Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Confusing Word Pairs

by Annette Lyon

I'm putting on my grammar police hat today in hopes of clarifying some commonly confused word pairs.

imply/infer
Hearing this word pair used incorrectly is one of my personal pet peeves, and it's happening more and more often in casual conversation. But that doesn't mean you have to slip into laziness and do it wrong. Most mistakes use the two words interchangeably, as if both mean imply.

Incorrect example: "I couldn't believe she inferred such rude things when she was talking to me."

Why it's wrong:
Imply and infer are at opposite ends of the same relationship (sort of how a tenant/landlord are in the same relationship, or speaker/listener, but not doing the same thing).

In this case, the speaker IMPLIES something:
"Check out this pair of jeans. They're HUGE on me, so I'm sure they'd fit you."

The listener hears the implication and deduces from it (or infers) the meaning.
"Oh, she thinks I'm fat."


compliment/complement
When you tell someone that you love their shoes or that their new glasses sure look great, you're giving them a compliment.

On the other hand, if something completes or enhances an experience, it complements it, such as having just the right chocolate dessert after your favorite meal, a perfect complement to the feast.

This one's easy to remember: something that "completes" has the E in it, hence complement goes with it.


affect/effect
Almost always, one of these words is a VERB and the other is a NOUN.

Affect is the verb form, such as:
"The commerical affected me so deeply I cried."

Effect is the final result of something, such as:
"The commercial had a profound effect on me. I cried."

(An exception applies here, but it's rare, and chances are you'll never use "effect" as a verb. Don't worry about it.)


then/than
Easy to mix up, but easy to fix as well.

Then refers to a sequence of events: "I went to the bank and then to the movie."

Than compares two items: "I enjoyed this book much more than the last one I read."


ensure/insure/assure
A triple threat! No problem, though; they're still pretty easy.

Ensure: There's a good chance this is the word you're looking for. It means to make sure something will happen. When it doubt, use this one. Example: "To ensure the children's safety, the parents always buckled them in their car seats."

Insure: This is the common mistake form. Avoid using it unless you're referring to protecting your car or home. Only insurance companies insure: "How much would it cost to insure my old heap of a car?"

Assure: Less-often confused than the othe two. This one is used to denote giving confidence over an issue, such as: "She assured her son that she'd be at the concert."


eminent/imminent
A rising star or talent that stands out from the others would be considered eminent.
"The eminent dancer received a standing ovation for her solo."

Something about to happen at any moment would be imminent:
"I just knew my latest rejection was imminent."


allude/elude
If you refer to something, such as how Shakespeare often dropped in references to mythology into his work, you allude to that reference:

"Steinbeck frequently alludes to portions of the Bible in East of Eden."

If, on the other hand, you're running away from something or trying to avoid an issue, you need the other word: elude:

"The solution to the problem eluded me." OR
"The bank robber eluded the police."


fewer/less
Another pet peeve of mine. This one constantly is messed-up on network commercials.

Fewer belongs to COUNT NOUNS, or things you can actually count, such cars or calories:
"She enjoys the chocolate cake, even though the chocolate mousse has fewer calories."

Less belongs to NON-COUNT NOUNS, or things you cannot count but instead refer to in general quantities, such as flour or time:

"Be sure to use less flour in the cake than you did last time."

"He said it happened three weeks ago, but she was sure less time had passed than that."

If you're saying "cups of flour," you're now using "cups" as the noun, and you can count cups, so you'd use FEWER: "This recipe calls for fewer cups of flour than the other one."

With time, if you're discussing minutes or hours, you're again into count nouns and can use fewer. "It takes fewer hours to drive to Grandma's than to Aunt Marge's." But time by itself is generic and immeasureable, so you'd use less, as in the example above.

Please, please, don't make this mistake, which is how the two are usually messed up:

"Diet Coke has less calories than regular Coke."

NO!!! Diet Coke has fewer calories and is less fattening as a result.

I admit it; I'm a little neurotic when it comes to some of these things. I almost get an eye twitch when I hear "less calories" on TV. But that's because I'm an editor. I've trained myself to know the rules.

And here's the clincher: any editor you submit to will likely know the rules inside and out—and know full well if you've broken them. Don't give editors eye twitches. Make your writing smooth, clean, and seamless.

1 comment:

Heather B. Moore said...

I'm pretty good at this type of stuff. I can usually say it aloud and figure out which is correct. But knowing the technical differences between imply/infer explanation was really helpful!