Sometimes the right word makes all the difference. But sometimes using the wrong word can make an even bigger difference. 

Most people have at least one set of words they struggle with. (Regular readers know I've goofed up "who" and "whom" for years.) 

So for fun, I sent a test I made to 100 people and many of them passed it on to friends and family. (Scientifically-valid methodology? Nope. But interesting.)

Since there were a lot of word pairs involved, I decided to publish the entire list in four weekly installments. (This is the second in the series; the first list of words people often get wrong is here.) 

But just so you know: Out of just over 400 people, only 17 got all of them right.

And 48 got all of the following right. 

See how many you know:

Eminent and imminent

Eminent means famous, respected, famous, noteworthy. (Although "eminent domain" refers to the government's right to take over private property for public good--like taking over a farmer's land in order to build a highway. Which might not be so respected a practice.)

Imminent means something--whether good or bad--is about to happen. 

Which means an eminent scholar's tenure might be imminent, but not eminent. After all, he's already famous and respected.

Envelop and envelope

An envelope contains a letter. That makes it a noun. And it does wrap up, cover, or completely surround the letter. But still: Envelope is a noun.

Envelop (put the emphasis on the "vel" when you say it) is a verb.

What makes it even more confusing is verb tense: The Golden Gate Bridge can be enveloped in fog.

Easy way out? Unless you're in the military, use verbs like surround, cover, and obscure instead of envelop. That way everything else can just be an envelope.

Envy and jealousy

While they are often used interchangeably, these words have very different meanings.

Envy means a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck; you want what someone else has.

Jealousy means feeling protective in regards to "possessions" (including people you think you "possess"). In short, being jealous means you're worried someone else will take what you see as yours.

If I want what you have, I'm envious. If I think you want what I have, I'm jealous.

So you can definitely envy Mark Cuban's success, but you really can't be jealous of his success...because he's not trying to take it from you. It's already his.

Expedient and expeditious

While these two words are also often used interchangeably, they also have very different meanings.

Expedient means helpful or convenient, often in a less than positive way. While it may be expedient for me to use an automated tool (and maybe also expeditious), it can also be expedient for me to decide not to speak up during a meeting and share my reservations, especially if remaining silent benefits me.

That's why "politically expedient" is an often-used term.

Expeditious means quick, fast, efficient. No value judgment is implied; whatever is done is done fast.

Which is why, unless you want to sound high-brow, you might just want to say "fast."

Farther and further

Farther refers to actual distance: "California is farther from Virginia than Missouri." Further involves a figurative distance: "We will take our partnership no further."

So, as we say in the South (and by "we," I maybe just mean me), "I can't trust you any farther than I can throw you," or, "I ain't gonna trust you no further."

Figuratively and literally

With respect to everyone under the age of, oh, 30, literally shouldn't be used to add emphasis: If you "literally died," you wouldn't be telling me about it. You'd be dead.

Literally means something that actually happened. 

Figuratively means metaphorically. If you walk away, turn off the light, close the door, and refuse to tell me your plans...then you've figuratively left me in the dark. (And literally, too.)

But then again, literally is so often used to express strong feelings without being, um, literally true...that maybe it's OK.

After all, I say "ain't."

Incredible and incredulous

I received an email from a PR rep touting a company's "incredulous achievement." (The company was also "disrupting an entire industry"...but that's a discussion for another day.)

Unfortunately, incredulous describes how someone feels when they can't believe what they see, hear, etc. (Which maybe means the PR rep was using "incredulous" correctly, since I didn't believe the achievement was all that great.)

Incredible means something is difficult to believe because it's extraordinary or exceptional.

Think of it this way: Incredible describes something. Incredulous describes how you feel when something supposedly incredible doesn't seem genuine or real.

Tell me, two minutes into my pitch, that you want to fund my company and I might be incredulous. 

Show me the check and hey: That's incredible!

Loath and loathe

Because expressing strong feelings seems to be all the fashion, loathe pops up a lot.

And so does loath. You can't loath a terrible boss, because that would mean you're reluctant or unwilling.

But you can loathe the heck out of him for the way he treats you, since loathe indicate intense dislike or disgust for someone or something.

So loathe your boss all you want. They probably deserve your scorn.

And don't be loath to look for another job. Because you deserve to be happy.

Published on: Jul 10, 2019
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