GrammarPhile Blog

Similar but Different: Choosing the Right Word

Posted by Terri Porter   Feb 4, 2015 6:00:00 AM


This note accompanied a recent job submitted to “Please check for any blaring errors.” And this excerpt appeared in another job: “Two witnesses must be present when you sign your advanced directive.”

Encountering a word that’s similar to the one that belongs but isn’t quite right is like stepping on a slippery object while walking in a murky lake — you know you’re not on solid ground but aren’t sure why.

Sometimes the answer is obvious, as in the first example, in which “blaring” (a loud and unpleasant sound) should be “glaring” (obvious or noticeable). Sometimes it’s less so. We see the error in the second example quite a bit at “Advanced” means developed beyond an initial stage. “Advance” is the correct term here, meaning “made, sent or provided at an early time.”

Certain word pairs get mixed up all the time. Sometimes it’s because they’re homonyms and sound exactly alike (there/their/they’re; premier/premiere; led/lead), and sometimes it’s because they’re just similar enough to cause confusion. We talk about homonyms in this post. Here, we focus on words that sound or look similar but have subtle differences.

One of the best ways to learn about these differences in word pairs is to really understand what each word means. A dictionary is your best source for that, as are usage manuals such as Garner’s Modern American Usage. But remembering which word to use in which instance can still be hard without referring to a guide every time.

Unless you have some handy-dandy tips and tricks to help you remember, like these:

Accept | Except — “Accept” means to take something offered. “Except” means to exclude. The difficulty comes in sentences like the following, in which you’d have to know the writer’s intent:

Mr. Davis accepted/excepted the student’s late paper.

Did Mr. Davis take the paper or not? If the intent is clear, and you’re still not sure of the right word, keep the following tip in mind.

TIP: Because both “except” and “exclude” start with ex, substitute “exclude” for “except” in your sentence to see if it still makes sense.


Among | Between — Use “between” when talking about two; use “among” for more than two.

TIP: Use this phrase to remember that “between” applies to less than three:

Between you and me, a crowd is three.


Comprise | Compose — The whole comprises (includes/encompasses) the parts, so the whole comes before the parts when using “comprise.”

The gift comprises three turtle doves and four calling birds, among other things.

The parts compose (make up, constitute) the whole, so the parts come before the whole when using “compose.”

Three turtle doves and four calling birds, among others, compose the gift.

Passive constructions most often trip people up (is composed/comprised of). Just remember not to use “comprise” this way.

TIP: If you can’t substitute “include” for “comprise,” you’re not using “comprise” correctly.

Example: The zoo is comprised of 102 animal species. This is incorrect because you can’t say “The zoo is included of 102 animal species.” The correct form is: The zoo comprises (includes) 102 animal species.


Fewer | Less — Use “less” for singular nouns (Katie has less taffy) and plural nouns commonly treated as singular, such as measurements involving miles, hours or dollars (More than 26 miles is a long way to run. The $100 I gave you is gone already?!).

Use “fewer” for plural nouns (Katie has fewer pieces of taffy).

TIP: Both “less” and “singular” contain the letter S.


i.e. | e.g. — i.e. means “that is” and is used to further explain something [You’ll find an ATM at the nearby branch (i.e., the one at 8th and Main)]. e.g. means “for example” [We had all kinds of food at the international potluck (e.g., samosas, latkes, eggrolls)].

TIP: Remember “for eg-zample” to equate “e.g.” with examples.


Imply | Infer — “Imply” means to suggest. “Infer” means to deduce or guess. The speaker implies; the listener infers. The writer implies; the reader infers.

TIP: Remember this phrase to distinguish the two:

I sIMPLY meant to say … you’re IN FER a lot of trouble if your guess is wrong.


Who | Whom — “Who” is the subject (doer of action) (Who is calling?). “Whom” is the object (receiver of action) (Whom are you calling?).

TIP: If you can substitute he/she, use “who” (He/she is calling).

If you can substitute her/him, use “whom” (I am calling her/him).

At, we let context guide us, keeping in mind the target audience. That sometimes means we leave “who” when “whom” is grammatically correct. Think the famous line from Ghostbusters would have worked as well if it’d been “Whom you gonna call?”


Mix-ups in the word pairs above are ones we commonly see in documents that come through Many others cause as much confusion. Some (lie/lay, affect/effect) warrant their own discussion, which we’ll take up in future posts, along with any others you find problematic. Let us know in the comments below what those are.



Topics: word choices, common mistakes, misused words

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