9 troublesome word pairs

If you’re wondering whether you should use ‘can’ or ‘may’ in your copy, this list can shed some light on that question and several others.

Confusing word pairs are everywhere.

I’ve been writing about them for years, and I had thought I had the topic well covered.

Apparently I don’t. Here are nine more pairs to pay attention to:

1. Can vs. may

Use “can” when referring to the ability to do something.

Example: “I don’t think your brother can make you unconscious just by looking at you.”

Use “may” when asking for permission to do something or when referring to the possibility of something.

Example: “You may not throw knives at each other.”

Example: “Your excessive use of exclamation points may annoy readers.”

2. Continual vs. continuous

“Continual” means to recur at regular and frequent intervals.

Example: “Because she was new to the copy desk, Amy checked the style guide continually.”

“Continuous” means to go on without pause or interruption.

Example: “The continuous flow of alcohol made last night’s happy hour quite entertaining.”

3. “Compare to” vs. “compare with”

Use “compare to” for items that are similar.

Example: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Use “compared with” for items that are very different.

Example: “When compared with Shakespeare’s sonnets, modern sonnets fall flat.”

4. Dosage vs. dose

“Dosage” is the amount of medicine to be taken by a patient during a period of time.

Example: “The dosage is three times per day for 10 days.”

“Dose” is the amount taken at one time.

Example: “This morning’s dose is 250 mg.”

5. e.g. vs. i.e.

The abbreviation “e.g.” means “for example” or “such as.”

Example: There are several online dictionaries available, e.g., Wordhippo, Wordnik, and Dictionary.com.

The abbreviation “i.e.” means “that is” or “in other words.”

Example: “Do a bit of research if you are uncertain which word to use, i.e., use a dictionary.”

6. Feel vs. believe

Use “feel” to express physical sensations.

Example: “I felt a chill as soon as I walked through the door.”

Use “believe” to express personal conviction or the acceptance of something as true.

Example: “I don’t believe we’ll ever agree about the singular they.”

7. Fever vs. temperature

Do not use these words interchangeably. A fever is the physical condition that occurs when a person’s body temperature is elevated.

Example: “He had a fever.”

Temperature refers to body temperature, which everyone has.

Example: “His temperature was normal.”

8. Includes

“Includes” indicates that a partial list will follow. Do not use “includes” if the list is complete.

Correct: “The alphabet includes the letters a, b and c.”

Correct: “The first 3 letters of the alphabet are a, b and c.”

Incorrect: “The first 3 letters of the alphabet include a, b and c.”

(This one is not part of a confusing word pair, just a word that’s often misused.)

9. Since vs. because

Using “since” when you mean “because” can make your writing unclear.

Unclear: “Since I began reading Patrick O’Brian, my writing has improved.”

More clear: “Because I began reading Patrick O’Brian, my writing has improved.”

More clear: “After reading Patrick O’Brian, my writing improved.”

What additional word pairs would you add to the list, Ragan.com readers?

A regular contributor to Ragan.com and PR Daily, Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.

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