimonthly’. Semimonthly is another troubling word which may mean twice in a month. It is suggested that you replace this word with 'once in two months' or 'twice in a month'.

6. Born, Borne

She was born with six fingers on the left hand.
Her mother has borne two other children too.

Both these words take root from the word, ‘bear’ which may mean, 'to give birth' (borne in past participle, the second example above) or 'to be given birth' (born in past participle, the first example above), 'carry', 'accept', 'tolerate', 'support', 'produce', etc. Here are some other examples of uses of the word bear.

I bore the outcome of all her malicious intents.
She bore the luggage till the end of the stairwell.
My mango tree bore no fruit till this April.

7. Compare to, Compare with

Use ‘to’ when you compare two things which are quite unlike. Use ‘with’ for like things.

Man cannot obviously be compared to dinosaurs.
My friend can be compared with me in some respects.

8. Complacent, Complaisant

Complacent means ‘satisfied’ or ‘eager to please’. On the other hand, complaisant means ‘pleasing others by allowing their wishes’. But complacent’s second meaning is very much disputed with the meaning of complaisant. Hence, it is advised not to use this word in that sense.

Georges was a complaisant aide for Hercule Poirot.
Complacent that he achieved his success, Jake went on to more adventures.

9. Council, Counsel, Consul

A council is a group or committee of like-minded people. A consul is a government official working in the consulate, which is a body of strategists of a nation in another country, promoting the feelings of the nation and protecting her citizens in that country. The word counsel means ‘to advise or give professional guidance’. It has also a noun form, which means court lawyer, advice, consultation, etc. Counselor is someone that gives such professional advice.

The counselor’s counsel consoled me somewhat.
The council’s decision to raise funds from the members was turned down by half of the members.
For contacting my relatives back home, at last, I had to take help from a consul.

10. Credible, Credulous

Credible means ‘believable’. Credulous is used to speak about someone who believes anything very easily. The words incredible and incredulous are their antonyms. Incredible means ‘unbelievable’ and incredulous means ‘showing disbelief’.

She is such credulous a girl that she found herobese, indolent, senseless mate, Jack’s rant that he had flown six airplanes in the Gulf war, credible.

11. Definite, Definitive

Both of these words can mean, 'precise' or 'final'. Definitive, however, stands for some decision, guide, or reference, to mean ‘authoritative or most comprehensive’. A definitive stamp is one without a time period specification.

It was definite that he wouldn’t come.
Though there are several books on philosophy, we are still looking for a definitive guide.

12. Deprecate, Depreciate

Deprecate means ‘to express condemnation of something’ or 'to deplore'. Deprecate is also used in Software Engineering to speak about functions or programs that are no longer in use. On the other hand, depreciate means ‘fall in value’ or ‘belittle’.

We used to deprecate her plans every time, however, in this situation, only her plan worked, and it worked successfully.
There are several deprecated functions in Java.
The tax was depreciated to adjust the inflation rate, but it didn’t have the minutest effect.

13. Distinct, Distinctive

Distinct and distinctive mean the same ‘different’ from others or ‘unique’ in a group. But distinctive is used with a feature or quality, and distinct is used with a physical object.

My dog is the most distinct in the group.
His distinctive way of wagging tail itself makes it distinct.

14. Elicit, Illicit

Illicit is illegal, and is used with drugs mainly and objects generally. Elicit is a verb meaning ‘to find out the real meaning or relevance of’ or ‘to provoke an action’.

I tried to elicit who did the crime, but it was found that the trade of illicit drugs was what the other detective interested in.

15. Equable, Equitable

Equable is an adjective meaning ‘serene’ or ‘calm’. On the other hand, equitable means, ‘fair’ in economy or ‘related to the law of equity’.

The equable wind kept us going until the sea changed and the wind turned to a storm.
The equitable treatment of prisoners is required by the law.


There are more. More words you may confuse. I will keep the research going and you will occasionally find a post with these words. I will be posting only the most confusable words, and won't post those which are obviously easy for my readers, such as 'carrier' vs. 'career'.

Related Entries:

The First List of Confusable Words
Some Confusable Situations in Grammar

Related Book:

The American Heritage Book of English Usage

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

3 Opinions:

  1. You write "Distinct and distinctive mean the same ‘different’ from others ..." and you seem consistantly to use "different from" in your blog. It's like breathing fresh air. The rest of the English speaking world has shifted to "different than". How does does one thing 'differ than' another?

  2. Distinct and distinctive mean 'different from others'. 'Different than' as you say, is not wrong. Actually it depends on the place where you use it. The American Heritage book has a good explanation for it as thus:

    The phrases different from and different than are both common in British and American English. The British also use the construction different to. Since the 18th century, language critics have singled out different than as incorrect, though it is well attested in the works of reputable writers. If you want to follow traditional guidelines, use from when the comparison is between two persons or things: My book is different from (not than) yours. Different than is more acceptably used, particularly in American usage, where the object of comparison is expressed by a full clause: The campus is different than it was twenty years ago. You can use different from with a clause if the clause starts with a conjunction and so functions as a noun: The campus is different from how it was twenty years ago.

    Sometimes people interpret a simple noun phrase following different than as elliptical for a clause, which allows for a subtle distinction in meaning between the two constructions. How different this seems from Paris suggests that the object of comparison is the city of Paris itself, whereas How different this seems than Paris suggests that the object of comparison is something like “the way things were in Paris” or “what happened in Paris.”

  3. Well really commendable list of confusing words once again. I always had a problem with those bi - monthly; semimonthly and fortnightly. Keep writing.


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