Which word is the right one to use?
Some words are so similar in spelling, or sound, or meaning, that it can be difficult to know which is the correct one in any particular case.
Here are some that give many of us a hard time. I’ll begin with the two that I have problems with.
- discreet/discrete – Discreet means reliable, careful. If a person is discreet, they are not likely to blab something you’ve told them in confidence. Discrete means separate or distinct.
- canvas/canvass – I will canvass the potential voters to try to gain their support, and then I will hide in my canvas tent until the election is all over.
- cannon/canon – Think of the cannon as a big gun, and cannon is a bigger word than canon. A (little) canon is a senior clergyman. It can also refer to a piece of music.
- compliment/complement – The word “complement” looks like the beginning of the word “complete.” Complement is the completion of something. The dessert complemented the meal. Then when the cook brings a wonderful dessert, you can say something nice and give her or him a compliment.
- comprise/composed of – Oh! This one is troublesome. If you remember not to follow comprised with “of,” you are well on your way to using it correctly. A whole thing comprises some parts; the parts do not comprise the whole. They make up the whole, but do not comprise it. The whole comprises the parts. Do not confuse this word with composed of, or consist of, or make up. e.g. The baked goods section comprises several kinds of pie. The puzzle is composed of pieces of many shapes. It comprises 500 pieces.
- extant/extinct – Extant means still in existence. Extinct means something no longer exists. e.g. The extant works of the ancient authors were stored in a special vault. The dodo is an extinct bird.
- shear/sheer – Shear is to cut, as with shears (scissors). Sheer can mean something like pure, or complete, as in sheer nonsense. Sheer can also refer to something that has fallen off or that drops straight down, as in a sheer drop-off on a cliff, or sheer, as in see-through (curtains), or sheer as in swerve abruptly.
- hoard/horde – A hoard is a collection of valuable things. Sometimes people hoard things that are valuable only to them. A huge group of people can be called a horde. Often they are called a horde if they are unruly.
- waver/waiver – If you waver, it could be that you are not as steadfast about an idea as you thought you were. A waiver is a document that gives up your right or a claim to something.
- plane/plain – A plane is a flying vehicle. It could also refer making a flat surface as on a wooden board, or it could refer to a level, as in being on a different plane (level), especially in thinking. The other plain could refer to something ordinary, especially in looks, and it can refer to the flat lands of the prairies.