English is a funny beast. Some words are clear in their meaning and their spelling, and others just seem mean spirited and difficult on principle. Iíve gathered a few of these quirky little guys that Iíve seen abused and misused recently, and Iíll try to clear things up. Definitions come from the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), examples and interpretations are mine alone.
Adapt/adopt: To adapt is to make suitable for a specific use or situation. To adopt is to take a course of action or choose as a standard or as required, to vote for something, or to welcome a non-family member into the family. The way I keep them straight is by remembering the last part. Adopting is taking something as-is into your own circumstance. Adapting is to change it to accommodate your needs.
Administer/minister: To administer is to manage to give or apply in a formal way, to mete out or dispense, or to impose or offer (legal). To minister is to tend to anotherís needs. This one is a little confusing because when you minister, you are often administering as well. Maybe for simplicityís sake, just use administer when youíre talking about technical stuff.
Accede/exceed: To accede is to give consent, often at the insistence of another; itís a synonym for assent. To exceed is to be beyond expectations or other limits; itís a synonym for surpass.
Affluence/effluence: Affluence is a plentiful supply of worldly goods. (The AHD says that the preferred pronunciation is with the accent on the first syllable, by the way.) Its third meaning is as a form of the word afflux, a flowing toward a specific point. Effluence is the act or an instance of flowing out, or something that flows outóan emanation. If youíre using the word to mean a flow, affluence is toward, effluence is away.
Alumnus/alumni: Alumnus is a (male) graduate or student of a school, college, or university. (Alumna is the female form.) Alumni is the plural of the male form, but is usually used to include both genders (although alumnae is available for purists looking for a name for female graduates).
Amoral/immoral: Amoral means without morals. Immoral (note the double M) means contrary to established moral principles.
Anecdote/antidote: An anecdote is a short account of a humorous incident, occasionally previously unpublished historical accounts. An antidote is a remedy or other agent used to neutralize or counteract the effects of a poison or other unpleasant thing.
Appraise/apprise: To appraise is to evaluate something. To apprise is to give notice or inform.
Bi-weekly/semi-weekly: Bi-weekly means every other week. Semi-weekly means twice a week. This is a tricky one, but you can apply the meanings to bi- and semi-monthly, bi- and semi-annually, and so forth.
Continual/continuous: Continual means recurring regularly or frequently. Continuous means uninterrupted in time, sequence, substance or extent, attached together in repeated units. Itís considered a synonym of continual, but the subtle difference is that continual means it keeps happening, and continuous means it doesnít stop happening.
Differ/different/vary/various: To differ is to be dissimilar in quality, amount, or form, or to be of opposing opinions. Different means to be dissimilar in quality, amount, or form. You say that something is different from something else, not different than. To vary is to make or cause changes in characteristics or attributes, to modify or alter. Various means to be of diverse kinds, unlike, or differentóvarious is more similar to the word different than to the word vary. So when you propose that someone select from among thirty options, they are selecting from various options not different options. Oh, you might say differing options and Iíd let you slide. But I would hope that the options were all different from each other. It would be silly to offer thirty options that were all the same, wouldnít it?
e.g./i.e: The abbreviation e.g. stands for exempli gratia, which is Latin for ďfree example.Ē Itís just like saying ďfor example,Ē so you might as well just say ďfor example.Ē The abbreviation i.e. stands for id est, which means ďthat isĒ in Latin. You might as well say ďthat isĒ and then paraphrase yourself.
Infamous/notorious: Infamous means having an exceedingly bad reputation. Notorious means known widely and usually unfavorably. These arenít too dissimilar in their definitions; infamous is a worse reputation than notorious.
Intense/intensive: Intense means possessing or displaying a distinctive feature to an extreme degree. Intensive means of or relating to marked intensity. Intensive is usually used when the circumstanceís extremity is imposed from outside, like an intensive course of study. You could find the class too intense (the feeling you get in response to the class). You study the subject intensely; the class itself was intensive in content.
Lay/lie: Lay is a transitive verb and means to place or set down. Lie is an intransitive verb and means to be or stay at rest in a horizontal position. Use lay when you place the object down, lie when the object is already down.
Less/fewer: Less means not as great in quantity or amount, but not necessarily something you could count. Use less with water or crowding, for instance. Fewer means amounting or consisting of a smaller number. Use fewer with things you could count. Fewer people came to the party than expected.
Libel/slander: Libel is a false publication in writing or print that maliciously damages a personís reputation. Slander is oral communication of false statements that are injurious to a personís reputation.
Medium/median: Medium is an intermediary course of action, an intervening substance through which something else is transmitted or carried, or a person who is thought to have the ability to communicate with the dead. Median is relating to, located in, or extending toward the middle. Itís the middle value in something organized by size.
Nauseated/nauseous: Nauseated is an intransitive verbóitís not a noun, itís an action. Nauseous is an adjective, so itís how someone is. The swaying boat nauseated him, and so he felt nauseous. See? Itís a tricky one.
Oppress/repress: To oppress is to hold down by severe and unjust use of force or authority. To repress is to hold back by an act of volition or put down by force. I think oppression is institutionalized repression and repression as a personal choice.
Parameter/perimeter: There are mathematical definitions for parameter, but the literary one is a factor that restricts what is possible or what results. Perimeter also has mathematical definitions, but the literary one is the outer limits or boundary of an area.
Proscribe, prescribe: To proscribe is to denounce or condemn or to prohibit. To prescribe is to set down as a rule or guide, to order the use of (like a medicine), or to establish rules and laws.
Rationale/rational/rationalize: Rationale is the basis, the fundamental reasons, for a point of view. Rational is having or exercising the ability to reason or a logical argument. Rationalize is to make rational, perhaps despite evidence that the conclusion is unreasonable.
Sarcastic/ironic: A sarcastic remark is cutting, often ironic, and a form of wit that makes the subject the butt of contempt or ridicule. An ironic remark expresses something different from and often opposite to the literal meaning. Sarcasm makes a victim of someone or something; irony points out an incongruity.
Set/sit: Set is a transitive verb used when something is put in a specified place. Set the tray on the table, please. Sit is a transitive verb used when someone or something is caused to be seated or is already at rest. Sit down on that bench, please. Yes, these verbs are very similar, but you can think of setting as when the object moves from one place or position to another place or position, and sitting is when the thing is already in the place or position. Setting is placing an object in any position; sitting is placing an object in a seated position.
Warrantee/warranty: A warrantee is a person who is a subject of a warrant; this is not a variation on the spelling of warranty. A warranty is official authorization, sanction or warrant. Legally, a warranty declares that goods or property are as represented or promised.
Oh, there are lots more words like these, pairs with similar spellings or meanings. Be sure to send them to me if you find any. Iíll have more posts on odd spellings or confounding uses, of course, Ďcuz thatís what I do.