Using the right words makes a difference--but using an incorrect word can make an even bigger difference. 

For example, people expect you to know the difference between "bare" and "bear." If you don't...just like a misspelled word can cause a résumé to go onto the "no" pile, one misused word may spoil the effect of your entire message.

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'll publish the entire list in one article per week for the next four weeks. But just so you know: Out of just over 400 people, only 17 got all of them right.

And 72 got all of the following--the first installment in the series--right. 

See how many of the following you know:

Accept and except

To accept is to receive. You accept a promotion. You accept an award. You were accepted to a training program. 

To except is to leave out or exclude. You liked everything in your salad except the tomatoes. You made an exception to a rule. 

Except for one key point, you accept all the terms in the contract.

If in doubt, think of accept as "yes," and except as "but." Do that, and you'll almost never go wrong.

Adapt and adopt

Adapting means changing, while adopting means taking over, taking on, accepting (not excepting), or using.

Your business can adapt to new competition by adopting a new marketing program. Your body will adapt to a new workout program you adopt.

You can't adapt a proposed cost-cutting initiative...but you can adapt once you've evaluated the results of the initiative you adopted.

Ambivalent and ambiguous

Tons of people got these two confused.

Ambivalent means you don't have a strong opinion. Or that you basically don't care. You're OK with hiring Joe...but then again, maybe he's not a good fit after all. (If you can argue a position from either side, you're ambivalent.)

When something is ambiguous, that means it is doubtful, uncertain, or has more than one meaning. 

Which may not clear things up, because both words mean certainty is lacking. So here's a better option: If you're not sure about hiring Joe, don't say, "I'm ambivalent about hiring Joe." Say, "I'm don't know whether we should hire Joe." (Which means you shouldn't hire Joe.)

And if you're not sure about the language in a contract, don't say, "That stipulation is ambiguous." Say, "I'm not sure what that means. We definitely need to find out."

Then no one will think you're being ambiguous. Or ambivalent.

Bare and bear

Do you bare or bear a burden?

Bear. Since "bare" means naked or revealed, you don't uncover a burden. (Although I guess you could if you were unaware said burden exists.)

You bear it.

And don't forget that "barely" means "only just" or "almost not." You barely made payroll this month. You bear the responsibility of providing a living for your employees...but when times are tough, doing so may mean you barely get by yourself.

Breach and breech

If a supplier failed to deliver on time, they breached a contract. To breach is to break; a breach is a break. (The Titanic was breached by an iceberg, leaving a breach in its hull.)

Breech is most commonly used to refer to babies born (or trying to be born) butt-first. But it also refers to the opening at the back of a gun.

Which means if you're talking about anything other than pregnancies or guns, use breach.

Or just say "break." Or "crack." Or "hole." Those work, too.

Capital and capitol

Capital is money. Capital is an upper-case letter. Capital means extremely important. Capital is a seat of government. 

Washington. D.C. is the capital of the United States. The cool building with the dome at the eastern end of the National Mall? That's the Capitol Building. 

Unless you're referring to an actual building, use capital. Or Capital, because you should always capitalize the proper names of people, places, and things.

Cite and site

Marcy doesn't site exceptions to a contract proposal in her email; she cites them. Cite means to quote or formally mention. (Think citing references in a research paper.) If Mary takes exception, not acception, to Paragraph 3, she will cite those objections in her response.

A site is a specific place. Or a website. And has nothing to do with sight, or seeing. Although off in the distance, you could sight a historical site and later cite its origins in a research paper. If that's your thing.

Complement and compliment

Complement means added to, enhanced, improved, completed, or brought close to perfection. Compliment is saying something flattering or nice or kind. 

A great photo that complements your LinkedIn profile can result in a compliment from a colleague. A new service may complement your existing line of products.

If you're complementing something, you're adding to, enhancing, or making it better.

Which is also what happens when you compliment someone; because we all feel a little better when we're recognized or praised.

Conscience and conscious

I once made a conscious decision to fire Joe; it weighed on my conscience for years.

That's because conscious means awake, aware, or deliberate. I decided to fire Joe. Conscience is "an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one's behavior." 

Over time, I wasn't sure I had made the right decision in firing Joe.

Data matters, but make sure your conscience is also your guide.

Correlation and corollary

Correlation and corollary are a lot like correlated and causal.

A correlation is a relationship between two or more things. Poverty and crime are often correlated. Hard work and success are often correlated. But poverty doesn't always cause crime. Hard work doesn't always result in success.

That means success isn't a corollary of hard work; it doesn't always naturally follow. 

So if you're in doubt, think of correlation as between, and a corollary as being from or of. 

Or just say, "Our new rebate program caused a spike in sales." Which sounds a lot better than trying to shoehorn "corollary" into any sentence.

Definitely and definitively

An old boss liked to say, "I'm definitively certain we need to stay late today." He didn't say, "I'm certain we need to stay late." He didn't say, "We need to stay late. Here's why."

Nope: He had to jazz it up and be "definitively certain."

I suppose that made some sense, since definitive means authoritative, final, basically, the last word...and as the boss, he did have the last word.

But really it just sounded pretentious.

If you want to add emphasis, use definitely. Save definitive for those times when you're absolutely, without a doubt, totally certain.

Which, if you're like me, is rare.

Economic and economical

Most people know how to use economic, but economical tripped up a bunch.

That's because economic can refer to trade, industry, or the creation of wealth: "The U.S. economy is thriving."  Economic can also refer to using fewer resources or costing less money: "We found an economic solution to the budget shortfall."

Economical can also refer to using less money or resources, but it usually refers to a thing or action: An economical car. An economical purchase. An economical colleague who never reaches for the check at dinner.

If you're unsure, just do this: If you refer to the economy, say economic. If you saved money, say you made an economical decision. 

And then tell us how, because we can all benefit from being more economical.

Published on: Jul 1, 2019
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