Writing with Precision: The Difference between the Right Word and the Almost Right Word

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Mark Twain

It’s not always easy choosing the right word to use in our writing. Sometimes we have to dig deep to find the precise word needed for a particular sentence. Here are some word choices that can be troublesome. (Sources: style books, internet, blogs, conversations).

Loath, Loathe

Loath means reluctant. (He was loath to enter the room).

Loathe means to detest, to abhor. (I loathe science fiction films).

Canon, Cannon

A canon is a rule, especially of a church. (The cardinal invoked canon law in the mattter).

A cannon is a weapon that fires explolsive projectiles. (The cannon was fired at sundown).

Its, It’s

Its is the possessive. (The dog wagged its tail).

It’s is the contraction for it is. (It’s the time of year for strong storms).

Ecology, Environment

The words are not synonymous.

Ecology is the study of the relationship between organisms and their environment. (There’s much interest in animal ecology these days).

Environment means all the conditions and circumstances that surround and influence life on earth. (He is working to solve problems in the environment, including air and water pollution).

Differ from, Differ with

Differ from. To differ from means to be unlike. (Styles today greatly differ from the last decade).

Differ with. To differ with means to disagree. (I differ with many people in that I enjoy solitude).

Dilemma

If you have a dilemma, that means more than just having a problem. Dilemma implies a choice between two unattractive alternatives. (My dilemma was having to choose between surgery or living with intense pain).

Disinterested, Uninterested

Disinterested means impartial. (Two disinterested judges will decide the winner of the match).

Uninterested. Means having a lack of interest. (She was uninterested in learning Latin).

Each other, One another

Each other involves only two individuals (The two friends looked at each other).

One another involves more than two individuals (Members of the Spanish class helped one another complete the assignments).

Emigrate, Immigrate

Emigrate. One who leaves a country emigrates from that country. (He decided to emigrate from Germany in 1900).

Immigrate. One who comes into a country immigrates to that country. (Many Irish people chose to immigrate to America during the potato famine).

(So, by extension, an emigrant is one who leaves a country and an immigrant is one who comes into a country).

Every day, Everyday

Every day (two words) is an adverb. (He carpools to work every day).

Everyday is an adjective (He wore his everyday clothing to the party).

Gourmet, Gourmand

A gourmet is one who appreciates fine food. (He is a gourmet of Greek cuisine).

A gourmand is one who likes fine food but tends to eat to excess. (He earned a gourmand reputation as a young man). (He may also be a glutton).

Paul Brians has collected thousands of other easily-mixed-up word choices and you can see his amazing collection here. He also offers them in his book, Common Errors in English Usage. Both are great resources for writers.

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© 2008 by Laverne Daley

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2 Comments on “Writing with Precision: The Difference between the Right Word and the Almost Right Word”

  1. mushroo says:

    I agree with this point. It’s very difficult to use a quite exact word in somewhere. Even a scientist may make a mistake.

  2. ldaley says:

    Very true. Thanks for your comment.


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