A compendium of commonly confused words (part 2 of 3)

Welcome to part two of our list of some of the English language's most commonly confused word pairs. (For part one, please check out last week's blog.) And since several of you had word pairs you wanted to see explored, I'm happily expanding this series to THREE PARTS. Accordingly, if this subject hasn't gotten old for you yet, please look forward to another blog in this vein next week. And I sincerely hope that, when you're finished reading this installment, you won't feel nauseous in the least. Perhaps only a little nauseated

  • accept/except: "Accept" is always a verb. It means to consent to receive or take something that's offered to you. It could be an object, a concept, an explanation, a marriage proposal, or countless other things. She accepted his gift of a shiny new pair of pliers, simultaneously accepting that she was doomed to receive only practical gifts from her doting, Home Depot-obsessed husband. "Except" is most frequently used as a preposition or a conjunction, both of which are words that help out other words. As a preposition, it means "not including": As a rule, he went to Home Depot every day except Saturday. As a conjunction, it indicates that an exception is being made to what was just said: She didn't say anything about the gift of the pliers, except that she hoped she'd find many uses for it soon. While "except" can be used as a verb, it's not done frequently. When it is used as a verb, it specifies that something is excluded: The lawsuit settlement excepted her claim that she had been attacked by an invisible hammer.

  • allude/elude: To "allude" to something is to refer to it in an indirect manner. When you're "alluding," you're talking around or hinting at something. She alluded to the fact that he hadn't been her first choice for a husband, but she didn't explain it in any detail. To "elude" something is to evade it, avoiding getting caught or allowing understanding. While her primary focus was on eluding the raccoon now furiously chasing her down the path, a clear understanding of *why* it was chasing her eluded her entirely.

  • disinterested/uninterested: There is some crossover here — i.e., there are some situations in which either could be correct. For example, either could work in the following sentence: Many people seemed uninterested/disinterested in the outcome of the vote. So the trick is to get it right when the meaning you want is more specific than that. Specifically, if you legitimately have no interest or stake in something, you're "disinterested": you're impartial and unbiased. The US justice system relies on having disinterested judges and juries. If you're bored, neutral, or indifferent, you're "uninterested." You really don't give a shit, and you don't want to get involved. The fancypants magazine was uninterested in publishing his down-home stories.

  • insure/ensure: Many people — as well as many reputable newspapers — tend to use these interchangeably. Both of these words ultimately mean "to make sure." That being said, the basic guideline is to use "insure" only when referring to situations involving actual financial liability and the implication of insurance (a fairly narrow definition), and to use "ensure" in pretty much any other situation.

  • nauseated/nauseous: This one's another groaner, given how prevalent it is; nevertheless, I persist. If your stomach feels terrible, you are "nauseated," not "nauseous." If you say "I am nauseous," you are effectively telling people you CAUSE nausea. Do you mean to tell people that you may make them vomit? If not, stick with "nauseated."

  • past/passed: This one's easier than you think, because "past" is always a modifier of some sort (in this case an adjective, adverb, or preposition) or a noun (don't live in the past), and "passed" is always a verb. No exceptions. So if you're describing something or talking about "the past" proper, use "past": Over the past few months, he'd become inclined to ruminate on his many past transgressions. But it was all in the past, wasn't it? And if you're talking about movement, go with "passed": He again passed on the offer of fresh pepper. That Adam Sandler lookalike really didn't seem to know when to stop with that pepper grinder. He felt oddly worried as the avid pepper grinder man passed by his table yet again, lingering meaningfully.

  • peaked/piqued/peeked: Here we have three words that sound exactly alike. It's wholly unsurprising that people mess these up. But it's not too difficult to sort them out. First, let's shove aside "peeked," because of the three, it alone is a verb and cannot be anything else. She peeked out from under the covers, hoping her parents thought she was asleep. Now let's move on to the one about interest/curiosity... because let's face it, that's pretty much the only time you'll hear the word "piqued." If something "piques" your interest, you may be tantalized, curious, and eager to learn more. Alternately, you may be feeling irritated by or resentful about something. In these situations, however, you are not "peaked." If you are "peaked," you have a pointed peak. Do you have a pointed peak? No? I thought not. Things that have pointed peaks: mountains, massive piles of laundry, party hats, meringues. Use "peaked" only if you are describing such things.

  • premier/premiere: Many people assume these words are interchangeable. In fact, in English usage, they have developed very specific meanings. "Premier" is an adjective that means something is top-quality. Since he took the cleanliness of his shirts seriously, he patronized the area's premier dry-cleaning service. "Premiere" can be used as a noun or a verb. They went to the movie's premiere on Friday night. Before the movie, Pixar premiered the trailer for Toy Story 17.

  • reactionary/reactive: "Reactionary" is a noun or adjective that describes an uber-conservative point of view focused on avoiding change, maintaining the status quo, and (frequently) restoring some sort of "lost past." Disturbingly, he maintained a reactionary perspective on women's rights, believing that a woman's place is in the kitchen. "Reactive" means responding to something. The women in his life were overwhelmingly reactive to this tendency, endeavoring to open his eyes to a more progressive point of view. When that didn't work, they took to randomly sending him envelopes filled with glitter.

  • stalactites/stalagmites: I realize that cave exploration and/or studies aren't an extremely common life event for most of us. However, I can't be the only one who occasionally feels hazy about the distinction, and wouldn't it be nice to get it straight once and for all? A "stalactite" comes from the TOP of the cave. (The "T" inside the word can help you remember "top.") A "stalagmite" comes from the GROUND of the cave. (The "G" can help you remember this one.)

Again, if you've got a confusing word pair you love to hate and you'd like to see an explanation of what's right and wrong, please feel welcome to leave a comment or send me an email.