Easily Confused or Misused Words (Last Part)

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By: English Professor

few / less
Few is an adjective that means small in number. It is used with countable objects: “This department has few employees.” Less is an adjective that means small in amount or degree. It is used with objects of indivisible mass: “Which jar holds less water?”

figuratively / literally
Figuratively is an adverb that means metaphorically or symbolically: “Happening upon the shadowy figure, they figuratively jumped out of their shoes.” Literally is an adverb that means actually: “I'm not exaggerating when I say I literally fell off my chair.” It also means according to the exact meaning of the words: “I translated the Latin passage literally.”

flammable / inflammable
These two words are actually synonyms, both meaning easily set on fire. The highly flammable (inflammable) fuel was stored safely in a specially built tank. Use nonflammable to mean not flammable.

flaunt / flout
To flaunt means to show off shamelessly: “Eager to flaunt her knowledge of a wide range of topics, Helene dreamed of appearing in a contest.” To flout means to show scorn or contempt for: “Lewis disliked boarding school and took every opportunity to flout the house rules.”

foreword / forward
Foreword is a noun that means an introductory note or preface: “In my foreword I explained my reasons for writing the book.” Forward is an adjective or adverb that means toward the front: “I sat in the forward section of the bus.” “Please step forward when your name is called.” Forward is also a verb that means to send on: “Forward the letter to the customer's new address.”

founder / flounder
In its primary sense founder means to sink below the surface of the water: “The ship foundered after colliding with an iceberg.” By extension, founder means to fail utterly. Flounder means to move about clumsily, or to act with confusion. A good synonym for flounder is blunder: “After floundering through the first half of the course, Amy finally passed with the help of a tutor.”

hanged / hung
Hanged is the past tense and past participle of hang when the meaning is to execute by suspending by the neck: “They hanged the prisoner for treason.” “The convicted killer was hanged at dawn.” Hung is the past tense and participle of hang when the meaning is to suspend from above with no support from below: “I hung the painting on the wall.” “The painting was hung at a crooked angle.”

historic / historical
In general usage, historic refers to what is important in history, while historical applies more broadly to whatever existed in the past whether it was important or not: “a historic summit meeting between the prime ministers;” “historical buildings torn down in the redevelopment.”

i.e. / e.g.
The abbreviation e.g. means for example (from Latin exempli gratia): “Her talents were legion and varied (e.g., deep sea diving, speed reading).” The abbreviation i.e. means that is or in other words (from Latin id est): “The joy of my existence (i.e., my stamp collection) imbues my life with meaning.”

it's / its
It's is a contraction for it is, whereas its is the possessive form of it: “It's a shame that we cannot talk about its size.”

laid / lain / lay
Laid is the past tense and the past participle of the verb lay and not the past tense of lie. Lay is the past tense of the verb lie and lain is the past participle: “He laid his books down and lay down on the couch, where he has lain for an hour.”

lend / loan
Although some people feel loan should only be used as a noun, lend and loan are both acceptable as verbs in standard English: “Can you lend (loan) me a dollar?” However, only lend should be used in figurative senses: “Will you lend me a hand?”

lightening / lightning
Lightening is a verb that means to illuminate; lightning is a noun referring to the electrical charges the cause flashes of light during storms: “The lightning struck, lightening the sky.”
 
nonplussed
Meaning perplexed or bewildered, nonplussed is very often thought to mean just the opposite—calm, unruffled, cool-as-a-cucumber. A common mistake is to think the word means not “plussed,” but no such word exists. Nonplussed originates from the Latin non (no) and plus (more, further), and means a state in which no more can be done—one is so perplexed that further action is impossible. “The lexicographer grew increasingly agitated and nonplussed by the frequency with which she noted the misuse of nonplussed.”

passed / past
Passed is the past tense and past participle of pass. Past refers to time gone by; it is also a preposition meaning beyond. “In the past decade, I passed over countless opportunities; I was determined not to let them get past me again.”

penultimate
Meaning “next to last,” penultimate is often mistakenly used to mean “the very last,” or the ultimate: “The perfectionist was crestfallen when he was awarded the penultimate prize; the grand prize went to another.”

precede / proceed
The verb precede means to come before. Proceed means to move forward. “He preceded me into the room; once I caught up with him I proceeded to tell him off.”

principal / principle
Principal is a noun that means a person who holds a high position or plays an important role: “The school principal has 20 years of teaching experience.” Principal is also an adjective that means chief or leading: “The necessity of moving to another city was the principal reason I turned down the job offer.” Principle is a noun that means a rule or standard: “They refused to compromise their principles.”

stationary / stationery
Stationary is an adjective that means fixed or unmoving: “They maneuvered around the stationary barrier in the road.” Stationery is a noun that means writing materials: “We printed the letters on company stationery.”

who's / whose
Who's is the contraction of who is. Whose is the possessive form of who. “Who's going to figure out whose job it is to clean the stables?”

your / you're
Your is the possessive form of you; you're is the contraction of you are. “If you're planning on swimming, then be sure to bring your life vest and flippers.”