Watch out for troublesome pairs

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Don't let these 13 word pairs confuse you!
Don't let these 13 word pairs confuse you!

Read this brief glossary to help you distinguish between these 13 confusing pairs of words.

Shoes travel in pairs. So do gloves and argyle socks—until they part ways in the laundry.

Words, too, can have close resemblances. After years of reading and writing, I still mistake capital (a city, a sum of assets, an uppercase letter) for capitol (a legislative building), and struggle to remember that I lie in a hammock and lay a book on a table.

Here are some other confusing word pairs, along with definitions and examples of proper usage.

Ability/Capacity

Ability means having the power to accomplish or act; capacity means having the power to receive or contain.

Ryan Howard has the ability to hit 40-plus home runs in a season. A canvas bag has the capacity to store his lumber.

Accept/Except

Accept is to receive willingly, to agree with; except is to exclude.

I accept everyone's apology except his.

Adapt/Adopt

Adapt means to make suitable, to adjust; adopt means to take or use as one's own.

You adapt to the FDA's changing rules and regulations. You adopt the medical, legal, and regulatory recommendations of your committee.

Advise/Inform

Advise is to offer counsel and suggestions; inform is to provide information.

I advise you to hand in your time sheet on time; otherwise, I will inform your supervisor.

Anxious/Eager

Being anxious is to worry; being eager is to be highly desirous.

Sam was anxious about the results of the SAT exam he took on Saturday. His father was eager to catch the Phillies playoff game on TV.

Comprise/Compose

Comprise means to encompass or include; compose means to make up.

The United States comprises 50 states. The fourth symphony of Brahms is composed (some would say) of many tedious notes.

Continual/Continuous

Continual means to occur frequently; continuous means to occur without interruption.

His comedy routine on the social life of the egret got continual laughter—much to his surprise and pleasure. Time and space are continuous.

Convince/Persuade

Convince means to cause someone to believe; persuade means to inspire someone to act.

After hearing the candidate speak, I was convinced of her integrity. Her grasp of the issues persuaded me to go out and vote.

Expect/Anticipate

Expect means to look forward to, to regard as likely to happen; anticipate means to realize beforehand, to foresee and prepare for.

If you anticipate losing your lunch, you should avoid riding on the roller coaster. You may expect to sign a contract, complete an assignment, or sit attentively through a meeting on labeling changes.

Farther/Further

Farther refers to physical distance; further means to a greater degree.

The farther I walked, the wearier I grew. Support for the claim eluded me, so I delved into the reference further.

Imply/Infer

A writer or speaker implies something in his words; a reader or listener infers something from what he reads or hears.

The statement implies that the company will assume responsibility for selling defective egg beaters. The customer may infer that his money will be returned.

Irritate/Aggravate

Irritate means to annoy; aggravate, its brawnier first cousin, means to make worse.

The unfair deadline irritated everyone in our department. But when the client requested additional changes, everyone grew aggravated.

Principle/Principal

Principle is a fundamental law, a basic truth. As a noun, principal is head of a school or a sum of money; as an adjective it means first or highest in rank, order, or importance.

When he accepted the stolen merchandise, he abandoned all his principles. The principal patrolled the halls, scowling at latecomers.

I could go on−and would like to−but we have a word limit.  For a more comprehensive list of these troublesome pears—or pairs—consult the AMA Manual of Style or other reference books.

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