English is filled with words that look alike or sound alike (or both), but mean very different things — so it's easy to get confused and use the wrong word at the wrong moment.
As "word nerds" and podcast hosts of NPR's "You're Saying it Wrong," we're constantly on the lookout for these mistakes. And we've seen them everywhere, from corporate reports, resumes and cover letters, to major publications.
But if you're aware of the different meanings of these words, you won't fall into the same traps. Here's a list of some of the most commonly confused words in the English language:
Imply and infer both have to do with communicating and understanding information. But when you imply, you're the speaker; you're giving the information. When you infer, you're the listener or the reader receiving the information.
In other words, imply means to suggest something or hint at it without saying it outright. Infer means to conclude something based on signals or evidence you've picked up — ones that aren't explicitly expressed.
- She implied that she wanted a raise, instead of asking for it bluntly.
- The manager inferred from her comments that she'd quit if she weren't paid more.
Imminent means something is about to happen, while eminent means distinguished or standing out. Some linguists think that both words come from the same Latin root word mons, or mountain, which makes sense.
Eminent and especially preeminent people (eminent with the prefix "pre," meaning super eminent) jut out from the crowd, and imminent things loom before us as we near them.
- She is an eminent doctor.
- The CEO's arrival is imminent, so get ready!
Ensure basically means to make certain. Assure means to reassure, or to give confidence to someone. Insure is to arrange for monetary compensation in the case of unfortunate events.
Three words with three different meanings, and, just to make it more complicated, sometimes there's overlap in the meanings. For example, particularly in the U.K., assure can mean insure. But for the most part, the basic definitions should be followed.
- I assure you I will ensure that I insure my house.
There's just one letter differentiating these two words, and there's also one very big difference between them: They're completely different parts of speech.
Advice is a noun, meaning information or guidance that someone or something gives you. Advise is a verb, meaning to give someone advice.
- Her boss gave her excellent advice on how to further her career.
- Her boss advised her on many different career matters.
People get these two mixed up all the time. Altogether is an adverb meaning completely or entirely. All together is a phrase meaning all in one place or all at once.
(Tip: when "all together" is used correctly, you can separate the "all" from the "together" and it will still make sense.)
- Words that look and sound the same can be altogether confusing.
- All together now, sing along with me!
Bemused means to find something confusing or perplexing. It isn't, like so many people think, a synonym for amused. But people who should know better keep using bemused as amused.
When we did a quick Google search of news articles with "bemused" in their headlines, we found only one correct usage of it on the first page of results.
- He was bemused by the logic puzzle.
- The barista was amused when his customer cracked a joke.
Here's a duo of easily confused words separated by only one vowel. But it's a very important vowel.
The word complementary with an "e" describes things that combine to enhance each other's qualities. Complimentary with an "i" describes things that convey praise or things that are free, like "compliments of the house."
(Here's a simple mnemonic to help you remember: If I get something free, it's complimentary.)
- Those two product lines are complementary.
- He was very complimentary about my performance at the conference.
Flare and flair are homophones — they sound exactly the same, even though they're spelled differently.
Flare, which can be both a noun and a verb, is connected with fire, either literally ("the candle flared") or figuratively ("the tempers flared"), or it can mean something spreading out ("the jeans flared"). Flair is a noun that means a special aptitude or ability, or a sense of style.
(We've heard many people talking about someone having a "flare" for something, when they definitely don't mean someone's on fire!)
- The match flared when he struck it.
- The copywriter had a flair for clever puns.
How often do you see something about someone "flaunting the rules"? Pretty often, we bet. But it actually should be "flouting the rules." This is one of the most common errors when it comes to confused words.
It's an easy mistake since flout and flaunt are paronyms — they look and sound similar. But they aren't interchangeable. Flaunt means to show off or to brazenly display. Flout means to openly disregard a rule or law.
- The Vegas star flaunted his velvet jacket and huge diamond pinky ring.
- She flouted the company rules one too many times and got fired.
Here's one that often trips up word snobs. They want to sound smarter than the rest of us, so instead of saying something is the "ultimate," they say it's the "penultimate."
But penultimate isn't a fancy way of saying ultimate — it's a fancy way of saying second from the last, or the last except for one in a series. So don't call your boss the penultimate leader if you're looking for a promotion.
- He choked on the penultimate lap, and by the final lap you could see he was going to lose.
- We can't predict the ultimate outcome of the race.
A prerequisite is a thing that is required as a prior condition. A perquisite, or perk for short, is something that you get in addition to your normal job salary, usually a non-cash benefit like use of a company car — or if you're really lucky, a private jet. (Hey, we can dream…)
- A working knowledge of a foreign language was a prerequisite for the job.
- In addition to a great salary, he got a nice perquisite: a leased luxury car.
Kathy and Ross Petras are the brother-and-sister co-authors of "Awkword Moments," "You're Saying It Wrong" and "That Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means." Their work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Harvard Business Review. Follow them on Twitter @kandrpetras.