Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Bewildering Words

There are lots of words that are similar in their meaning or their spelling—or both—and leave otherwise erudite authors in a puddle of verbal phobia. Let’s look at a few.


     Averse: Disinclined, reluctant, loath

     Adverse: Opposed, hostile, antagonistic


     Advice: (a noun) A recommendation regarding a decision or course of conduct

     Advise: (a verb) To give advice


     Discrete: Constituting a separate entity; individually distinct

     Discreet: Having or showing discernment or good judgement in conduct and especially in speech


     Farther: (comparative) At or to a greater distance or more advanced point. Use farther to describe physical distance.

     Further: (comparative) In addition, to a greater degree or extent. Use further to describe non-physical distance (“the book delved further into the topic”).


     Lay (transitive): To put or set down—in motion. The past tense is laid, the present participle (gerund) is laying, the past participle is laid.

     Lie (intransitive): To be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position. The past tense is lay, the present participle (gerund) is lying, the past participle is lain.


     Less: (comparative) Constituting a limited number. Use less if the compared term cannot reasonably be counted, like water or sand.

     Fewer: (comparative) A smaller number of limited things. Use fewer if the compared term can be counted, like applications or tortilla chips.


     Lets: Allows. Lets is more casual than allows, but means the same thing. (The hole under the fence lets the dog clamber through.)

     Let’s: A contraction for “let us.” Use let’s if you’re about to invite your reader to do a task.


     Log in/log on (verb): To enter personal data and get into a program. (The user must log in using the dialog box.)

     Login/logon (noun): Pre-programmed access to an application or program. (The login program ran automatically when the application executed.)


     Raise (transitive): To cause or help to rise, an act of standing or lifting

     Rise (intransitive): To assume an upright position, to ascend


     Set up (verb and preposition): To create an organization of something. (He set up the computer to his own specifications.)

     Setup (noun): The commencement aspect of a program or application. (He initiated the setup wizard.)



     Set (transitive): To transfer action to an object, to place an object down on a surface

     Sit (intransitive): To occupy a place or a chair


     That: Used for a defining clause (the building that burned) to refer to persons or things

     Which: Used for a non-defining clause, almost always with a preceding comma (the building, which burned, was on my block), to refer to things.


     Their: Possessive. Something that belongs to them.

     There: In or at a certain place

     They’re: Contraction for they are. (They’re taking their dog over there.)


     Use (verb): The act or practice of employing something, to put into action or service. (I use the elevator.)

     Utilize (transitive verb): To actively make use of something.(I utilize the elevator to get to my office.) Has a slightly positive connotation.


     Who's: Contraction for who is.

     Whose: Possessive form of who. (The man whose dog it was left his hat.)


     Your: Possessive. Something that belongs to you. (The box belongs to your sister.)

     You’re: Contraction for you are. (You’re going to visit your sister.)



These definitions came partly from Webster’s Dictionary and partly from Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer. Examples are mine alone.