Category Archives: Confusing Words

If you have difficulty remembering the meaning or spelling of particular words, look up the proper usage before finalizing or submitting important information.

text box Words that cause confusion

Are you content or contented?

Content is one of those words that can be pronounced in two different ways, depending on the meaning.

Content (pron. CON-tent), meaning “the things that are held, included, or provided” (as in “The wine’s alcohol content is listed on the label”), is often used in the plural:

The table of contents is part of the book’s front matter.

The contents of this blog are suitable for minors.

Content (pron. kən-TENT), meaning “satisfied,” can be used as a noun (“After I leave, you can sleep to your heart’s content!”), an adjective (“I’m content here.”), or a verb (“The show was sold out, so we had to content ourselves with a trip to the planetarium.”).

Contented is an adjective (meaning “satisfied,” as above, or “feeling or expressing satisfaction”):

“They don’t have chocolate ice cream. You will have to be contented with vanilla.”

Contentment is the state of being contented.

So when would you use content, and when would you use contented?

The words are synonymous, but according to Bryan A. Garner,* content is more common as a predicate adjective (“I am content just sitting here.”) and the adjective contented commonly precedes a noun (“The contented puppy fell asleep.”).

Adverb forms are contently and contentedly:

He lived contentedly among the natives.

The sheep were contently grazing in the pasture.

 

* Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2009).

 

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text box Words that cause confusion

its or it’s?

What’s the difference between its and it’s?
A lot!

Its is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to it.” (If a pen belongs to Jay, then the pen is his. If a tail belongs to an animal, we can refer to its tail.)  As with his, hers, theirs, yours, and ours, no apostrophe is needed for its.

This is mine and that is yours.

My dad let me borrow his car.

This strategy has its drawbacks.

The bike has been returned to its rightful owner.

The species became extinct after its habitat was destroyed.

It’s is a contraction, a shortened form of it is or it has. (Contractions are commonly used in informal speech and writing.)

It’s all been said before, but I’ll say it again.

It’s true. I’m a terrible host.

It’s her fault!

The apostrophe indicates missing letters.

“G’night,” said Marge.

When reading dialogue, we understand that the word “goodnight” is intended by the speaker, who did not fully enunciate the word.

If you are tempted to add an apostrophe to its (or wondering if you need one), ask yourself whether its can be replaced with “it is” or “it has”:

It’s your call.
It is your call. 

See if it’s hurt.
See if it is hurt. 

It’s all right.
It is all right. 

It’s got nothing to do with you.
It has got nothing to do with you. 

Don’t pull its tail!
Don’t pull it is tail!  X

text box Words that cause confusion

discrete or discreet?

Discrete and discreet are both adjectives. The pronunciation is the same, and the spelling is similar, so they are easily confused.

Discrete means distinct and separate, whereas discreet means “intentionally unobtrusive” and inconspicuous or careful and circumspect (in speech or behavior).

Synonyms include subdued and understated for the first meaning of discreet and prudent for the second.

Examples

discrete

Discrete segments of the population have been identified as part of the study’s methodology.

The chronon has been proposed as a discrete and indivisible unit of time.

discreet

The discreet lighting and cozy furnishings helped me relax as I braced myself for a difficult conversation.

The discreet packaging gives no indication of the contents.

 These different meanings are also reflected in the adverbs discretely and discreetly.

Time can be measured discretely or continuously.

John asked Chris a series of personal questions, knowing that a camera was discreetly recording their interaction.

They’d been meeting discreetly for over a year before I learned about their relationship.

 

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desert and dessert

Don’t confuse a geographical region (desert) with the final course of a meal (dessert) or the act of desertion!

desert

(noun): The desert is uninhabited.

We found an oasis in the desert.

(adjective): The desert climate is harsh.

The desert island provided a temporary haven.

(verb): If you desert now, you will be marked a traitor.

You cannot desert your friend in her time of need.

dessert

(noun): Dessert was the highlight of the evening.

The dessert was sweet and rich.

(A term such as dessert wine is considered as a unit, so “dessert” here is not an adjective. In fact, dessertspoon is written as one word.)

Note: The expression “just deserts ” (what is deserved) is not spelled ‘desserts’–unless, of course, it’s the name of a business that only sells sweet treats!

 

 

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text box Words that cause confusion

shined or shone?

The verb* to shine can mean:

♦ to emit or reflect light (The sun is shining.)

♦ to be eminent, conspicuous, or distinguished (When she’s onstage, she really shines.)

♦ to be evident or clear (The truth will shine through.)

In the above examples, shine is used as an intransitive verb (v.i.); the verb does not have a direct object. Shine can also be a transitive verb (v.t.), meaning:

♦ to light or direct a light (“Shine that light over here, would ya?”)

♦ to make bright by polishing (“Please iron my shirts and shine my shoes.”)

In these instances, “something” (the object) is being shined (light; shoes).

Or should that be shone?

Shined and shone are sometimes used interchangeably (i.e., neither is incorrect), especially when used as an intransitive verb (and especially in the U.S.):

The light shone in the distance.

The light shined in the distance.

Most commonly, shone is preferred as the past tense (and past participle) of the intransitive verb shine when referring to something that is luminous.

The moon shone brightly.

Multitalented, Mark shone in many different capacities.

The flashlight shone when Sue turned it on.

Shined is used when polishing or shining an object (transitive verb).

He has shined a light on corruption within the agency.

Sue shined the flashlight on the intruder.

I shined my shoes until they shone.

Usage outside of the United States may differ.

*Shine can also be a noun. (“Would you like a shine, mister?”)

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premiere or premier?

If you are describing something (i.e., a noun) that is “first in position, rank, or importance,” then the adjective premier is the word you want.

The area’s premier golf club offers members many amenities.

If you are discussing a “first performance or exhibition” (e.g., of a play or motion picture) then the noun premiere is the correct choice.

The show’s Broadway premiere was last night.

In recent decades, the use of premiere as a verb has gained acceptance when used within the context of the entertainment industry.

The star’s new program will premiere this fall.

(Note that the New York Times has not adopted this usage. See The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 5th ed.)

The noun premier refers to a government official in some countries.

In Australia, the federal government is led by a prime minister; the head of each state’s government is known as the premier.

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, premier also means “first in time” (i.e., earliest). Hmm, that’s beginning to sound a bit like a “first showing,” and, indeed, the dictionary says that premiere is an alteration of premier. Further, the “chief actress of a theatrical cast” is a premiere. Doesn’t that seem very similar to “first in position, rank, or importance,” the definition of premier, without the -e? We have to look at the origins of both words to understand the confusion.

Premier was the earlier (French) word (meaning “first”), derived (in the15th century) from the Latin primarius (“of the first rank, chief, principal, excellent”).

The feminine form of premier, première (in French), also meaning “first,” appeared in the 19th century.

English, of course, has developed its own rules—which change over time.

So what are we to make of all that?

Don’t use premiere to refer to a government official.

Don’t use premier as a verb. (Although, when writing in the past tense, the result will be the same):

The show premiered on Broadway last night.

Using premiere (as a noun) to refer to a first showing is clearly correct, as is using premier to refer to something (or someone) that is “first and foremost.”

Just as the verb premiere has become widely used by the entertainment industry, premiere is sometimes used as an adjective by marketers who are advertising something. (“We are a premiere medical spa in Anytown, USA”). That usage may gain acceptance in time. (A recent article in Fortune magazine noted: “Bordeaux, of course, is one of the premiere wine regions in France,” but I frequently find spelling errors in publications.) For the present, premier is the correct spelling of the adjective.

 

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lead or led?

The past tense (and past participle) of the verb lead is led. Lead is often used (incorrectly) as the past tense, perhaps because the noun lead is pronounced the same way as the verb led—except when it’s not! Confused yet? Read on!

lead (noun, pronounced “led”)

Exposure to lead can be very harmful to young children.

The core of a “lead” pencil does not contain lead—but the painted wood might!*

Many lead pipes are being replaced with copper.

lead (noun, pronounced “leed”)

“The boss wants you to take the lead on this project.”

“Mary got the lead in the school play.”

Related: lead (adjective, pronounced “leed”)

“Barry is the lead singer of the Phobias.”

“The lead story in today’s paper will be of interest to aspiring screenwriters.”

lead (verb, pronounced “leed”)

“Mark will lead the discussion on Wednesday.”

“Lead the way!”

“Don’t lead me on.”

led (past tense and past participle of the verb to lead)

The suspect led investigators to the body.

“One thing led to another and before I knew it, I had a ring on my finger.”

“She’s been led astray.”

“Sharon has led this company for twenty years.”

Mistakes are easily made when we are in a hurry. For important matters, take time to proofread your work.

An investigation is underway to uncover the systems malfunctions that lead to this disaster. X

 

* See “Lead in Pencils: Safety Information and Facts,” https://pencils.com/lead-in-pencils-2/

text box Words that cause confusion

One word or two? anytime/any time

Languages evolve. New words and expressions gain acceptance; hyphens get added and then dropped as two words merge into one. (Search online for “step-daughter” and you will find two words (step daughter), a hyphenated version (step-daughter), and one word (stepdaughter).)

Which version you choose depends, in part, upon where you live, what you are writing, and where your writing will be published. If you are writing a blog post and you live in the United States, your readers probably won’t think twice about step-daughter or stepdaughter, and they’ll understand “step daughter” (though I’d advise against that choice). If you are submitting your work, follow the preferences of your editor or publisher on style matters, especially if the work will be published in different markets (e.g., North America or United Kingdom).

Two-word compounds tend to get hyphenated before they get merged, so if the unhyphenated version has made its way into a reputable dictionary (e.g., stepdaughter), then that is likely the most up-to-date choice, with step-daughter an acceptable variant. (Wellbeing, as one word, has not yet become standard in North America; the preferred form is well-being. Back seat, when used as an adjective, may be either hyphenated or merged: “Don’t be a backseat driver.”)

One word or two, back seat and backseat have the same meaning. Hyphenated or not, step-daughter and stepdaughter refer to the same person. In other instances, however, the meaning changes when two words are merged into one. Consider some time and sometime:

“I need some time to figure out what I want to write about.” (Here, “some” could easily be omitted; it could also be replaced with “more”: “I need more time.”)

“I’ll get around to finishing that novel sometime.” (Here, “someday” could be substituted for “sometime.”)

Similarly, “any” time can refer to a quantity or amount of time:

“I haven’t had any time this week to work on my project.” ✓ 

“I haven’t had anytime this week to work on my project.” X

Anytime, an adverb, is a variation of any time and is often used in casual conversation and correspondence:

“This rain isn’t going to let up anytime soon.”

“Call me anytime, day or night.”

If I were writing an advertising slogan that included anywhere, then anytime might be the better stylistic choice:

Our experts are ready to help you—anytime, anywhere.

Anytime can also be used to mean “whenever”:

“Anytime I see an error, I point it out.” (“Whenever I see an error, I point it out.”)

(I consider this use of anytime informal, too. More accurately, I am saying: “Every time I see an error, I point it out.”)

“Anytime” is sometimes given as a response to “Thank you”:

“Thanks for the lift.”

“Anytime. Glad I could help.”

The two-word form is preferable in formal communications:

“I can see you any time next week, but this week my schedule is full.”

Always use the two-word form following the preposition at.

“If, at any time, you feel uncomfortable, please notify one of the assistants.”

“You can close your account at any time if you are not satisfied with the service.”

Take time to think about your intended meaning and ensure that your words reflect your intentions.

 

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immigrate/emigrate

“Immigration” is a hot topic in the news these days. A country’s immigration policy determines who may lawfully enter the country to live and work.

An immigrant is a person who has moved from another country.* (Note that the term does not denote legal status; an immigrant may have entered the country legally or illegally.)

Immigrate is the verb form, describing the action of immigrating.

My grandparents immigrated to the United States before I was born.

Migrate is a related word.

The Pilgrims migrated to North America to establish a new colony.

Migration, however, pertains more to geography than to politics and borders. (A person might migrate to a different region in search of work, for example.)

The miners migrated west in their search for gold.

Migration often refers to seasonal travel or movement.

The annual whale migration has begun.

Not all birds migrate.

A migrant is one who migrates, whether human or animal. Migrant is often used when referring to workers who are not living in a permanent residence during their employment.

Migrant farm workers are also known as migratory agricultural workers.

An emigrant is a person who has left his or her country of residence to settle elsewhere.

His parents emigrated from Germany to avoid persecution.

In short, you are an immigrant to your new country; you are an emigrant from your old country.

Many young men emigrated from the United States to Canada to avoid the draft.

My parents immigrated to the United States after they were married.

I plan to emigrate next year.

I immigrated last year.

 

*Immigrant can refer a person who relocates to a new country or to a plant or animal “that becomes estalished in an area where it was previously unknown.”

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evoke and invoke

Writers (and speakers) choose words to evoke a desired response, whether we seek to arouse sympathy or inspire action. The definition of evoke, according to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, is to “call forth or up” (conjure); to “cite especially with approval or for support” (invoke); to “bring to mind or recollection” and to “re-create imaginatively.”

The sight of the ring evoked memories of happier times.

Music evokes strong emotions in some listeners.

Invoke can have a similar meaning (“to make someone feel a particular emotion or see a particular image in their minds”) but is more commonly used when calling upon a rule (such as the Fifth Amendment) or deity for help or support:

The defendant plans to invoke her constitutional privilege to avoid self-incrimination.

The priestess invoked the spirits of the ancestors.

The writer has developed a ritual to invoke his muse.

Invocation refers to the act of asking for help or support, or to the the prayer itself:

The meeting opened with an invocation.

The atheist’s invocations influenced the judges.

Invocative and evocative are adjectives. When something is evocative, it evokes (or is likely to evoke) an emotional response:

The photographer is known for his evocative images.

Invocative pertains to invocation. (Invocation is often used in the practice of magical rituals):

As her invocative powers declined, so too did the number of clients seeking her services.

Provoking someone also arouses a response (usually anger or another strong emotion), sometimes intentionally.

He was provoked into action by the taunts and jeers of the group.

Something that is provocative is stimulating or exciting (sexually or otherwise):

Her essay contained some thought-provoking ideas, but her provocative attire caused a stir.

Provocation is an act that incites or stimulates:

Without provocation, the man attacked a pedestrian.

 Remember, your words are powerful; they can evoke, invoke, or provoke!