7 problematic word pairs

They continue to turn up. Just don’t mix them up.


Given my two previous posts on confusing word pairs, I thought I had this topic fairly well covered. We’ve discussed the difference between comprise and compose and hone and home, just to name a few.

Still, I keep running into problematic word pairs; they’re turning up like run-on sentences in a James Joyce novel. Here are seven more pairs to note:

Exacerbate and exasperate

To exacerbate means to worsen (an already bad situation).

Example: Having John write the response will only exacerbate the backlash.

Exasperate means to exhaust, usually someone’s patience. It also means to annoy greatly.

Example: I find your use of sentence fragments to be exasperating.

Cognizant and cognitive

Cognizant means to have awareness, knowledge, or understanding.

Example: Always ask for a writing sample so you can be truly cognizant of the writer’s abilities.

Cognitive means related to the mental processes of perception, memory, judgment, thinking, and reasoning.

Example: His unclear writing style leads me to question his cognitive skills.

Wave and waive

As a verb, wave means to make a signal with the hand or to move freely back and forth. As a noun, wave refers to a ridge of water, a surge, or a rising trend.

Example: She waved one last time before she sank beneath the waves.

Waive means to defer, dispense with, or give up voluntarily.

Example: Under what circumstances will you waive the fees?

A somewhat related pair is waver (to shake, flutter, or give way) and waiver (a legal ceding of a right or claim).

Example: Fred’s courage wavered when it came time to sign the waiver.

Tenet and tenant

A tenet is an opinion, doctrine, or principle that is viewed as true by a person or organization.

Example: I do not agree with the AP Stylebook’s tenet on the use of the serial comma.

A tenant is someone who pays rent to use or occupy property owned by another.

Example: The tenant agreement was so riddled with spelling errors that I began to question its legitimacy.

Precede and proceed

Precede means to come before, usually in time.

Example: Copyediting and fact checking should precede publication.

Proceed means to go forward or to continue.

Example: Now that I’ve read your post, you can proceed with uploading it to the site.

Disinterested and uninterested

To be disinterested is to be unbiased or impartial.

Example: I was a disinterested observer of the debate about which style guide to use.

To be uninterested is to be unconcerned, indifferent, or inattentive.

Example: Katherine seems uninterested in an honest critique of her work.

Allusion and illusion

An allusion is an indirect reference, something you allude to.

Example: You risk losing your readers by using so many cryptic literary allusions in your article.

An illusion is a false impression or a deception.

Example: I have no illusions; I lost those once I started writing.

Readers, any other word pairs you find particularly troublesome?

Laura Hale Brockway is the author of the writing/editing/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.

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