Dozens of words are all too easy to confuse. Their’s [sic] the notorious case of its’s/its, not to mention there/they’re/their, your/you’re, and other obvious spelling mistakes caused by two words sounding the same, that is, being homophones as they’re known in the trade.
But then there are a host of others which are less frequently used, or are used mostly in formal or literary writing and in journalism. Since some readers of those genres undoubtedly love to pounce on any mistakes, it could be embarrassing to write one instead of the other.
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“All the evidence suggests…”
This is not a list of my subjective bugbears and personal tics. (How very dare you suggest that I have any such thing!) Far from it. It is based on what I’ve noticed in reading or editing over the years, and on what I’ve heard/hear. I have corroborated that observation/listening in the first place by seeing how often these pairs are discussed in online editorial forums and how often questions about them are entered as Google searches.
Second, for many of these posts I have looked at corpus data — chiefly from the Oxford English Corpus, but also from other corpora — to get an idea of how widespread the phenomenon of — let’s call it “meaning swapping” — is, and what its geographical spread might be.
Looking at data not only counterbalances the “frequency effect” (i.e. once we’ve noticed and mentally noted a linguistic occurrence, we see it everywhere), it can also produce surprising results: what BrE speaker would have thunk that, as far as I can see, hone in is now the “norm”, not only in US English but in nearly all varieties?
Apart from looking at corpus evidence, I have also often noted what dictionaries and usage guides say about the question so that you, gentle reader, can make up your own mind.
You mean, “Wotevah! Why bovver, whichever version people use?”
Lots of people have that laissez-faire attitude, but quite a few people are bovvered — sometimes very, very bovvered. And people, such as editors and proofreaders, whose business it is to “correct” others’ writing, earn their living by being bothered.
Those people who Google questions about these pairs may not be particularly bothered, but they are, at the least, curious to find an unequivocal answer. In fact, after — sigh, “what is the first word in the dictionary” — the most common search terms that bring people to this site are “whereas or where as”, “defuse or diffuse” and “ascribe to or subscribe to.”
As you can see, they’re a very mixed bag as regards meaning. What links nearly all of them, though — with the exception of coruscating/excoriating — is the very close similarity between the member of the pair. In some cases, just like they’re/their/there, but depending to an extent on accent, they are true homophones, e.g. veracious/voracious, illusive/elusive.
Here’s the complete list in alpha order:
- adverse to / averse to
- ascribe to / subscribe to
- cache / cachet
- coruscating / excoriating
- decry / descry
- defuse / diffuse
- elusive / illusive (illusory / allusive)
- flaunt / flout
- home in on / hone in on
- peek / peak / pique
- veracious / voracious
- wave / waive / waiver
- whereas / where as
There are plenty of others; I may add them to the list as time goes on.
- phase / faze (verbs)
e.g. the work is being phased over a number of years;
a phased withdrawal of troops.
If something fazes you, it disconcerts you in such a way that you do not know how to react:
e.g. She’s been on the stage since the age of three so nothing fazes her at all.
In the next example, the wrong one has been used:
Cox is unlikely to be X phased by the prospect of going for gold in Athens , having been a record breaker at the tender age of 11–BBCi Sport, 2004 Olympics.
- exasperate / exacerbate
Not homophones this time, but similar enough in sound to cause confusion. If someone or something exasperates you, they annoy you greatly and make you feel frustrated
e.g. Speed bumps definitely do make you slow down, and taxi drivers take sadistic pleasure in exasperating their passengers by coming almost to a halt in front of them;
But speculation that he may quit Britain for America exasperates him.
If something exacerbates a situation or a problem, it makes it worse. It’s a rather formal word.
e.g. rising inflation was exacerbated by the collapse of oil prices;
At least the government is trying to find an actual solution, rather than exacerbating the problem.
Recently, I’ve noticed quite a few examples of exasperate being used instead of the collocationally more standard exacerbate.
More than half of households living in council or housing association homes…live in one that is not at all, or not very suitable. The Bedroom Tax has exasperated this problem—Big Issue, No. 1018, December 2014.
Given the history of exasperate, and its multiple meanings other than the most common one of “to annoy”, it might, arguably, be difficult to maintain that it is wrong in that context.
This is an updated version of the page with which I first introduced this series of 30 easily confused words.