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This list of Problematic Words was copied from the Chicago Manual of Style 16th ed.  This content belongs to them etc. etc.   We're not stealing it or using it for personal gain.


a; an. Use the indefinite article a before any word beginning with a consonant sound {a utopian dream}. Use an before any word beginning with a vowel sound {an officer} {an honorary degree}. The word historical and its variations cause missteps, but since the h in these words is pronounced, it takes an a {an hour-long talk at a historical society}. Likewise, an initialism (whose letters are sounded out) may be paired with one article while an acronym (which is pronounced as a word) beginning with the same letter is paired with the other {an HTML website for a HUD program}. See 5.72.

ability; capability; capacity. Ability refers to a person’s physical or mental skill or power to achieve something {the ability to ride a bicycle}. Capability refers more generally to power or ability {she has the capability to play soccer professionally} or to the quality of being able to use or be used in a certain way {a jet with long-distance-flight capability}. Capacity refers especially to a vessel’s ability to hold or contain something {a high-capacity fuel tank}. Used figuratively, capacity refers to a person’s physical or mental power to learn {an astounding capacity for mathematics}.

abjure; adjure. To abjure is to deny or renounce under oath {the defendant abjured the charge of murder} or to declare one’s permanent abandonment of a place {abjure the realm}. To adjure is to require someone to do something as if under oath {I adjure you to keep this secret} or to urge earnestly {the executive committee adjured all the members to approve the plan}.

about; approximately. When idiomatically possible, use the adverb about instead of approximately. In the sciences, however, approximately is preferred {approximately thirty coding-sequence differences were identified}. Avoid coupling either word with other words of approximation, such as guess or estimate.

abstruse. See obtuse.

access, vb. The use of nouns as verbs has long been one of the most common ways that word-usage changes happen in English. Today, few people quibble with using contact, debut, and host, for example, as verbs. Access can be safely used as a verb when referring to computing {access a computer} {access the Internet} {access a database}. Outside the digital world, though, it is still best avoided.

accord; accordance. The first word means “agreement” {we are in accord on the treaty’s meaning}; the second word means “conformity” {the book was printed in accordance with modern industry standards}.

accuse; charge. A person is accused of or charged with a misdeed. Accused is less formal than charged (which suggests official action). Compare Jill accused Jack of eating her chocolate bar with Maynard was charged with theft.

actual fact, in. Redundant. Try actually instead, or simply omit.

addicted; dependent. One is physically addicted to something but psychologically dependent on something.

adduce; deduce; induce. To adduce is to give as a reason, offer as a proof, or cite as an example {as evidence of reliability, she adduced her four years of steady volunteer work as a nurse’s aide}. Deduce and induce are opposite processes. To deduce is to reason from general principles to specific conclusions, or to draw a specific conclusion from general bases {from these clues about who committed the crime, one deduces that the butler did it}. To induce is to form a general principle based on specific observations {after years of studying ravens, the researchers induced a few of their social habits}.

adequate; sufficient; enough. Adequate refers to the suitability of something in a particular circumstance {an adequate explanation}. Sufficient refers to an amount that is enough to meet a need (always with an abstract concept, a mass noun, or a plural) {sufficient water} {sufficient information} {sufficient cause} {sufficient resources}. Enough, the best word for everyday purposes, modifies both count nouns {enough people} and mass nouns {enough oil}.

adherence; adhesion. With a few exceptions, the first term is figurative, the second literal. Your adherence to the transportation code requires the adhesion of an inspection sticker to your windshield.

adjure. See abjure.

administrator. See executor.

admission; admittance. Admission is figurative, suggesting particularly the rights and privileges granted upon entry {the student won admission to a first-rate university}. Admittance is purely physical {no admittance beyond this point}.

adverse; averse. Adverse means either “strongly opposed” or “unfortunate” and typically refers to things, not people {adverse relations between nations} {an adverse wind blew the ship off course}. Averse means “feeling negatively about” and refers to people {averse to asking for directions}.

affect; effect. Affect, almost always a verb, means “to influence, have an effect on” {the adverse publicity affected the election}. (The noun affect has a specialized meaning in psychology: manifestation of emotion or mood. Consult your dictionary.) Effect, usually a noun, means “outcome, result” {the candidate’s attempted explanations had no effect}. But it may also be a verb meaning “to make happen, produce” {the goal had been to effect a major change in campus politics}.

affirmative, in the; in the negative. These are slightly pompous ways of saying yes and no. They result in part because people are unsure how to punctuate yes and no. The ordinary way is this: he said yes (without quotation marks around yes, and without a capital); she said no (ditto).

afflict. See inflict.

affront. See effrontery.

after having past participle]. Though common, this phrasing is redundant. Try instead after present participle]: change after having passed the audition, she . . . to after passing the audition, she . . . Or this: having passed the audition, she . . . See 5.108.

afterward, adv.; afterword, n. The first means “later”; the second means “an epilogue.” On afterward(s), see toward.

aged (four) years old. Redundant. Write aged four years, four years old, or four years of age.

aggravate. Traditionally, aggravate means “to intensify (something bad)” {aggravate an injury} {an aggravated crime}. If the sense is “to bother,” use annoy or irritate.

aid; aide. Aid can be a verb (= to help) or a noun (= assistance or a means of assistance) {audiovisual aids}. Aide is a noun (= helper), as in “teacher’s aide,” and always denotes a person, not an object.

alibi. Avoid this as a synonym for excuse. The traditional sense is “the defense of having been elsewhere when a crime was committed.”

all (of). Delete the of whenever possible {all the houses} {all my children}. The only common exceptions occur when all of precedes a nonpossessive pronoun {all of us} and when it precedes a genitive {all of North Carolina’s players}.

alleged. Traditional usage applies this participial adjective to things, especially acts {alleged burglary}, not to the actors accused of doing them {alleged burglar}. That distinction is still observed by some publications, but it has largely been abandoned. Although allegedly /e-LEJ-ed-lee/ has four syllables, alleged has only two: /e-LEJD/.

all ready. See already.

all right. Two words. Avoid alright.

all together. See altogether.

allude; elude; illude. To allude is to refer to something indirectly {allude to a problem}. It’s often loosely used where refer or quote would be better—that is, where there is a direct mention or quotation. To elude is to avoid capture {elude the hunters}. To illude (quite rare) is to deceive {your imagination might illude you}.

allusion; reference. An allusion is an indirect or casual mention or suggestion of something {the cockroach in this story is an allusion to Kafka}. A reference is a direct or formal mention {the references in this scholarly article have been meticulously documented}.

alongside. This term, meaning “at the side of,” should not be followed by of.

a lot. Two words, not one.

already; all ready. The first refers to time {the movie has already started}; the second refers to degree of preparation {Are the actors all ready?}.

alright. See all right.

altar, n.; alter, vb. An altar is a table or similar object used for sacramental purposes. To alter is to change.

alternate, adj. & n.; alternative, adj. & n. Alternate implies (1) substitute for another {we took the alternate route} or (2) taking turns with another {her alternate chaired the meeting}. Alternative implies a choice between two or more things {I prefer the second alternative}.

altogether; all together. Altogether means “wholly” or “entirely” {that story is altogether false}. All together refers to a unity of time or place {the family will be all together at Thanksgiving}.

amend; emend. The first is the general term, meaning “to change or add to” {the city amended its charter to abolish at-large council districts}. The second means “to correct [text]” {for the second printing, the author emended several typos}. The noun corresponding to amend is amendment; the one corresponding to emend is emendation.

amiable; amicable. Both mean “friendly,” but amiable refers to people {an amiable waiter} and amicable to relationships {an amicable divorce}.

amid. See between.

among. See between.

amount; number. Amount is used with mass nouns {a decrease in the amount of pollution}, number with count nouns {a growing number of dissidents}.

an. See a.

and. Popular belief to the contrary, this conjunction usefully begins sentences, typically outperforming moreover, additionally, in addition, further, and furthermore. See 5.206.

and/or. Avoid this Janus-faced term. It can often be replaced by and or with no loss in meaning. Where it seems needed {take a sleeping pill and/or a warm drink}, try or . . . or both {take a sleeping pill or a warm drink or both}. But think of other possibilities {take a sleeping pill with a warm drink}.8

anecdotal. This adjective corresponds to anecdote, but in one sense the words have opposite connotations. An anecdote is a story that is thought (but not known) to be true. But anecdotal evidence is suspect because it has not been objectively verified.

anticipate. Avoid this word as a loose synonym for expect. Strictly, it means “to foresee, take care of in advance, or forestall.”

anxious. Avoid it as a synonym for eager. The standard sense is “worried, distressed.”

anyone; any one. The one-word anyone is a singular indefinite pronoun {anyone would know that}. The two-word phrase any one is a more emphatic form of any, referring to a single person or thing in a group {Do you recognize any one of those boys?} {I don’t know any one of those stories}.

anyplace. See anywhere.

anywhere; any place. The first is preferred for an indefinite location {my keys could be anywhere}. But any place (two words) is narrower when you mean “any location” {they couldn’t find any place to sit down and rest}. Avoid the one-word anyplace.

appertain. See pertain.

appraise; apprise. To appraise is to put a value on something {the jeweler appraised the necklace}. To apprise is to inform or notify someone {keep me apprised of any developments}.

appreciate. Three senses: (1) to understand fully; (2) to increase in value; (3) to be grateful for (something). Sense 3 often results in verbose constructions; instead of I would appreciate it if you would let me know, use I would appreciate your letting me know or, more simply, please let me know.

apprise. See appraise.

approve; endorse. Approve implies positive thought or a positive attitude rather than action apart from consent. Endorse implies both a positive attitude and active support.

approve (of). Approve alone connotes official sanction {the finance committee approved the proposed budget}. Approve of suggests favor {she approved of her sister’s new hairstyle}.

approximately. See about.

apt; likely. Both mean “fit, suitable,” but apt is used for general tendencies or habits {the quarterback is apt to drop the football}. Likely expresses probability {because he didn’t study, it’s likely that he’ll do poorly on the exam}. Although likely is traditional as a synonym of probable, many writers and editors object to its use as a synonym of probably.

area. Often a nearly meaningless filler word, as in the area of partnering skills. Try deleting the area of. In the sciences, however, its more literal meaning is often important and should be retained.

as far as. Avoid the nonstandard substitution of as far as for as for—that is, avoid using as far as without the completing verb is concerned or goes. Even with the verb, though, this is usually a wordy construction. Compare as far as change is concerned, it’s welcome with as for change, it’s welcome.

as is. In reference to an acquisition, as is framed in quotation marks and refers to the acceptance of something without guarantees or representations of quality {purchased “as is”}. The phrase on an “as is” basis is verbose.

as of yet. See as yet.

as per. This phrase, though common in the commercial world, has long been considered nonstandard. Instead of as per your request, write as you requested or (less good) per your request.

assault; battery. These are popularly given the same meaning. But in law assault refers to a threat that causes someone to reasonably fear physical violence, and battery refers to a violent or repugnant intentional physical contact with another person. An assault doesn’t involve touching; a battery does.

assemblage; assembly. An assemblage is an informal collection of people or things. An assembly is a group of people organized for a purpose.

assent; consent. The meanings are similar, but assent connotes enthusiasm, while consent connotes mere allowance.

as such. This pronominal phrase is now often loosely used as a synonym for therefore, but in well-honed writing the such always requires an antecedent {diamond-studded water bottles are a luxury and, as such, have a limited market}.

assumption; presumption. An assumption is not drawn from evidence; typically, it is a hypothesis {your assumption can be tested by looking at the public records}. A presumption implies a basis in evidence; if uncontradicted, a presumption may support a decision {the legal presumption of innocence}.

assure. See ensure.

as to. This two-word preposition is best used only to begin a sentence that could begin with on the question of or with regard to {as to those checks, she didn’t know where they came from}. Otherwise, use about or some other preposition.

as yet; as of yet. Stilted and redundant. Use yet, still, so far, or some other equivalent.

attain; obtain. To attain something is to accomplish it through effort (e.g., a goal) or endurance (e.g., an age); to obtain something is to gain possession of it. So in best usage you attain a degree and obtain a diploma. It can be a fine distinction, and in common usage the words are often treated as synonyms.

at the present time; at this time; at present. These are turgid substitutes for now, today, currently, or even nowadays (a word of perfectly good literary standing). Of the phrasal versions, at present is least suggestive of bureaucratese.

at the time that; at the time when. Use the plain and simple when instead.

auger; augur. The spellings of these words can be tricky because they are pronounced the same (/AW-ger/). The tool for boring is an auger. Augur means “a seer” (noun) or “to foretell” (verb).

avenge, vb.; revenge, vb. & n. Avenge connotes an exaction for a wrong {historically, family grudges were privately avenged}. The corresponding noun is vengeance. Revenge connotes the infliction of harm on another out of anger or resentment {the team is determined to revenge its humiliating loss in last year’s championship game}. Revenge is much more commonly a noun {they didn’t want justice—they wanted revenge}.

averse. See adverse.

avocation; vocation. An avocation is a hobby {stamp collecting is my weekend avocation}. A vocation is one’s profession or, especially in a religious sense, one’s calling {she had a true vocation and became a nun}.

awhile; a while. The one-word version is adverbial {let’s stop here awhile}. The two-word version is a noun phrase that follows the preposition for or in {she worked for a while before beginning graduate studies}.

backward(s). See toward.

bale; bail. Bale, a noun or verb, means “a bundle” or “to form into a bundle,” as of hay or cotton. Bail is most often a verb (= to drain by scooping, as in getting water out of a boat using a pail); it is also a noun or verb meaning “security” or “to post security” (to get out of jail pending further proceedings). Bail is used informally as well to mean “to leave quickly” or “to escape” {the couple bailed from the party}.

based on. This phrase has two legitimate and two illegitimate uses. It may unimpeachably have verbal force (base being a transitive verb, as in they based their position on military precedent) or, in a passive sense, adjectival force (based being read as a past-participial adjective, as in a sophisticated thriller based on a John le Carré novel). Two uses, however, are traditionally considered slipshod. Based on should not have adverbial force {rates are adjusted annually, based on the 91-day Treasury bill} or prepositional force (as a dangling participle) {based on this information, we decided to stay}. Try other constructions {rates are adjusted annually on the basis of the 91-day Treasury bill} {with this information, we decided to stay}.

basis. Much overworked, this word most properly means “foundation.” It often appears in the phrase on a . . . basis or some similar construction. When possible, substitute adverbs (personally, not on a personal basis) or simply state the time (daily, not on a daily basis). The plural is bases {the legislative bases are complicated}.

battery. See assault.

begging the question. This phrase denotes a logical fallacy of assuming as true what has yet to be proved—or adducing as proof for some proposition something that’s every bit as much in need of proof as the first proposition. For example, someone might try to “prove” the validity of a certain religion by quoting from that religion’s holy text. But the phrase gets misused in many ways—as (erroneously) meaning “raising a question,” “inviting an obvious question,” “evading a question,” and “ignoring a question.”

behalf. In behalf of means “in the interest or for the benefit of” {the decision is in behalf of the patient}. On behalf of means “acting as agent or representative of” {on behalf of Mr. Scott, I would like to express heartfelt thanks}.

bemused. This word means “bewildered” or “distracted.” It is not a synonym of “amused.”

beneficence; benevolence. Beneficence is the attribute of being disposed to do or capable of doing good {the priest’s beneficence was plainly evident}. It applies most often to people. Benevolence is the act of performing a good deed {the villagers thanked him for his benevolence}. The first term denotes a quality, the second conduct.

between; among; amid. Between indicates one-to-one relationships {between you and me}. Among indicates undefined or collective relationships {honor among thieves}. Between has long been recognized as being perfectly appropriate for more than two objects if multiple one-to-one relationships are understood from the context {trade between members of the European Union}. Amid is used with mass nouns {amid talk of war}, among with plurals of count nouns {among the children}. Avoid amidst and amongst.

bi-; semi-. Generally, bi- means “two” (biweekly means “every two weeks”), while semi- means “half” (semiweekly means “twice a week”). Because these prefixes are often confounded, writers should be explicit about the meaning.

biannual; semiannual; biennial. Biannual and semiannual both mean “twice a year” {these roses bloom biannually}. But biennial means “once every two years” or “every other year” {the state legislature meets biennially}. To avoid confusion, write semiannual instead of biannual, and consider writing once every two years instead of biennial.

billion; trillion. The meanings vary in different countries. In the United States, a billion is 1,000,000,000 (a thousand millions). A trillion is a thousand times that (a million millions). In French-speaking Canada, Germany, and many other non-English-speaking regions—according to a system that was also until recently preferred by Great Britain—a billion is a million millions; by extension, a trillion is a million million millions. Writers encountering these terms need to be aware of the historical and geographic distinctions. See also 9.8.

blatant; flagrant. An act that is blatant is plain for all to see {a blatant error}. One that is flagrant is done brazenly as well as openly {a flagrant insult}.

bombastic. A bombastic person is pompous in speech or writing. The word has nothing to do with temper.

born; borne. Born is used only as an adjective {a born ruler} or in the fixed passive-voice verb to be born {the child was born into poverty}. Borne is the past participle of bear {this donkey has borne many heavy loads} {she has borne three children}. It is also used to form compound terms in the sciences {foodborne} {vector-borne}.

breach, n. & vb.; breech, n. A breach is a gap in or violation of something {a breach of contract}. To breach is to break, break open, or break through {breach the castle walls}. Breech refers to the lower or back part of something, especially the buttocks {a breech birth} or a firearm {the rifle’s breech}.

bring; take. The distinction may seem obvious, but the error is common. The simple question is, where is the action directed? If it’s toward you, use bring {bring home the bacon}. If it’s away from you, use take {take out the trash}. You take (not bring) your car to the mechanic.

but. Popular belief to the contrary, this conjunction usefully begins contrasting sentences, typically better than however. See 5.206.

by means of. Often verbose. Use by or with if either one suffices.

by reason of. Use because or because of unless by reason of is part of an established phrase {by reason of insanity}.

can; could. Can means “to be able to” and expresses certainty {I can be there in five minutes}. Could is better for a sense of uncertainty or a conditional statement {Could you stop at the cleaners today?} {if you send a deposit, we could hold your reservation}. See 5.143.

can; may. Can most traditionally applies to physical or mental ability {she can do calculations in her head} {the dog can leap over a six-foot fence}. In colloquial English, can also expresses a request for permission {Can I go to the movies?}, but this usage is not recommended in formal writing. May suggests possibility {the class may have a pop quiz tomorrow} or permission {you may borrow my car}. A denial of permission is properly phrased formally with may not {you may not borrow my credit card} or with cannot or can’t {you can’t use the computer tonight}. See 5.143, 5.146.

capability. See ability.

capacity. See ability.

capital; capitol. A capital is a seat of government (usually a city) {Austin is the capital of Texas}. A capitol is a building in which a legislature meets {the legislature opened its new session in the capitol today}.

carat; karat; caret. Carat measures the weight of a gemstone; karat measures the purity of gold. To remember the difference, think of “24K.” Caret is a mark on a manuscript indicating where matter is to be inserted.

career; careen. The word career’s career as a verb meaning “to go full speed” may be about over. Its duties have been assumed by careen (“to tip to one side while moving”), even though nothing in that verb’s definition denotes high speed. Still, careful writers recognize the distinction.

caret. See carat.

case. In its abstract sense, this word is often a sign of verbal inflation. For example, in case means if; in most cases means usually; in every case means always. The word is justifiably used in law (in which a case is a lawsuit or judicial opinion) and in medicine (in which the word refers to an instance of a disease or disorder).

cause célèbre. This word most strictly denotes a legal case, especially a prosecution, that draws great public interest. By extension it refers to a notorious person or event. It does not properly denote a person’s pet cause.

censer; censor, n.; sensor. The correct spellings can be elusive. A censer is either a person who carries a container of burning incense or the container itself. A censor is a person who suppresses objectionable subject matter. A sensor is a mechanical or electronic detector.

censor, vb.; censure, vb. To censor is to review and cut out objectionable material—that is, to suppress {soldiers’ letters are often censored in wartime}. To censure is to criticize strongly or disapprove, or to officially reprimand {the House of Representatives censured the president for the invasion} {In some countries the government censors the press. In the United States the press often censures the government.}.

center around. Although this illogical phrasing does have apologists, careful writers tend to use either center on or revolve around.

certainty; certitude. If you are absolutely sure about something, you display both certainty (firm conviction) and certitude (assurance of being certain). That fact you are sure about, however, is a certainty but not a certitude—the latter is a trait applied to people only.

chair; chairman; chairwoman; chairperson. Chair is widely regarded as the best gender-neutral choice. Since the mid-seventeenth century, chair has referred to an office of authority. See 5.221–30.

charge. See accuse.

childish; childlike. Childlike is used positively to connote innocence, mildness, and freshness {a childlike smile}. Childish is pejorative; it connotes immaturity and unreasonableness {childish ranting}.

circumstances. Both in the circumstances and under the circumstances are acceptable, but under is now much more common.

cite, n.; site. As a noun, cite is colloquial for citation, which refers to a source of information {a cite to Encyclopædia Britannica}. A site is a place or location {building site} {grave site} {website}. Cf. sight.

citizen; subject. In a governmental sense, these are near-synonyms that should be distinguished. A citizen owes allegiance to a nation whose sovereignty is a collective function of the people {a citizen of Germany}. A subject owes allegiance to an individual sovereign {a subject of the queen}.

class. This word denotes a category or group of things {the class of woodwind instruments}, never one type {an oboe is a type of woodwind} or one kind of thing {a snare drum is one kind of percussion instrument}.

classic; classical. Classic means “important, authoritative” {The Naked Night is one of Bergman’s classic films}. Classical applies to the traditional “classics” of literature, music, and such (and sometimes to specific periods and movements) {classical Greek} {a classical composer} or to the definitive or earliest-characterized form {classical EEC syndrome}.

clean; cleanse. Although various cleaning agents are called cleansers, clean displaced cleanse long ago in most of the word’s literal senses. Cleanse retains the Old English root meaning “purify”: its use today usually refers to spiritual purification.

cleave. This verb was originally two different words, and that difference is reflected in the opposite meanings that cleave has: (1) to cut apart {to cleave meat} and (2) to cling together {standing in the rain, his clothes cleaving to his body}. The conjugations are (1) cleave, cleft (or clove), cloven, and (2) cleave, cleaved, cleaved.

clench; clinch. Clench connotes a physical action {he clenched his hand into a fist}. Clinch generally has figurative uses {she clinched the victory with her final putt}.

climactic; climatic. Climactic is the adjective corresponding to climax {during the movie’s climactic scene, the projector broke}. Climatic corresponds to climate {the climatic conditions of northern New Mexico}.

clinch. See clench.

close proximity, in. Redundant. Write either close or in proximity.

cohabit; cohabitate. Cohabit is the traditional verb. Cohabitate, a back-formation from cohabitation, is best avoided.

collaborate; corroborate. To collaborate means to cooperate on some undertaking; the participants are collaborators. To corroborate something means to back up its reliability with proof or evidence.

collegial; collegiate. Collegial answers to colleague; collegiate answers to college.

commendable; commendatory. What is done for a worthy cause is commendable {commendable dedication to helping the poor}. What expresses praise is commendatory {commendatory plaque}.

common; mutual. What is common is shared by two or more people {borne by different mothers but having a common father}. What is mutual is reciprocal or directly exchanged by and toward each other {mutual obligations}. Strictly, friend in common is better than mutual friend in reference to a third person who is a friend of two others.

commonweal; commonwealth. The commonweal is the public welfare. Traditionally, a commonwealth was a state established by public compact or by the consent of the people to promote the general good (“commonweal”), and where the people reserved supreme authority. In the United States, the word is synonymous with state, four of which are still called commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

compare. To compare with is to discern both similarities and differences between things. To compare to is to note primarily similarities between things.

compelled; impelled. If you are compelled to do something, you have no choice in the matter {Nixon was compelled by the unanimous Supreme Court decision to turn over the tapes}. If you are impelled to do something, you may not like it, but you are convinced that it must be done {the voter disliked some candidates but was impelled by the income-tax issue to vote a straight party ticket}.

compendious; voluminous. These are not synonyms, as many apparently believe. Compendious means “concise, abridged.” Voluminous, literally “occupying many volumes,” most commonly means “vast” or “extremely lengthy.”

complacent; complaisant; compliant. To be complacent is to be content with oneself and one’s life—with the suggestion that one may be smug and unprepared for future trouble. To be complaisant is to be easygoing and eager to please. To be compliant is to be amenable to orders or to a regimen.

compliment; complement. A compliment is a flattering or praising remark {a compliment on your skill}. A complement is something that completes or brings to perfection {the lace tablecloth was a complement to the antique silver}. The words are also verbs: to compliment is to praise, while to complement is to supplement adequately or to complete.

comprise; compose. Use these with care. To comprise is “to be made up of, to include” {the whole comprises the parts}. To compose is “to make up, to form the substance of something” {the parts compose the whole}. The phrase comprised of, though increasingly common, is poor usage. Instead, use composed of, consisting of, or made up of.

concept; conception. Both words may refer to an abstract thought, but conception also means “the act of forming an abstract thought.” Avoid using either word as a high-sounding equivalent of idea, design, thought, or program.

condole, vb.; console, vb. These are closely related but not identical. To condole with is to express sympathy to {community leaders condoled with the victims’ families}. The corresponding noun is condolence {they expressed their condolences at the funeral}. To console is to comfort {the players consoled their humiliated coach}. The corresponding noun is consolation {their kind words were little consolation}.

confidant; confidante; confident. A confidant is a close companion, someone (male or female) you confide in. Confidante is a fading alternative spelling of confidant (used only in reference to a female confidant). Confident is the adjective meaning “having faith, being certain.”

congruous; congruent. Both terms mean “in harmony, in agreement.” The first is seen most often in its negative form, incongruous. The second is used in math to describe triangles that are identical in their angles as well as in the length of their sides; in psychology it refers to the consistency and appropriateness of a person’s words and behavior.

connote; denote. To connote (in reference to language) is to convey an additional meaning, especially an emotive nuance {the new gerund parenting and all that it connotes}. To denote (again in reference to language) is to specify the literal meaning of something {the phrase “freezing point” denotes 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius}. Both words have figurative uses {all the joy that parenthood connotes} {a smile may not denote happiness}.

consent. See assent.

consequent; subsequent. The first denotes causation; the second does not. A consequent event always happens after the event that caused it, as does a subsequent event. But a subsequent event is not necessarily a consequence of the first event.

consider. Add as only when you mean “to examine or discuss for [a particular purpose]” {handshaking considered as a means of spreading disease}. Otherwise, omit as {we consider him qualified}.

consist. There are two distinct phrases: consist of and consist in. The first applies to the physical components that make up a tangible thing {the computer-system package consists of software, the CPU, the monitor, and a printer}. The second refers to the essence of a thing, especially in abstract terms {moral government consists in rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked}.

console. See condole.

contact, vb. If you mean write or call or e-mail, say so. But contact is undeniably a brief way of referring to communication without specifying the means.

contagious; infectious. A contagious disease spreads by direct contact with an infected person or animal {rabies is a contagious disease}. An infectious disease is spread by germs on a contaminated object or element, such as earth or water {tetanus is infectious but not contagious}. In nonliteral usage the terms are synonymous {his pessimism is contagious} {her smile is infectious}.

contemporary; contemporaneous. Both express coinciding time, but contemporary usually applies to people, and contemporaneous applies to things or actions. Because contemporary has the additional sense “modern,” it is unsuitable for contexts involving multiple times. That is, a reference to Roman, Byzantine, and contemporary belief systems is ambiguous; change contemporary to modern.

contemptuous; contemptible. If you are contemptuous you are feeling contempt for someone or something. If you are contemptible, others will have that attitude toward you.

content; contents. Content applies to the information or ideas contained in a written or oral presentation {the lecture’s content was offensive to some who were present}. Contents usually denotes physical ingredients {the package’s contents were difficult to discern by x-ray}. If the usage suggests many items, material or nonmaterial, contents is correct {table of contents} {the investigative report’s contents}.

continual; continuous. What is continual is intermittent or frequently repeated. What is continuous never stops—it remains constant or uninterrupted.

contravene; controvert. To contravene is to conflict with or violate {the higher speed limit contravenes our policy of encouraging fuel conservation}. To controvert is to challenge or contradict {the testimony controverts the witness’s prior statement}.

convince. See persuade.

copyright, vb. The verb is conjugated copyright–copyrighted–copyrighted. Note the spelling, which has nothing to do with write. (Copywriting is a term used in marketing.)

corollary; correlation. A corollary is either (1) a subsidiary proposition that follows from a proven mathematical proposition, often without requiring additional evidence to support it, or (2) a natural or incidental result of some action or occurrence. A correlation is a positive connection between things or phenomena. If used in the context of physics or statistics, it denotes the degree to which the observed interactions and variances are not attributable to chance alone.

corporal; corporeal. What is corporal relates in some way to the body {corporal punishment}; what is corporeal has a body {not our spiritual but our corporeal existence}.

corps; core. A corps is a body of like workers {Marine Corps} {press corps} but is often misspelled like its homonym, core.

correlation. See corollary.

could. See can.

couldn’t care less. This is the standard phrasing. Avoid the illogical form could care less.

councillor; counselor. A councillor is one who sits on a council {city councillor}. A counselor is a person who gives advice {personal counselor}.

couple of. Using couple as an adjective is poor phrasing. Add of {we watched a couple of movies}.

court-martial. This is two words joined by a hyphen, whether the phrase functions as a noun or as a verb. Because martial acts as an adjective meaning “military,” the plural of the noun is courts-martial.

credible; credulous. Credible means “believable”; credulous means “gullible.” The most common error involving cognate forms of these words is in the malapropism “strains credulity.” If that cliché must be used, it should read “strains credibility.”

crevice; crevasse. Size matters. A crack in the sidewalk is a crevice (accent on the first syllable); a fissure in a glacier or a dam is a crevasse (accent on the second syllable).

criminal. See unlawful.

criteria. This is the plural form of criterion (“a standard for judging”): one criterion, two criteria.

damp, vb.; dampen. Both words convey the sense “to moisten.” Damp also means “to reduce with moisture” {damp the fire} or “to diminish vibration or oscillation of [a wire or voltage]” {damp the voltage}. In a figurative sense, dampen means “to depress, curtail” {dampen one’s hopes}.

data. Though originally this word was a plural of datum, it is now commonly treated as a mass noun and coupled with a singular verb. In formal writing (and always in the sciences), use data as a plural.

deadly; deathly. Deadly means “capable of causing death” {deadly snake venom}. Deathly means “deathlike” {deathly silence}.

decide whether; decide if. See determine whether.

decimate. This word literally means “to kill every tenth person,” a means of repression that goes back to Roman times. But the word has come to mean “to inflict heavy damage,” and that use is accepted. Avoid decimate when (1) you are referring to complete destruction or (2) a percentage other than 10 percent is specified. That is, don’t say that a city was “completely decimated,” and don’t say that some natural disaster “decimated 23 percent of the city’s population.”

deduce. See adduce.

defamation; libel; slander. Defamation is the communication of a falsehood that damages someone’s reputation. If it is recorded, especially in writing, it is libel; otherwise it is slander.

definite; definitive. Definite means “clear, exact” {a definite yes}. Definitive means “conclusive, final, most authoritative” {a definitive treatise}.

delegate. See relegate.

deliberate; deliberative. As an adjective, deliberate means either “carefully thought out” {a deliberate response} or “slow and steady” {deliberate progress}. Deliberative means “of or characterized by debate”; the word most often applies to an assembly {deliberative body} or a process.

denote. See connote.

denounce; renounce. To denounce is either to criticize harshly or to accuse. To renounce is either to relinquish or to reject.

dependent. See addicted.

deprecate. In general, to deprecate is to disapprove. But in the phrase self-deprecating—which began as a mistaken form of self-depreciating but is now standard—the sense of deprecate is “to belittle.” In the computer-software world, deprecate serves as a warning: a deprecated feature or function is one that will be phased out of future release of software, so users should quickly begin looking for alternatives.

derisive; derisory. What is derisive ridicules {derisive laughter}. What is derisory invites or deserves ridicule {that derisory “banana” hat}.

deserts; desserts. The first are deserved {your just deserts}, the second eaten {the many desserts on the menu}.

despite; in spite of. For brevity, prefer despite.

determine whether; determine if. The first phrasing is irreproachable style; the second is acceptable as a colloquialism. The same is true of decide whether versus decide if. See also if.

different. The phrasing different from is generally preferable to different than {this company is different from that one}, but sometimes the adverbial phrase differently than is all but required {she described the scene differently than he did}.

differ from; differ with. Differ from is the usual construction denoting a contrast {the two species differ from each other in subtle ways}. Differ with regards differences of opinion {the state’s senators differ with each other on many issues}.

disburse; disperse. To disburse is to distribute money. To disperse can be (1) to distribute other things or (2) to break up, as an unruly crowd.

disc. See disk.

discomfort; discomfit. Discomfort is a noun meaning “ill at ease.” It can also be used as a verb meaning “to put ill at ease.” But doing so often invites confusion with discomfit, which originally meant “to defeat utterly.” Today it means “to thwart or confuse” {the ploy discomfited the opponent}. The distinction has become a fine one, since a discomfited person is also uncomfortable. Discomfiture is the corresponding noun.

discreet; discrete. Discreet means “circumspect, judicious” {a discreet silence}. Discrete means “separate, distinct, unconnected” {six discrete parts}.

discriminating, adj.; discriminatory. The word discrimination can be used in either a negative or a positive sense, and these adjectives reflect that ambivalence. Discriminatory means “reflecting a biased treatment” {discriminatory employment policy}. Discriminating means “analytical, discerning, tasteful” {a discriminating palate}.

disinterested. This word should be reserved for the sense “not having a financial personal interest at stake, impartial.” Avoid it as a replacement for uninterested (which means “unconcerned, bored”).

disk; disc. Disk is the usual spelling {floppy disk}. But disc is preferred in a few specialized applications {compact disc} {disc brakes} {disc harrow}.

disorganized; unorganized. Both mean “not organized,” but disorganized suggests a group in disarray, either thrown into confusion or inherently unable to work together {the disorganized 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago}.

disperse. See disburse.

distinctive; distinguished; distinguishable. A distinctive feature is something that makes a person (or place or thing) easy to distinguish (pick out) from others. But it does not necessarily make that person distinguished (exalted) {the distinguished professor wears a distinctive red bow tie}. It does, however, make the person distinguishable, a term that does not carry the positive connotation of distinguished.

dive, vb. The preferred conjugation is dive–dived–dived. The form dove, though common in certain regions and possibly on the rise, has not traditionally been considered good form.

doctrinal; doctrinaire. Doctrinal means “of, relating to, or constituting a doctrine”; it is neutral in connotation {doctrinal differences}. Doctrinaire shares the pejorative sense of dogmatic, suggesting that the person described is stubborn and narrow-minded {a doctrinaire ideologue}.

doubtless, adv. Use this form—not doubtlessly.

doubt that; doubt whether; doubt if. Doubt that conveys a negative sense of skepticism or questioning {I doubt that you’ll ever get your money back}. Doubt whether also conveys a sense of skepticism {the official says that he doubts whether the company could survive}. Doubt if is a casual phrasing for doubt that.

drag. Conjugated drag–dragged–dragged. The past form drug is dialectal.

dream. Either dreamed (more typical in American English) or dreamt (more typical in British English) is acceptable for the past-tense and past-participial forms.

drink, vb. Correctly conjugated drink–drank–drunk {they had not drunk any fruit juice that day}.

drown, vb. Conjugated drown–drowned–drowned.

drunk, adj.; drunken. Drunk describes a current state of intoxication {drunk driver}. (By contrast, a drunk—like a drunkard—is someone who is habitually intoxicated.) Drunken describes either a trait of habitual intoxication {drunken sot} or intoxicated people’s behavior {a drunken brawl}.

due to. In strict traditional usage, due to should be interchangeable with attributable to {the erratic driving was due to some prescription drugs that the driver had taken}. When used adverbially, due to is often considered inferior to because of or owing to. So in the sentence due to the parents’ negligence, the entire family suffered, the better phrasing would be because of [or owing to] the parents’ negligence, the entire family suffered.

due to the fact that. Use because instead.

dumb. This word means either “stupid” or “unable to speak.” In the second sense, mute is clearer for most modern readers.

dying; dyeing. Dying is the present participle of die (“to cease living”); dyeing is the present participle of dye (“to color with a liquid”).

each other; one another. Traditionalists use each other when two things or people are involved, one another when more than two are involved.

eatable. See edible.

economic; economical. Economic means “of or relating to large-scale finances” {federal economic policy}. Economical means “thrifty; financially efficient” {an economical purchase}.

edible; eatable. What is edible is fit for human consumption {edible flowers}. What is eatable is at least minimally palatable {the cake is slightly burned but still eatable}.

effect. See affect.

effete. Traditionally, it has meant “decadent, worn out, sterile.” Today it is often used to mean either “snobbish” or “effeminate.” Because of its ambiguity, the word is best avoided altogether.

effrontery; affront. Effrontery is an act of shameless impudence or audacity. An affront is a deliberate insult.

e.g. See i.e.

elemental; elementary. Something that is elemental is an essential constituent {elemental ingredients} or a power of nature {elemental force}. Something that is elementary is basic, introductory, or easy {an elementary math problem}.

elicit; illicit. Elicit (“to draw out [an answer, information, etc.]”) is a verb {to elicit responses}; illicit (“illegal”) is an adjective {an illicit scheme}. Writers often mistakenly use illicit when they mean elicit.

elude. See allude.

emend. See amend.

emigrate. See immigrate.

empathy; sympathy. Empathy is putting oneself in someone else’s shoes to understand that person’s situation. Sympathy is compassion and sorrow one feels for another.

endemic. See epidemic.

endorse. See approve.

enervate; innervate. These words are antonyms. To enervate is to weaken or drain of energy. To innervate is to stimulate or provide with energy.

enormity; enormousness. Enormity means “monstrousness, moral outrageousness, atrociousness” {the enormity of the Khmer Rouge’s killings}. Enormousness means “abnormally great size” {the enormousness of Alaska}.

enough. See adequate.

ensure; insure; assure. Ensure is the general term meaning to make sure something will (or won’t) happen. In best usage, insure is reserved for underwriting financial risk. So we ensure that we can get time off for a vacation and insure our car against an accident on the trip. We ensure events and insure things. But we assure people that their concerns are being addressed.

enthused, adj. Use enthusiastic instead.

enumerable; innumerable. What’s enumerable is countable. What’s innumerable can’t be counted, at least not practically {innumerable stars in the sky}.

envy. See jealousy.

epidemic; endemic; pandemic. An epidemic disease breaks out, spreads through a limited area (such as a state), and then subsides {an epidemic outbreak of measles}. (The word is frequently used as a noun {a measles epidemic}.) An endemic disease is perennially present within a region or population {malaria is endemic in parts of Africa}. (Note that endemic describes a disease and not a region: it is incorrect to say this region is endemic for [a disease].) A pandemic disease is prevalent over a large area, such as a nation or continent, or the entire world {the 1918–19 flu pandemic}.

equally as. This is typically faulty phrasing. Delete as.

et al. This is the abbreviated form of et alii (“and others”)—the others being people, not things. Since al. is an abbreviation, the period is required. Cf. etc.

etc. This is the abbreviated form of et cetera (“and other things”); it should never be used in reference to people. Etc. implies that a list of things is too extensive to recite (and indeed it should be used only after at least two items, never just one). But often writers seem to run out of thoughts and tack on etc. for no real purpose. Also, two redundancies often appear with this abbreviation: (1) and etc., which is poor style because et means “and,” and (2) etc. at the end of a list that begins with e.g., which properly introduces a short list of examples. Cf. et al.; see also 6.20.

event. The phrase in the event that is a long and formal way of saying if.

eventuality. This term often needlessly displaces more specific everyday words such as event, result, and possibility.

every day, adv.; everyday, adj. The first is adverbial, the second adjectival. One may wear one’s everyday clothes every day.

every one; everyone. The two-word version is an emphatic way of saying “each” {every one of them was there}; the second is a pronoun equivalent to everybody {everyone was there}.

evoke; invoke. To evoke something is to bring it out {evoke laughter} or bring to mind {evoke childhood memories}. Invoke has a number of senses, including to assert (something) as authority {invoke martial law}, to appeal (to someone or a higher power) for help {invoke an ally to intervene}, or to conjure up {invoke spirits of the past}.

exceptional; exceptionable. What is exceptional is uncommon, superior, rare, or extraordinary {an exceptional talent}. What is exceptionable is objectionable or offensive {an exceptionable slur}.

executor; administrator. In a will, a person designates an executor to distribute the estate after death. When a person dies without a will or without specifying an executor, the court will appoint an administrator to do the same. The feminine forms administratrix and executrix are unnecessary and should be avoided.

explicit; implicit. If something is explicit it is deliberately spelled out, as in the writing of a contract or the text of a statute. If it is implicit it is not specifically stated but either is suggested in the wording or is necessary to effectuate the purpose. Avoid implicit to mean “complete, unmitigated.”

fact that, the. This much-maligned phrase is not always avoidable. But hunt for a substitute before deciding to use it. Sometimes that alone suffices.

farther; further. The traditional distinction is to use farther for a physical distance {we drove farther north to see the autumn foliage} and further for a figurative distance {let’s examine this further} {look no further}.

fax, n. & vb. Derived from facsimile transmission, the foreshortened fax is almost universally preferred for convenience. The plural is faxes. Note that the word is governed by the same rules of capitalization as other common nouns. FAX is incorrect: the word is not an acronym.

faze; phase, vb. To faze is to disturb or disconcert {Jones isn’t fazed by insults}. To phase (usually phase in or phase out) is to schedule or perform a plan, task, or the like in stages {phase in new procedures} {phase out the product lines that don’t sell}.

feel. This verb is weak when used as a substitute for think or believe.

feel bad. Invariably, the needed phrase is feel bad (not badly). See 5.167.

fewer. See less.

fictional; fictitious; fictive. Fictional (from fiction as a literary genre) means “of, relating to, or characteristic of imagination” {a fictional story}. Fictitious means “imaginary; counterfeit; false” {a fictitious name}. Fictive means “possessing the talent for imaginative creation” {fictive gift}; it can also be a synonym for fictional but in that sense is a needless variant. Also, anthropologists apply fictive to relationships in which people are treated as family members despite having no bond of blood or marriage {fictive kin}.

finalize. Meaning “to make final or bring to an end,” this word has often been associated with inflated jargon. Although its compactness may recommend it in some contexts, use finish when possible.

first. In enumerations, use first, second, third, and so on. Avoid the ‑ly forms.

fit. This verb is undergoing a shift. It has traditionally been conjugated fit–fitted–fitted, but today fit–fit–fit is prevalent in American English {when she tried on the dress, it fit quite well}. In the passive voice, however, fitted is still normal {the horse was fitted with a new harness}.

flair. See flare.

flammable; inflammable. Flammable was invented as an alternative to the synonymous word inflammable, which some people misunderstood—dangerously—as meaning “not combustible.” Today flammable is the standard term.

flare; flair. A flare is an unsteady and glaring light {an emergency flare} or a sudden outburst {a flare-up of fighting}. A flair is an outstanding talent {a flair for mathematics} or originality and stylishness {performed with flair}.

flaunt; flout. Flaunt, meaning “to show off ostentatiously” {they flaunted their wealth}, should not be confused with flout, meaning “to treat with disdain or contempt” {flouting the rules}.

flounder; founder. Keep the figurative meanings of these terms straight by remembering their literal meanings. To flounder is to struggle awkwardly, as though walking through deep mud {the professor glared while the unprepared student floundered around for an answer}. To founder is to sink or fall to the ground {without any editorial expertise, the publisher soon foundered}.

following. Avoid this word as an equivalent of after. Consider: Following the presentation, there was a question-and-answer session. After is both simpler and clearer. But following is unobjectionable in meaning “next” {the following example illustrates the point}.

forbear, vb.; forebear, n. The terms are unrelated, but the spellings are frequently confused. To forbear is to refrain {he wanted to speak but decided to forbear}. (The conjugation is forbear–forbore–forborne.) A forebear is an ancestor {the house was built by Murray’s distant forebears}.

forego; forgo. To forego is to go before {the foregoing paragraph}. (The word appears most commonly in the phrase foregone conclusion.) To forgo, by contrast, is to do without or renounce {they decided to forgo that opportunity}.

foreword; preface. A foreword (not forward) is a brief essay of endorsement that is written by someone other than the book’s author. An introductory essay about the book written by the book’s author is called a preface and is usually shorter and more personal than the book’s introduction, which gives an overview of the book’s content. See 1.39, 1.40, 1.42, 1.46.

forgo. See forego.

former; latter. In the best usage, these words apply only to pairs. The former is the first of two, the latter the second of two.

fortuitous; fortunate. Fortuitous means “by chance,” whether the fortune is good or bad {the rotten tree could have fallen at any time; it was just fortuitous that the victims drove by when they did}. Fortunate means “by good fortune” {we were fortunate to win the raffle}.

forward(s). See toward.

founder. See flounder.

fulsome, adj. This word does not preferably mean “very full” but “too much, excessive to the point of being repulsive.” Its slipshod use arises most often in the phrase fulsome praise, which suggests the opposite of what the writer probably intends.

further. See farther.

future, in the near. Use soon or shortly instead.

gantlet; gauntlet. See run the gantlet.

gentleman. This word is a vulgarism when used as a synonym for man {two gentlemen were in the car} (better to use men there). When used in reference to a cultured, refined man, it is susceptible to some of the same objections as those leveled against lady. Use it cautiously. Cf. lady.

get. Though shunned by many writers as too casual, get often sounds more natural than obtain or procure {get a job}. It can also substitute for a stuffy become {get hurt}. The verb is conjugated get–got–gotten in American English, get–got–got in British English.

gibe, n.; jibe, vb. A gibe is a biting insult or taunt; gibes are figuratively thrown at their target {the angry crowd hurled gibes as the suspect was led into the courthouse}. Jibe means to fit, usually with negation {the verdict didn’t jibe with the judge’s own view of the facts}.

gild. See guild.

go. This verb is conjugated go–went–gone. Went appears as a past participle only in dialect.

gourmet; gourmand. Both are aficionados of good food and drink. But a gourmet knows and appreciates the fine points of food and drink, whereas a gourmand is a glutton.

grateful; gratified. To be grateful is to be thankful or appreciative. To be gratified is to be pleased, satisfied, or indulged.

grisly; grizzly. What is grisly is gruesome or horrible {grisly details}. What is grizzly is grayish {grizzly hair} or bearish {the North American grizzly bear}.

guild, n.; gild, vb. A guild is an organization of persons with a common interest or profession {a guild of fine carpenters}. To gild is to put a thin layer of gold on something {gild a picture frame}.

half (of). Delete the of whenever possible {half the furniture}.

handful. If handful applies to a mass noun, use a singular verb {a handful of trouble is ahead}. But if handful applies to a plural count noun, use a plural verb {there are only a handful of walnut trees lining Main Street}.

hangar; hanger. One finds hangars at an airport {airplane hangars}. Everywhere else, one finds hangers {clothes hangers} {picture hangers}.

hanged; hung. Hanged is used as the past participle of hang only in its transitive form when referring to the killing (just or unjust) of a human being by suspending the person by the neck {criminals were hanged at Tyburn Hill}. But if death is not intended or likely, or if the person is suspended by a body part other than the neck, hung is correct {he was hung upside down as a cruel prank}. In most senses, of course, hung is the past form of hang {Mark hung up his clothes}. All inanimate objects, such as pictures and Christmas stockings, are hung.

hanger. See hangar.

harass; embarrass. The first word has one ‑r-; the second has two. The pronunciation of harass also causes confusion. The dominant American pronunciation stresses the second syllable, while British English stresses the first.

harebrained. So spelled (after the timid, easily startled animal)—not hairbrained.

healthy; healthful. Traditionally, a living thing that is healthy enjoys good health; something that is healthful promotes health {a healthful diet will keep you healthy}. But gradually healthy is taking over both senses.

help (to). Omit the to when possible {talking will help resolve the problem}.

he or she. To avoid sexist language, many writers use this alternative phrasing (in place of the generic he). Use it sparingly—preferably after exhausting all the less obtrusive methods of achieving gender neutrality. In any event, he or she is much preferable to he/she, s/he, (s)he, and the like. See also 5.46.

historic; historical. The shorter word refers to what is momentous in history {January 16, 1991, was a historic day in Kuwait}. Historical, meanwhile, refers simply to anything that pertains to or occurred in history.

hoard; horde. A hoard is a supply, usually secret and often valuable. Hoard is also a verb meaning “to amass” such a cache. A horde was originally a tribe of Asian nomads; today a horde is a large crowd.

hoi polloi. The hoi polloi are the common people, not the elite. This term is a plural. Although hoi is Greek for “the,” the phrase is commonly rendered “the hoi polloi” and has been at least since it was used by John Dryden in 1668.

holocaust. When capitalized, this word refers to the Nazi genocide of European Jews in World War II. When not capitalized, it refers (literally or figuratively) to extensive devastation caused by fire, or to the systematic and malicious killings of human beings on a vast scale.

home in. This phrase is frequently misrendered hone in. (Hone means “to sharpen.”) Home in refers to what homing pigeons do; the meaning is “to come closer and closer to a target.”

homicide. See murder.

hopefully. The old meaning of the word (“in a hopeful manner”) seems unsustainable; the newer meaning (“I hope” or “it is to be hoped”) seems here to stay. But many careful writers deplore the new meaning.

horde. See hoard.

hung. See hanged.

I; me. When you need the first-person singular, use it. It’s not immodest to use it; it’s superstitious not to.

idyllic. An idyll is a short pastoral poem, and by extension idyllic means charming or picturesque. It is not synonymous with ideal (perfect).

i.e.; e.g. The first is the abbreviation for id est (“that is”); the second is the abbreviation for exempli gratia (“for example”). The English equivalents are preferable in formal prose; Chicago style is to use these two-character abbreviations only within parentheses or in notes. Always put a comma after either of them.

if; whether. While if is conditional, whether introduces an alternative, often in the context of an indirect question. Use whether in two circumstances: (1) to introduce a noun clause {he asked whether his tie was straight} (the answer is either yes or no), and (2) when using if would produce ambiguity. In the sentence He asked if his tie was straight, the literal meaning is “whenever his tie was straight, he asked”; the popular meaning “he wanted someone to tell him whether his tie needed straightening” may not be understood by all readers. More tellingly, call me to let me know if you can come means that you should call only if you’re coming; call to let me know whether you can come means that you should call regardless of your answer. Avoid substituting if for whether unless your tone is intentionally informal or you are quoting someone. See also determine whether.

illegal. See unlawful.

illegible; unreadable. Handwriting or printing that is illegible is not clear enough to be read {illegible scrawls}. Writing that is unreadable is so poorly composed as to be either incomprehensible or intolerably dull.

illicit. See elicit; unlawful.

illude. See allude.

immigrate; emigrate. To immigrate is to enter a country to live, leaving a past home. To emigrate is to leave one country to live in another one. The cognate forms also demand attention. Someone who moves from Ireland to the United States is an immigrant here and an emigrant there. An émigré is also an emigrant, but especially one in political exile.

impact. Resist using this word as a verb. Try affect or influence instead. Besides being hyperbolic, impact used as a verb is widely considered a solecism (though it is gaining ground).

impeachment. Impeachment is the legislative equivalent of an indictment, not a conviction. In the US federal system, the House of Representatives votes on impeachment and the Senate votes on removal from office.

impelled. See compelled.

implicit. See explicit.

imply; infer. The writer or speaker implies (hints, suggests); the reader or listener infers (deduces). Writers and speakers often use infer as if it were synonymous with imply, but careful writers always distinguish between the two words.

in actual fact. See actual fact, in.

inasmuch as. Because or since is almost always a better choice.

in behalf of. See behalf.

in connection with. This is a vague, fuzzy phrase {she explained the financial consequences in connection with the transaction} {a liking for everything in connection with golf} {Phipson was compensated in connection with its report}. Try replacing the phrase with of, related to, or associated with {she explained the financial consequences of the transaction}, about {a liking for everything about golf}, or for {Phipson was compensated for its report}.

incredible; incredulous. Incredible properly means “unbelievable.” Colloquially, it is used to mean “astonishing (in a good way)” {it was an incredible trip}. Incredulous means “disbelieving, skeptical” {people are incredulous about the rising gas costs}.

inculcate; indoctrinate. One inculcates values into a child but indoctrinates the child with values. That is, inculcate always takes the preposition into and a value or values as its object {inculcate courage into soldiers}. Indoctrinate takes a person as its object {indoctrinate children with the habit of telling the truth}.

indicate. Often vague. When possible, use a more direct verb such as state, comment, show, suggest, or say.

individual. Use this word to distinguish a single person from a group. When possible, use person or a more specific term such as adult, child, man, or woman.

indoctrinate. See inculcate.

induce. See adduce.

in excess of. Try replacing this verbose phrase with more than or over.

infectious. See contagious.

infer. See imply.

inference. Use the verb draw, not make, with inference {they drew the wrong inferences}. Otherwise, readers may confuse inference with implication.

inflammable. See flammable.

inflict; afflict. Events, illnesses, punishments, and the like are inflicted on living things or entities {an abuser inflicts cruelty}. The sufferers are afflicted with or by disease or troubles {agricultural communities afflicted with drought}.

ingenious; ingenuous. These words are similar in form but not in meaning. Ingenious describes what is intelligent, clever, and original {an ingenious invention}. Ingenuous describes what is candid, naive, and without dissimulation {a hurtful but ingenuous observation}.

innate; inherent. An innate characteristic is one that a living thing has from birth; it should be distinguished, then, from a talent or disposition that one acquires from training or experience. An inherent characteristic is also part of a thing’s nature, but life is not implied; a rock, for example, has an inherent hardness.

innervate. See enervate.

innocent; not guilty. If you are innocent, you are without blame. If you are not guilty, you have been exonerated by a jury. Newspapers avoid the “not guilty” phrase, though, because the consequences of accidentally leaving off the “not” could be serious.

innumerable. See enumerable.

in order to; in order for. Often these expressions can be reduced to and for. When that is so, and rhythm and euphony are preserved or even heightened, use to or for.

in proximity. See close proximity, in.

in regard to. This is the phrase, not in regards to. Try a single-word substitute instead: about, regarding, concerning.

insidious; invidious. What is insidious involves deceit and treachery {an insidious conspiracy}; what is invidious involves malice but not necessarily deceit {invidious discrimination}.

in spite of. See despite.

insure. See ensure.

intense; intensive. Intense is preferred in reference to colors, emotions, and personal efforts. Intensive describes concentration of attention and resources and is more often used to refer to work or study methods {labor-intensive} {intensive care}.

interpretive; interpretative. Although interpretative was considered the preferred form through the mid-twentieth century, it has largely fallen into disuse. Today interpretive is the standard term.

in the affirmative. See affirmative, in the.

in the event that. See event.

in the near future. See future.

in the negative. See affirmative, in the.

inveigh; inveigle. To inveigh is to protest, usually against something {picketers inveighed against annexation}. To inveigle is to cajole or ensnare {inveigle into attending the party}.

invidious. See insidious.

regardless. An error. Use regardless (or possibly irrespective).

it is I; it is me. Both are correct and acceptable. The first phrase is strictly grammatical (and stuffy); the second is idiomatic (and relaxed), and it is often contracted to its me. In the third-person constructions, however, a greater stringency holds sway in good English {this is he} {it isn’t she who has caused such misery}.

its; it’s. Its is the possessive form of it; it’s is the contraction for it is {it’s a sad dog that scratches its fleas}.

jealousy; envy. Jealousy connotes feelings of resentment toward another, particularly in matters relating to an intimate relationship. Envy refers to covetousness of another’s advantages, possessions, or abilities.

jibe. See gibe.

karat. See carat.

lady. When used as a synonym for woman—indeed when used anywhere but in the phrase ladies and gentlemen—this word will be considered objectionable by some readers who think that it refers to a patronizing stereotype. This is especially true when it is used for unprestigious jobs {cleaning lady} or as an adjective {lady lawyer}. Some will insist on using it to describe a refined woman. If they’ve consulted this entry, they’ve been forewarned. Cf. gentleman.

latter. See former.

laudable; laudatory. Laudable means “praiseworthy” {a laudable effort}. Laudatory means “expressing praise” {laudatory phone calls}.

lay; lie. Lay is a transitive verb—that is, it demands a direct object {lay your pencils down}. It is inflected lay–laid–laid {I laid the book there yesterday} {these rumors have been laid to rest}. (The children’s prayer Now I lay me down to sleep is a good mnemonic device for the transitive lay.) Lie is an intransitive verb—that is, it never takes a direct object {lie down and rest}. It is inflected lie–lay–lain {she lay down and rested} {he hasn’t yet lain down}.

leach; leech. To leach is to percolate or to separate out solids in solution by percolation. A leech is a bloodsucker (both literal and figurative).

lease; let. Many Americans seem to think that let is colloquial and of modern origin. In fact, the word is three hundred years older than lease and just as proper. One distinction between the two words is that either the owner or the tenant can be said to lease property, but only the owner can be said to let it.

led. This is the correct spelling of the past tense and past participle of the verb lead. It is often misspelled lead, maybe in part because of the pronunciation of the noun lead (the metal) or the past tense and past participle read, which rhyme with led.

lend, vb.; loan, vb. & n. Lend is the correct term for letting someone use something with the understanding that it (or its equivalent) will be returned. The verb loan is standard only when money is the subject of the transaction. Loan is the noun corresponding to both lend and loan, vb. The past-tense and past-participial form of lend is lent.

less; fewer. Reserve less for amounts or mass nouns—for example, less salt, dirt, water. Reserve fewer for countable things—for example, fewer people, calories, suggestions. One easy guideline is to use less with singular nouns {less money} and fewer with plural nouns {fewer dollars}.

let. See lease.

libel. See defamation.

lie. See lay.

life-and-death; life-or-death. The problem of logic aside (life and death being mutually exclusive), the first phrase is the standard idiom {a life-and-death decision}.

like; as. The use of like as a conjunction (as in the old jingle “like a cigarette should”) has long been a contentious issue. Purists insist that as must introduce a clause and like must always be a preposition coupled with a noun {cool like springwater}. The fall of that old rule has been predicted for five decades, but today like as a conjunction is still not standard. See also 5.181.

likely. See apt.

literally. This word means “actually; without exaggeration.” It should not be used loosely as an intensifier, as in they were literally glued to their seats (unless glue had in fact been applied).

loan. See lend.

loathe, vb.; loath, adj. To loathe something is to detest it or to regard it with disgust {I loathe tabloid television}. Someone who is loath is reluctant {Tracy seems loath to admit mistakes}.

lose; loose, vb.; loosen. To lose something is to be deprived of it. To loose something is to release it from fastenings or restraints. To loosen is to make less tight or to ease a restraint. Loose conveys the idea of complete release, whereas loosen refers to only a partial release.

luxuriant; luxurious. The two terms are fairly often confused. What is luxuriant is lush and grows abundantly {a luxuriant head of hair}. What is luxurious is lavish and extravagant {a luxurious resort}.

malevolent; maleficent. Malevolent means “evil in mind” {with malevolent intent}. Maleficent means “evil in deed” {a maleficent bully}.

malodorous. See odious.

maltreatment. See mistreatment.

manslaughter. See murder.

mantle; mantel. A mantle is a long, loose garment like a cloak. A mantel is a wood or stone structure around a fireplace.

masterful; masterly. Masterful describes a person who is dominating and imperious. Masterly describes a person who has mastered a craft, trade, or profession; the word often means “authoritative” {a masterly analysis}. Because masterly does not readily make an adverb (masterlily being extremely awkward [see 5.154]), try in a masterly way.

may; can. See can.

may; might. May expresses what is possible, is factual, or could be factual {I may have turned off the stove, but I can’t recall doing it}. Might suggests something that is uncertain, hypothetical, or contrary to fact {I might have won the marathon if I had entered}. See 5.146.

me. See I.

media; mediums. In scientific contexts and in reference to mass communications, the plural of medium is media {some bacteria flourish in several types of media} {the media are now issuing reports}. But if medium refers to a spiritualist, the plural is mediums {several mediums have held séances here}.

memoranda; memorandums. Although both plural forms are correct, memoranda is more common. Memoranda is sometimes misused as if it were singular.

minuscule. Something that is minuscule is “very small.” Probably because of the spelling of the modern word mini (and the prefix of the same spelling, which is recorded only from 1936), it is often misspelled miniscule (which is treated as a variant in some dictionaries). In printing, minuscules and majuscules are lowercase and capital letters, respectively.

mistreatment; maltreatment. Mistreatment is the more general term. Maltreatment denotes a harsh form of mistreatment, involving abuse by rough or cruel handling.

mitigate; militate. Mitigate, like its synonym extenuate, means “to lessen or soften”; so mitigating circumstances lessen the seriousness of a crime. Militate, by contrast, means “to have a marked effect on” and is usually followed by against {his nearsightedness militated against his ambition to become a commercial pilot}.

moot; mute. Mute means silent {he remained mute}. Moot traditionally meant debatable, so that a moot point was an arguable one, but today a moot point, in American English, is one that has no practical significance because it is hypothetical. The shift in meaning resulted from American legal usage.

much; very. Much generally intensifies past-participial adjectives {much obliged} {much encouraged} and some comparatives {much more} {much worse} {much too soon}. Very intensifies adverbs and most adjectives {very carefully} {very bad}, including past-participial adjectives that have more adjectival than verbal force {very bored}. See 5.89.

murder; manslaughter; homicide. All three words denote the killing of one person by another. Murder and manslaughter are both unlawful killings, but murder is done maliciously and intentionally. Homicide includes killings that are not unlawful, such as by a police officer acting properly in the line of duty. Homicide also refers to a person who kills another.

mutual. See common.

myself. Avoid using myself as a pronoun in place of I or me. Use it reflexively {I did myself a favor} or emphatically {I myself have tried to get through that tome!}. See also 5.48.

naturalist; naturist. Naturalist most often denotes a person who studies natural history, especially a field biologist or an amateur who observes and photographs, sketches, or writes about nature. Naturist denotes a nature worshiper or a nudist.

nauseous; nauseated. Whatever is nauseous induces a feeling of nausea—it makes us feel sick to our stomachs. To feel sick is to be nauseated. The use of nauseous to mean nauseated may be too common to be called error anymore, but strictly speaking it is poor usage. Because of the ambiguity in nauseous, the wisest course may be to stick to the participial adjectives nauseated and nauseating.

necessary; necessitous. Necessary means “required under the circumstances” {the necessary arrangements}. Necessitous means “impoverished” {living in necessitous circumstances}.

no. See affirmative, in the.

noisome. This word has nothing to do with noise. It means noxious, offensive, foul-smelling {a noisome factory}.

none. This word may take either a singular or a plural verb. A guideline: if it is followed by a singular noun, treat it as a singular {none of the building was painted}; if by a plural noun, treat it as a plural {none of the guests were here when I arrived}. But for special emphasis, it is quite proper (though possibly stilted) to use a singular verb when a plural noun follows {none of the edits was accepted}.

notable; noticeable; noteworthy. Notable (“readily noticed”) applies both to physical things and to qualities {notable sense of humor}. Noticeable means “detectable with the physical senses” {a noticeable limp}. Noteworthy means “remarkable” {a noteworthy act of kindness}.

notwithstanding. One word. Less formal alternatives include despite, although, and in spite of. The word notwithstanding may precede or follow a noun {notwithstanding her bad health, she decided to run for office} {her bad health notwithstanding, she decided to run for office}.

number. See amount.

numerous. This is typically a bloated word for many.

observance; observation. Observance means “obedience to a rule or custom” {the family’s observance of Passover}. Observation means either “a study of something” or “a remark based on such a study” {a keen observation about the defense strategy}. Each term is sometimes used when the other would be the better word.

obtain. See attain.

obtuse; abstruse. Obtuse describes a person who can’t understand; abstruse describes an idea that is hard to understand. A person who is obtuse is dull and, by extension, dull-witted. What is abstruse is incomprehensible or nearly so.

odious; odorous; odoriferous; malodorous. Odious means hateful {odious Jim Crow laws}. It is not related to the other terms, but it is sometimes misused as if it were. Odorous means detectable by smell, for better or worse. Odoriferous means essentially the same thing, although it has meant “fragrant” as often as it has meant “foul.” Malodorous means smelling quite bad. The mistaken form odiferous is often used as a jocular equivalent of smelly—but most dictionaries don’t record it.

odoriferous. See odious.

off. Never put of after this word {we got off the bus}.

officious. A person who is officious is aggressively nosy and meddlesome. The word has nothing to do with an officer and should not be confused with official.

on; upon. Prefer on to upon unless introducing an event or condition {put that on the shelf, please} {upon the job’s completion, you’ll get paid}. For more about on, see onto.

on behalf of. See behalf.

one another. See each other.

oneself. One word—not one’s self.

onto; on to; on. When is on a preposition and when is it an adverb? The sense of the sentence should tell, but the distinction can be subtle. Onto implies a movement, so it has an adverbial flavor even though it is a preposition {the gymnast jumped onto the bars}. When on is part of the verbal phrase, it is an adverb and to is the preposition {the gymnast held on to the bars}. One trick is to mentally say “up” before on: if the sentence still makes sense, then onto is probably the right choice. Alone, on does not imply motion {the gymnast is good on the parallel bars}.

oppress; repress. Oppress, meaning “to persecute or tyrannize,” is more negative than repress, meaning “to restrain or subordinate.”

oral. See verbal.

oration. See peroration.

ordinance; ordnance. An ordinance is a municipal regulation or an authoritative decree. Ordnance is military armament, especially artillery but also weapons and ammunition generally.

orient; orientate. To orient is to get one’s bearings or point another in the right direction (literally to find east) {it took the new employee a few days to get oriented to the firm’s suite}. Unless used in the sense “to face or turn to the east,” orientate is a poor variation to be avoided. It is a back-formation from the noun orientation, analogous to the illegitimate interpretate for interpret.

ought; should. Both express a sense of duty, but ought is stronger. Unlike should, ought requires a fully expressed infinitive, even in the negative {you ought not to see the movie}. See 5.148, 5.149.

outside. In spatial references, no of is necessary—or desirable—after this word unless it is used as a noun {outside the shop} {the outside of the building}. But outside of is acceptable as a colloquialism meaning “except for” or “aside from.”

over. As an equivalent of more than, this word is perfectly good idiomatic English.

overly. Avoid this word, which is widely considered poor usage. Try over- as a prefix or unduly.

pair. This is a singular form, despite the inherent sense of twoness. The plural is pairs {three pairs of shoes}.

pandemic. See epidemic.

parameters. Though it may sound elegant or scientific, this word is usually just pretentious when it is used in nontechnical contexts. Stick to boundaries, limits, guidelines, grounds, elements, or some other word.

partake in; partake of. To partake in is to participate in {the new student refused to partake in class discussions}. To partake of is either to get a part of {partake of the banquet} or to have a quality, at least to some extent {this assault partakes of revenge}.

partly; partially. Both words convey the sense “to some extent; in part” {partly disposed of}. Partly is preferred in that sense. But partially has the additional senses of “incompletely” {partially cooked} and “unfairly; in a way that shows bias toward one side” {he treats his friends partially}.

pastime. This word combines pass (not past) and time, and is spelled with a single t.

peaceable; peaceful. A peaceable person or nation is inclined to avoid strife {peaceable kingdom}. A peaceful person, place, or event is serene, tranquil, and calm {a peaceful day free from demands}.

peak; peek; pique. These three sometimes get switched through writerly blunders. A peak is an apex, a peek is a quick or illicit glance, and a fit of pique is an episode of peevishness and wounded vanity. To pique is to annoy or arouse: an article piques (not peaks) one’s interest.

pendant, n.; pendent, adj. A pendant is an item of dangling jewelry, especially one worn around the neck. What is pendent is hanging or suspended.

penultimate. This word means “the next to last.” Many people have started misusing it as a fancy equivalent of ultimate.

people; persons. The traditional view is that persons is used for smaller numbers {three persons} and people with larger ones {millions of people}. But today most people use people even for small groups {only three people were there}.

period of time; time period. Avoid these phrases. Try period or time instead.

peroration; oration. A peroration, strictly speaking, is the conclusion of an oration (speech). Careful writers avoid using peroration to refer to a rousing speech or text.

perpetuate; perpetrate. To perpetuate something is to sustain it or prolong it indefinitely {perpetuate the species}. To perpetrate is to commit or perform (an act) {perpetrate a crime}.

personally. Three points. First, use this word only when an actor does something that would normally be done through an agent {the president personally signed this invitation} or to limit other considerations {Jean was affected by the decision but was not personally involved in it}. Second, personally is redundant when combined with an activity that requires the actor’s presence (personally shook hands should be simply shook hands). Third, personally shouldn’t appear with I when stating an opinion; it weakens the statement and doesn’t reduce the speaker’s liability for the opinion. The only exception arises if a person is required to advance someone else’s view but holds a different personal opinion {in the chamber I voted to lower taxes because of the constituencies I represented; but I personally believed that taxes should have been increased}.

persons. See people.

persuade; convince. Persuade is associated with actions {persuade him to buy a suit}. Convince is associated with beliefs or understandings {she convinced the auditor of her honesty}. The phrase persuade to [do] has traditionally been considered better than convince to [do]. But either verb will take a that-clause {the committee was persuaded that an all-night session was necessary} {my three-year-old is convinced that Santa Claus exists}.

pertain; appertain. Pertain to, the more common term, means “to relate to” {the clause pertains to assignment of risk}. Appertain to means “to belong to by right” {Fifth Amendment rights appertaining to the defendant}.

phase. See faze.

phenomenon. This is a singular form. The plural is phenomena.

pique. See peak.

pitiable; pitiful. To be pitiable is to be worthy of pity. To be pitiful is to be contemptible.

pleaded; pled. The first is the standard past-tense and past-participial form {he pleaded guilty} {they have pleaded with their families}. Avoid pled.

pore. To pore over something written is to read it intently. Some writers mistakenly substitute pour.

practicable; possible; practical. These terms differ in shading. What is practicable is capable of being done; it’s feasible. What is possible might be capable of happening or being done, but there is some doubt. What is practical is fit for actual use.

precipitate, adj.; precipitous. What is precipitate occurs suddenly or rashly; the term describes demands, actions, or movements. What is precipitous is dangerously steep; this term describes cliffs and inclines.

precondition. Try condition or prerequisite instead.

predominant; predominate. Like dominant, predominant is an adjective {a predominant point of view}. Like dominate, predominate is a verb {a point of view that predominates throughout the state}. Using predominate as an adjective is common but loose usage—and the adverb predominately (for the correct predominantly) is likely to make the literary person’s teeth hurt.

preface. See foreword.

prejudice, vb. Although prejudice is a perfectly normal English noun to denote an all-too-common trait, the verb is a legalism. For a plain-English equivalent, use harm or hurt.

preliminary to. Make it before, in preparing for, or some other natural phrasing.

prescribe. See proscribe.

presently. This word is ambiguous. Write now or soon, whichever you really mean.

presumption. See assumption.

preventive. Although the corrupt form preventative (with the superfluous syllable in the middle) is fairly common, the strictly correct form is preventive.

previous to. Make it before.

principle; principal. A principle is a natural, moral, or legal rule {the principle of free speech}. The corresponding adjective is principled {a principled decision}. A principal is a person of high authority or prominence {a school principal} or a loan amount requiring repayment {principal and interest}. A principal role is a primary one.

prior to. Make it before or until.

process of, in the. You can almost always delete this phrase without affecting the meaning.

propaganda. This is a singular noun {propaganda was everywhere}. The plural is propagandas.

prophesy; prophecy. Prophesy is the verb {the doomsayers prophesied widespread blackouts for Y2K}. Prophecy is the noun {their prophecies did not materialize}. Prophesize is an erroneous form sometimes encountered.

proscribe; prescribe. To proscribe something is to prohibit it {legislation that proscribes drinking while driving}. To prescribe is to appoint or dictate (a rule or course of action) {Henry VIII prescribed the order of succession to include three of his children} or to specify a medical remedy {the doctor prescribed anti-inflammatory pills and certain exercises}.

protuberance. So spelled. Perhaps because protrude means “to stick out,” writers want to spell protuberance (something that bulges out) with an extra r (after the t). But the words are from different roots.

proved; proven. Proved is the preferred past-participial form of prove {it was proved to be true}. Use proven as an adjective {a proven success}.

proximity. See close proximity, in.

purposely; purposefully. What is done purposely is done intentionally, or “on purpose.” What is done purposefully is done with a certain goal in mind. An action may be done purposely without any particular interest in a specific result—that is, not purposefully.

question whether; question of whether; question as to whether. The first phrasing is the best, the second is next best, and the third is to be avoided. See as to.

quick(ly). Quickly is the general adverb. But quick is properly used as an adverb in the idiomatic phrases get rich quick and come quick. See 5.157.

quote; quotation. Traditionally a verb, quote is often used as an equivalent of quotation in speech and informal writing. Also, there is a tendency for writers (especially journalists) to think of quotes as contemporary remarks usable in their writing and of quotations as being wisdom of the ages expressed pithily.

rack. See wrack.

reason why. Although some object to the supposed redundancy of this phrase, it is centuries old and perfectly acceptable English. And reason that is not always an adequate substitute.

reek. See wreak.

refrain; restrain. To refrain is to restrain yourself (to refrain from or stop doing something); it is typically an act of self-discipline. Other people restrain you {if you don’t refrain from the disorderly conduct, the police will restrain you}.

regrettable; regretful. What is regrettable is unfortunate or deplorable. A person who is regretful feels regret or sorrow for something done or lost. The adverb regrettably, not regretfully, is the synonym of unfortunately.

rein; reign. A rein (usu. plural) controls a horse; it is the right word in idioms such as “take the reins,” “give free rein,” and, as a verb, “rein in.” A reign is a state of or term of dominion, especially that of a monarch but by extension dominance in some field. This is the right word in idioms such as “reign of terror” and, as a verb, “reign supreme.”

relegate; delegate. To relegate is to assign a lesser position {the officer was relegated to desk duty pending an investigation} or to hand over for decision or execution {the application was relegated to the human services committee}. To delegate is to authorize another to act on one’s behalf {Congress delegated environmental regulation to the EPA}.

renounce. See denounce.

repellent; repulsive. Repellent and repulsive both denote the character of driving others away. But repulsive has strong negative connotations of being truly disgusting.

repetitive; repetitious. Both mean “occurring over and over.” But whereas repetitive is fairly neutral in connotation, repetitious has taken on the nuance of tediousness.

repulsive. See repellent.

restive; restful. Restive has two senses: (1) “impatient, stubborn” and (2) “restless, agitated.” Restful means “conducive to rest.”

restrain. See refrain.

reticent. This word should not be used as a synonym for reluctant. It means “inclined to be silent; reserved; taciturn” {when asked about the incident, the congressional representative became uncharacteristically reticent}.

revenge. See avenge.

rob; steal. Both verbs mean “to wrongfully take [something from another person].” But rob also includes a threat or act of harming, usually but not always to the person being robbed.

run the gantlet; throw down the gauntlet. These are the traditional idioms, a gantlet being a path between two lines of tormentors and a gauntlet being a knight’s glove. The first idiom refers to a means of punishment, the second to a dare (which the challenger accepts by picking up the gauntlet). Purists object to the frequently seen run the gauntlet.

sacrilegious. This is the correct spelling, though there is a tendency by some to switch the i and e on either side of the l. In fact, the word is related to sacrilege, not religion and religious.

seasonal; seasonable. Seasonal means either “dependent on a season” {snow skiing is a seasonal hobby} or “relating to the seasons or a season” {the seasonal aisle stays stocked most of the year, starting with Valentine’s Day gifts in January}. Seasonable means “timely” {seasonable motions for continuance} or “fitting the season” {it was unseasonably cold for July}.

self-deprecating. See deprecate.

semi-. See bi-.

semiannual. See biannual.

sensor. See censor.

sensual; sensuous. What is sensual involves indulgence of the senses—especially sexual gratification. What is sensuous usually applies to aesthetic enjoyment; only hack writers imbue the word with salacious connotations.

sewer; sewage; sewerage. Sewer denotes wastewater pipes; sewage denotes the matter carried through those pipes. Sewerage is the better term for the sewer system as a whole, including treatment plants and other facilities, and for the function of the disposal of sewage and wastewater in general.

shine. When this verb is intransitive, it means “to give or make light”; the past tense is shone {the stars shone dimly}. When it is transitive, it means “to cause to shine”; the past tense is shined {the caterer shined the silver}.

sight; site. A sight may be something worth seeing {the sights of London} or a device to aid the eye {the sight of a gun}, among other things. A site is a place, whether physical {a mall will be built on this site} or electronic {website}. The figurative expression meaning “to focus on a goal” is to set one’s sights. Cf. cite.

since. This word may relate either to time {since last winter} or to causation {since I’m a golfer, I know what “double bogey” means}. Some writers erroneously believe that the word relates exclusively to time. But the causal since was a part of the English language before Chaucer wrote in the fourteenth century, and it is useful as a slightly milder way of expressing causation than because. But where there is any possibility of confusion with the temporal sense, use because.

site. See cite; sight.

slander. See defamation.

slew; slough; slue. Slew is an informal word equivalent to many or lots {you have a slew of cattle}. It is sometimes misspelled slough (a legitimate noun meaning “a grimy swamp” and pronounced to rhyme with now) or slue (a legitimate verb meaning “to swing around”). The phrase slough of despond (from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress [1678]) means a state of depression. This is etymologically different from slough (/sləf/), meaning “to discard” {slough off dry skin}.

slow. This word, like slowly, may be an adverb. Generally, prefer slowly {go slowly}. But when used after the verb in a pithy statement, especially an injunction, slow often appears in colloquial usage {Go slow!} {take it slow}. See 5.157.

slue. See slew.

sneak. This verb is conjugated sneak–sneaked–sneaked. Reserve snuck for dialect and tongue-in-cheek usages.

spit. If used to mean “to expectorate,” the verb is inflected spit–spat–spat {he spat a curse}. But if used to mean “to skewer,” it’s spit–spitted–spitted {the hens have been spitted for broiling}.

stanch. See staunch.

stationary; stationery. Stationary describes a state of immobility or of staying in one place {if it’s stationary, paint it}. Stationery denotes writing materials {love letters written on perfumed stationery}. To remember the two, try associating the ‑er in stationery with the ‑er in paper; or remember that a stationer is someone who sells the stuff.

staunch; stanch. Staunch is an adjective meaning “ardent and faithful” {a staunch Red Sox supporter}. Stanch is a verb meaning “to stop the flow”; it is almost always used in regard to bleeding, literally or metaphorically {after New Hampshire the campaign was hemorrhaging; only a big win in South Carolina could stanch the bleeding}.

steal. See rob.

strait; straight. A strait (often pl.) is (1) literally, a narrow channel between two large bodies of water {Strait of Magellan} or (2) figuratively, a difficult position {dire straits} {straitened circumstances}. This is the word used in compound terms with the sense of constriction {straitlaced} {straitjacket}. Straight is most often an adjective meaning unbent, steady, sober, candid, honest, or heterosexual.

strategy; tactics. A strategy is a long-term plan for achieving a goal. Tactics are shorter-term plans for achieving an immediate but limited success. A strategy might involve several tactics.

subsequent. See consequent.

subsequently. Try later.

subsequent to. Make it after.

such. This word, when used to replace this or that—as in “such building was later condemned”—is symptomatic of legalese. Such is actually no more precise than the, this, that, these, or those. It is perfectly acceptable, however, to use such with a mass noun or plural noun when the meaning is “of that type” or “of this kind” {such impudence galled the rest of the family} {such vitriolic exchanges became commonplace in the following years}.

sufficient. See adequate.

supersede. This word derives from sedeo, the Latin word for “to sit, to be established,” not cedo, meaning “to yield.” Hence the spelling variation from words such as concede, recede, and secede.

sympathy. See empathy.

systematic; systemic. Systematic means “according to a plan or system, methodical, or arranged in a system.” Systemic is limited in use to physiological systems {a systemic disease affecting several organs} or, by extension, other systems that may be likened to the body {systemic problems within the corporate hierarchy}.

tactics. See strategy.

take. See bring.

tantalizing; titillating. A tantalizing thing torments us because we want it badly and it is always just out of reach. A titillating thing tickles us pleasantly, literally or figuratively.

thankfully. This word traditionally means “appreciatively; gratefully.” It is not in good use as a substitute for thank goodness or fortunately. Cf. hopefully.

that; which. These are both relative pronouns (see 5.54–63). In polished American prose, that is used restrictively to narrow a category or identify a particular item being talked about {any building that is taller must be outside the state}; which is used nonrestrictively—not to narrow a class or identify a particular item but to add something about an item already identified {alongside the officer trotted a toy poodle, which is hardly a typical police dog}. Which should be used restrictively only when it is preceded by a preposition {the situation in which we find ourselves}. Otherwise, it is almost always preceded by a comma, a parenthesis, or a dash. In British English, writers and editors seldom observe the distinction between the two words. See also 6.22.

there; their; they’re. There denotes a place or direction {stay there}. There is the possessive pronoun {all their good wishes}. They’re is a contraction of they are {they’re calling now}.

therefore; therefor. The words have different senses. Therefore, the common word, means “as a consequence; for that reason” {the evidence of guilt was slight; therefore, the jury acquitted the defendant}. Therefor, a legalism, means “in return for” or “for it” {he brought the unworn shirt back to the store and received a refund therefor}.

thus. This is the adverb—not thusly.

till. This is a perfectly good preposition and conjunction {open till 10 p.m.}. It is not a contraction of until and should not be written ’til.

timbre; timber. Timbre is a musical term meaning tonal quality. Timber is the correct spelling in all other uses.

time period. See period of time.

titillating. See tantalizing.

tolerance; toleration. Tolerance is the habitual quality of being tolerant; toleration is a particular instance of being tolerant.

torpid. See turbid.

tortious; tortuous; torturous. What is tortious relates to torts (civil wrongs) or to acts that give rise to legal claims for torts {tortious interference with a contract}. What is tortuous is full of twists and turns {a tortuous path through the woods}. What is torturous involves torture or severe discomfort {a torturous exam}.

toward; towards. The preferred form is without the ‑s in American English, with it in British English. The same is true for other directional words, such as upward, downward, forward, and backward, as well as afterward. The use of afterwards and backwards as adverbs is neither rare nor incorrect. But for the sake of consistency, it is better to stay with the simpler form.

transcript; transcription. A transcript is a written record, as of a trial or a radio program. Transcription is the act or process of creating a transcript.

trillion. See billion.

triumphal; triumphant. Things are triumphal {a triumphal arch}, but only people feel triumphant {a triumphant Caesar returned to Rome}.

turbid; turgid; torpid. Turbid water is thick and opaque from churned-up mud {a turbid pond}; by extension turbid means “unclear, confused, or disturbed” {a turbid argument}. Turgid means “swollen,” and by extension “pompous and bombastic” {turgid prose}. Torpid means “idle and lazy” {a torpid economy}.

unique. Reserve this word for the sense “one of a kind.” Avoid it in the sense “special, unusual.” Phrases such as very unique, more unique, somewhat unique, and so on—in which a degree is attributed to unique—are poor usage. See also 5.88.

unlawful; illegal; illicit; criminal. This list is in ascending order of negative connotation. An unlawful act may even be morally innocent (for example, letting a parking meter expire). But an illegal act is something society formally condemns, and an illicit act calls to mind moral degeneracy {illicit drug use}. Unlike criminal, the first three terms can apply to civil wrongs.

unorganized. See disorganized.

unreadable. See illegible.

upon. See on.

use; usage; utilize. Use is usually the best choice for simplicity. Usage refers to a customary practice. Utilize is usually an overblown alternative of use, but it is occasionally the better choice when the distinct sense is “to use to best effect.”

venal; venial. A person who is venal is mercenary or open to bribery {a venal government official}; a thing that is venal is purchasable {venal livestock}. What is venial is pardonable or excusable {a venial offense} {a venial error}.

verbal; oral. If something is put into words, it is verbal. Technically, verbal covers both written and spoken utterance. But if you wish to specify that something was conveyed through speech, use oral.

very. See much.

vocation. See avocation.

voluminous. See compendious.

whether. Generally, use whether alone—not with the words or not tacked on {they didn’t know whether to go}. The or not is necessary only when you mean to convey the idea of “regardless of whether” {we’ll finish on time whether or not it rains}. See also if.

which. See that.

while. While may substitute for although or whereas, especially if a conversational tone is desired {while many readers may disagree, the scientific community has overwhelmingly adopted the conclusions here presented}. Yet because while can denote either time or contrast, the word is occasionally ambiguous; when a real ambiguity exists, although or whereas is the better choice.

who; whom. Here are the traditional rules. Who is a nominative pronoun used as (1) the subject of a finite verb {it was Jim who bought the coffee today} or (2) a predicate nominative when it follows a linking verb {that’s who}. Whom is an objective pronoun that may appear as (1) the object of a verb {I learned nothing about the man whom I saw} or (2) the object of a preposition {the woman to whom I owe my life}. Today there are two countervailing trends: first, there’s a decided tendency to use who colloquially in most contexts; second, among those insecure about their grammar, there’s a tendency to overcorrect oneself and use whom when who would be correct. Writers and editors of formal prose often resist the first of these; everyone should resist the second. See also 5.63.

whoever; whomever. Avoid the second unless you are certain of your grammar {give this book to whoever wants it} {I cook for whomever I love}. If you are uncertain why these examples are correct, use anyone who or (as in the second example) anyone.

who’s; whose. The first is a contraction {Who’s on first?}, the second a possessive {Whose life is it, anyway?}. Unlike who and whom, whose may refer to things as well as people {the Commerce Department, whose bailiwick includes intellectual property}. See 5.61.

whosever; whoever’s. The first is correct (though increasingly rare) in formal writing {whosever bag that is, it needs to be moved out of the way}; the second is acceptable in casual usage {whoever’s dog got into our garbage can, he or she should clean up the mess}.

wrack; rack. To wrack is to severely damage or completely destroy {a storm-wracked ship}. (Wrack is also a noun denoting wreckage {the storm’s wrack}.) To rack is to torture by means of stretching with an instrument {rack the prisoner until he confesses} or to stretch beyond capacity {to rack one’s brain}.

wreak; reek. Wreak means “to force (something) on” in the sense of causing damage or revenge; the past tense is wreaked, not wrought. (The latter is an archaic form of the past tense and past participle of work.) Reek can be a verb meaning “to stink” or a noun meaning “stench.”

wrong; wrongful. These terms are not interchangeable. Wrong has two senses: (1) “immoral, unlawful” {it’s wrong to bully smaller children} and (2) “improper, incorrect, unsatisfactory” {the math answers are wrong}. Wrongful likewise has two senses: (1) “unjust, unfair” {wrongful conduct} and (2) “unsanctioned by law; having no legal right” {it was a wrongful demand on the estate}.

yes. See affirmative, in the.

your; you’re. Your is the possessive form of you. You’re is the contraction for you are.