8 confounding word combinations

Not sure whether to use ‘ambivalent’ or ‘indifferent?’ You’re not alone. Here are several confounding terms —and how you can tell them apart.

Look-alike and sound-alike words continue to bewilder many — even those who write for a living.

I recently had trouble explaining the difference between “epigraph,” “epigram,” “epithet” and “epitaph.” (More on those later.)

To cut down on the confusion, I demystify eight perplexing combinations.

1. Accede and exceed

Accede means to agree to a request; to give consent.

I will not accede to your request to put a video of dancing kittens on the website.

Exceed means to be greater or more than something; to extend beyond or outside of.

The results from our new email campaign have exceeded all expectations.

2. Ambivalent and indifferent

Ambivalent means to simultaneously experience contradictory feelings, beliefs or motivations.

Because it often under-performs, I’m ambivalent about my new car.

Indifferent means showing no interest or concern.

I am indifferent to your arguments against the use of the serial comma.

3. Classical and classic

Classical means relating to the ancient Greeks or Romans, especially their art, architecture, or literature.

I’ve always preferred classical drama, such as “Medea” and “Lysistrata.”

Classic means serving as a standard of excellence; traditional or enduring; historically memorable.

“Roman Holiday” and “Rear Window” are two of my favorite classic movies.

4. Clamor and clamber

Clamor is a loud, continuous noise; a loud or strong demand.

We’ve been clamoring for a better user interface for years.

Clamber means to crawl or climb in an awkward or clumsy way.

Once the bar closed, Jill clambered into a cab.

5. Demure and demur

Demure means quiet, polite, or reserved; not attracting attention.

At last night’s office party, Jessica was demure and kept to herself.

Demur means to disagree or object; to delay or linger.

After some demur, Shelia agreed to my suggestions for her article.

6. Emigrate and immigrate

Emigrate means to leave one country to settle in another.

Many Americans have threatened to emigrate over the 2016 presidential election.

Immigrate means to enter a country to live there.

I wonder which countries they will immigrate to.

7. Epigram, epigraph, epitaph and epithet

An epigram is a short and clever poem or saying.

“Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker” is an epigram from Ogden Nash.

An epigraph is an inscription; a quote at the beginning of a literary work setting forth the theme.

I’ve always found too many epigraphs in a book to be distracting.

Epitaph means the words on a gravestone; a brief statement written in memory of a deceased person.

“What do you want on your epitaph?” might not be the best question to ask on a first date.

An epithet is a term used to characterize a person or thing; a disparaging or abusive word or phrase.

“Why should I be tarred with the epithet ‘loony’ merely because I have a pet halibut?” — from Monty Python’s Fish License Sketch.

8. Explicit and implicit

Explicit means something that is fully and clearly expressed; leaving no doubt; graphic.

I left explicit instructions about how the library should be arranged.

Implicit means implied or understood, though not clearly or directly stated.

We all implicitly know not to expect any help from that department.

Which word pairs perplex you, Ragan readers?

Laura Hale Brockway is writer and editor from Austin, Texas. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.

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