English is filled with commonly confused words. Affect and effect. Farther and further. Continuous and continual. It’s our job as editors to ensure (assure?) that authors are using the words they intend to use.
Below are 15 sets of commonly confused words. I’ve arranged them from easy to difficult, according to my own opinion. I am, of course, just one editor. You may disagree with my rankings. Sometimes, you may disagree that a distinction is even necessary. I’ll address these gray areas at the end of the list.
Affect is almost always a verb meaning “to influence.” Affect (pronounced slightly differently) also can be used as a noun meaning “emotion or desire.”
Effect is often a noun. It means “result” or “consequence.” It can also refer to special effects or personal belongings. Effect can also be a verb meaning “to bring about.”
You assure a person or people. A restaurant manager might assure a customer that their meal will arrive promptly.
You ensure an outcome. A basketball player can shoot a last-second three-pointer to ensure victory.
You insure something valuable. A person might insure their house or car.
Compliment can be a noun or a verb. When it’s a noun, it’s polite praise. When it’s a verb, it’s the action of giving polite praise. The adjective form, complimentary, can mean in a way that expresses a compliment, or it can mean free of charge.
Complement can be a noun or a verb. When it’s a noun, it’s a thing that completes or enhances something else. When it’s a verb, it’s the action of completing or enhancing something. Complementary is the adjective form.
Farther denotes physical distance, measurable in inches, feet, yards, miles, centimeters, meters, kilometers, and so on.
Further indicates figurative distance or progress. It is sometimes used in place of more.
home in/hone in
A homing pigeon is directed home. A homing missile is automatically directed at a target. To home in on is to direct your thoughts toward a particular thing. You home in on a solution.
Hone means “to sharpen.” You hone a knife blade or hone your skills. You don’t hone in on something.
Verbiage is an excess of words. People also use it to mean “wording.”
Verbage isn’t a thing. It’s a corruption of verbiage.
Percent — whether expressed as a word or a symbol — comes after a number. If we buy 24 cookies and eat 12 of them, we’ve eaten 50% of the cookies.
Percentage is used in phrases such as “a small percentage of people” or a “large percentage of nations.” If we buy 24 cookies and eat 23 of them, we’ve eaten a significant percentage of our cookies (96%, to be exact). Percentage can also be paired with point. If we eat 50% of Tuesday’s cookies and 96% of Wednesday’s cookies, that’s an increase of 46 percentage points. (It’s not an increase of 46%.)
Diffuse, as a verb, means “to spread or scatter.” It can also be an adjective (with a different pronunciation) that means “widespread.”
Defuse, literally, means “to remove a fuse from a bomb.” Figuratively, it means “to deescalate a situation.”
Disperse means “to break up or spread or scatter about.” The police might disperse a crowd.
Disburse means “to pay money,” maybe from a particular fund, maybe to one person, maybe to several people. If you’ve ever received a financial aid payment from a college, it probably came from the bursar’s office; disburse and bursar are related.
Uninterested means “lacking interest.” You can be uninterested in a book or a movie.
Disinterested means “impartial.” If you have no personal stake in a situation, you are a disinterested party. We want a jury to be disinterested. We don’t want a jury to be uninterested.
Continuous means without stopping. The water at Niagara Falls falls continuously. It’s 24/7.
Continual means repeated at regular intervals. My kids continually ask questions. While it might feel like it’s happening 24/7, they do take breaks to eat and sleep and watch TV.
A fact is a true statement.
A factoid, according to the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, was originally “an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.” This is what factoid meant when it first showed up in 1973. At some point, a second meaning came about: “a briefly stated and usually trivial fact” (M-W Collegiate). This is how most people today use factoid, but it’s worth noting that, according to the original meaning (which isn’t very old), a factoid is a falsehood.
Reluctant means unwilling to act: He is reluctant to enter the primary. That’s straight out of the AP Stylebook.
Reticent means unwilling to speak: The candidate’s husband is reticent. That’s also straight out of the AP Stylebook.
Skim means “read casually.”
Peruse, since the 1530s, has meant “read thoroughly and carefully.” Since the 1800s, it has also meant “read casually or skim” — pretty much the opposite of the original meaning. Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern English Usage, calls this second meaning a “slipshod extension” of the first meaning and advises against its use.
Fortunate means “good, often unexpectedly so.”
Fortuitous means “happening by chance.” It can be good or bad or neither. This meaning goes back to the 1650s. Fortuitous wasn’t used as a synonym for fortunate until the mid-20th century. There’s also a third, in-between meaning: “happening by lucky chance.” In other words, something happens by chance and it turns out well.
Does it really matter?
As you read some the words above, did you find yourself saying, “Oh, come on! No reader knows the difference between those words. Does it really matter?”
That’s a great question for editors to ask. And it’s not a rhetorical question. Seriously — go back over the list above and ask, “Does it really matter?” Your answers will no doubt change from one set of words to the next, and you may often find yourself falling back on “Well, it depends.” That’s a perfectly legitimate response.
Most editors would probably agree that mixing up affect and effect would be noticeable and would damage a professional writer’s credibility. But what about farther and further? If you’re editing a master’s thesis for an English literature student, you’d be well advised to retain the distinction. However, in fiction — especially in dialogue — it might not matter. According to Garner, the current ratio of traveled farther to traveled further in print is 2:1. So, if people read and understand traveled further every day, is it really wrong?
Another consideration is which style guide your job requires you to follow. If that style guide is the AP Stylebook, then you should know that AP distinguishes between many of the words above — reluctant and reticent, for example.
We all know that language changes. There was a time when shall was reserved for first-person constructions and will was used in second-person and third-person situations. You’d be hard pressed in 2022 to find anyone who still makes that distinction. Will the continuous/continual distinction be the next to fall by the wayside?
Hundreds of years ago, awesome and awful were synonyms that both meant “inspiring awe.” They’ve now gone their separate ways — first awful took on a negative meaning, and then awesome took on a positive meaning. Here’s what linguist Charles Carpenter Fries wrote about that evolution: “The real meaning of any word must be finally determined, not by its original meaning, source, or etymology, but by the content given the word in actual present usage. … Even a hardy purist would scarcely dare pronounce a painter’s masterpiece awful, without explanation.”
So, when confronted with commonly confused words, perhaps we should ask ourselves, “If editors are the only people who know which word is which, and our readers don’t know or don’t care, then what’s the right call?” Recognizing when to make the edit, when to leave a note for the author, and when to leave a word alone is a skill that every editor should continually (or even continuously) work on.
Resources that can help you make the call
The Chicago Manual of Style (subscription needed)
The Associated Press Stylebook (subscription needed)
Garner’s Modern English Usage by Bryan Garner
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage
Genius post written by Dave Nelsen and edited by Molly Gamborg.