7 more confusing word pairs

Know the difference between ‘flout’ and ‘flaunt’ or ‘home’ and ‘hone’? Here’s a handy guide—with examples—to ensure (not insure) that you never mix up these and other tricky words again.

In a previous PR Daily story, I discussed the distinctions between word pairs such as comprise and compose and imply and infer. The English language is full of problematic word pairs; here are seven more to note.

Oral and verbal

“Oral” means by mouth and should be used when referring to spoken language. It is more precise than verbal.

  • Example: The incident was mentioned in an oral report to her supervisor.

“Verbal” means with words, either written or spoken.

  • Example: Patrick O’Brian is a verbal virtuoso.

Complement and compliment

“Complement” means to add to or complete. It can also mean the quantity, number, or assortment required to make a thing complete.

  • Example: The information on this website is meant to complement the advice from your physician.
  • Example: I have the full complement of style guides and dictionaries.

A “compliment” is an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration. “Complimentary” means favorable or free.

  • Example: Was Anna trying to compliment me or insult me?
  • Example: The feedback on the article has been very complimentary.
  • Example: The tickets were complimentary.

Cord and chord

A “cord” refers to a rope or a bond, an insulated electrical cable, or an anatomical structure.

  • Example: I need a power cord to continue writing on my laptop.
  • Example: She suffered a vocal cord injury and could no longer sing.

A “chord” is a musical term for a combination of three or more musical notes played together. Chord can also refer to an emotional feeling or response.

  • Example: Mastering those chord changes took dexterity and practice.
  • Example: Amy’s words struck a sympathetic chord in her audience.

Flaunt and flout

To flaunt is to show off or display ostentatiously.

  • Example: Will loved to flaunt his vocabulary by using complex words in everyday conversation.

To flout is to disregard (a rule or custom).

  • Example: John flouted the rules by coming to work intoxicated.

Ensure and insure

“Ensure” means to make sure or certain.

  • Example: You need to ensure there are no errors in the article.

“Insure” means to take precaution in advance or protect against financial loss.

  • Example: He failed to insure his home against flooding.

Regime and regimen

A “regime” is a form of government, social system, or a period of rule.

  • Example: “Animal Farm” is an allegorical tale of the Communist regime.

“Regimen” is a systematic schedule (such as exercise or medication) designed to improve or maintain health.

  • Example: The physician prescribed a three-drug regimen for his high blood pressure.

Hone and home

To hone is to sharpen, perfect, or master a skill. It also means to sharpen something with a stone.

  • Example: I spend my evenings helping my third-grader hone his writing skills.

“Home”—when used as a verb—means to return to a specific location or reach as specific target. It is usually followed by in or on.

  • Example: The conference attendees homed in on the nearest bar.

Readers, any other word pairs you find troublesome?

Laura Hale Brockway is the author of Impertinent Remarks, a blog about writing and editing.


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