Check out these six word pairs commonly confused and misused by many professionals with expertise outside of content writing and journalism (and yes, sadly, even some professional writers).
Outside of the occasional error that everyone makes from time to time, confusing similar words can make a smart person appear stupid to an audience, and that’s never a good thing.
Blond and blonde – Most people don’t realize that the two different spellings correspond to male and female hair color. Blond refers to males or a mixed gender group. Blonde describes the hair color of females.
The British typically stick to the tradition, of course, and use the word blonde when describing a female and the word blond when describing a male or mixed gender group.
But we Americans tend to rebel a bit against our cousins across the pond. While many purists do use the terms in the traditional way, others say that here in the good ol’ USA, the term blond refers to hair color and the term blonde refers to a person. American usage examples:
- She has long blond hair.
- The blonde in the corner is named Baby.
Loathe and loath – I see numerous examples of people mixing up these two kissin’ cousins. While it doesn’t really matter if people mix them up when quipping casually on popular social media platforms, when a professional does it in the context of his or her business dialogue, it looks bad.
Loathe means ‘to hate’ and you should only use it as a verb; whereas, loath describes a person’s unwillingness to do something.
- Newman loathes broccoli, often calling it a vile weed.
- I loath exercising in the oppressive Texas heat.
Blatant and flagrant – It’s no wonder that professionals often confuse these two words, since their meanings overlap. Blatant refers to something noxious, offensive, unpleasantly loud, or noisy, especially in an obvious or conspicuous way. Use flagrant to point out or emphasize the serious wrongdoing inherent in the offensive thing or behavior.
Depending on context, some situations could allow for using either word. This only adds to the confusion.
For example, one could consider violation of animal cruelty statutes as blatant or flagrant, depending on details. If the offenders violated the statutes without regard to witnesses or scrutiny, use the word blatant. If the monsters committed the cruel acts with exceptional brutality or viciousness, use the word flagrant to describe them.
- The journalist caught that woman telling a blatant lie on her website.
- The agent considered Kanye’s act a flagrant violation of the protective order.
Discreet and discrete – Both of these adjectives sound the same, causing many well-meaning pros to confuse and, thus, misuse them. A discreet person shows prudence or self-restraint in behavior or speech. Discrete refers to two or more wholly separate things.
- Nothing if not discreet, Bradley Cooper tried to initiate a private messaging session with Samantha.
- Ryan Gosling’s upcoming book will include four discrete and inspiring sections.
Compliment and complement – Complement refers to either of two parts that make up a whole, two related angles with a sum equaling to 90o, complex proteins found in the blood plasma that work with the body’s immune system. Compliment refers to an expression of praise, congratulations, or admiration.
- “It [the tree] had kept its boughs unshattered, and its full complement of leaves.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables)
- Cooper gave her such a sincere compliment that she became weak in the knees.
Less and fewer – This one, perhaps, annoys me the most. Less refers to something of a smaller amount or quantity as something else; or someone or something with lower importance. Less can work in a sentence as an adjective, pronoun, noun, or preposition.
Deceptively similar, but with subtle differences, the word fewer refers to something that amounts to or consists of a smaller number and works as both an adjective and a pronoun.
Use less when referring to things you can’t count or that do not have a plural form: money, rain, music, influence, happiness, etc. Use fewer when comparing things or people in their plural forms, such as diamonds, cats, vacations, or kisses.
- She gave Bradley two fewer kisses than she gave Ryan, leaving the American Sniper star desperate for more.
- He bought seven diamonds, but Tim purchased fewer.
- She poured herself less wine than she wanted.
- After a day at Nordstrom’s, I have considerably less money than I had yesterday.
Bonus Tip: Reticent – this word refers to a person’s inclination to keep his feelings or private matters to himself – a reluctance to speak. Many people often use this term incorrectly by styling it in a sentence to infer reluctance or unwillingness in general.
- The reporter wrote her off as reticent and overly reserved due to her unwillingness to write about her private life.
- His typical soft-spoken manner led others to believe him reticent by nature, an erroneous assumption.
Word pair confusion and misuse abounds in both print and digital media. Obviously, these meager tips don’t even begin to address the countless misuses of language in both the written and spoken word.
Instead of worrying about all these technicalities, hire a professional writer and editor to handle your content development projects.