10 Sneakily Similar Word Pairs Even Good Spellers Screw Up
You’ll never confuse “prescribe” and “proscribe” again.
Flaunt or Flout?
To flaunt something is to display it ostentatiously. When people flaunt their wealth, they are showing off to impress others or make them envious. To flout something, such as a rule or a law, means to openly disregard it, often in a mocking or contemptuous fashion.
Prescribe or Proscribe?
Prescribe means to authorize or establish something as a rule or a guide, such as when a doctor prescribes medication to a patient. Proscribe means to forbid, denounce, or condemn. Example: Smoking is proscribed in most government buildings; if you want to smoke, you have to step outside. Check out these middle school vocabulary words even adults get wrong.
Compliment or Complement?
Compliment means to express praise or admiration. Complement means to add to something in a way that improves it, such as when an attractive scarf or necktie complements an outfit.
Ensure or Insure?
Ensure and insure are largely interchangeable. Both mean “to make certain that something will happen.” Putting on a coat can both ensure and insure that you will be warm when you go outside. The words are not interchangeable where insurance policies are concerned: people can buy insurance, but they can’t buy ensurance.
Discreet or Discrete?
When someone is discreet, they are being cautious and showing good judgment. When something is discrete, it is separate and distinct from other things. The individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, for example, are discrete objects that are placed together to complete the puzzle. Here are more commonly misused words you should get right.
Council or Counsel?
A council is a group of people who serve as administrators or advisers. To counsel someone means to give them advice or to recommend a course of action. In the legal profession, attorneys on opposing sides of a court case are called counsels for the prosecution and for the defense. The advice given can also be referred to as counsel.
Adverse or Averse?
Adverse means “harmful, unfavorable, or inhibiting success,” and is applied to situations or conditions. Prolonged drought, for example, has an adverse effect on crop yields. Averse means “opposing or having a strong dislike,” and usually describes someone’s attitude. A person’s shyness makes them averse to reading their own writing aloud.
Precipitate or Precipitous?
Precipitate can mean to cause something to happen suddenly or prematurely—the spilled drink precipitated a barroom brawl. It can also refer to rain. Precipitous, on the other hand, means steep. Example: In 2008 there was a precipitous drop in U.S. home sales. While we’re add it, you should also correct these 24 things you’ve been saying wrong this whole time.
Auger or Augur?
An auger is a tool similar to a drill that is used to bore holes in wood, ice, dirt, or some other substance. Augurs were ancient Roman priests who studied natural phenomena (especially the flight of birds) for signs indicating whether the gods approved or disapproved of human activities. If such signs did not augur well for an upcoming battle, election, or some other planned action, it could be delayed or canceled until the gods were in a better mood.
Enormity or Enormousness?
Enormity refers to the large scale of something evil or morally wrong, such as the enormity of a murderer’s crimes. If you’re describing the giant size of something in a context where no negative moral judgment is implied, believe it or not, the correct word to use is enormousness (or, if that sounds too weird, immensity). Though it’s common for people to use the word enormity in a neutral context—“the enormity of the task at hand,” for example—purists consider this usage to be incorrect. Here are 70 more words you’re probably using all wrong.
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