One of These Words is Not (Exactly) Like the Other

Anticipate/Expect

The slight difference between anticipate and expect has to do with whether or not any action is taken.

To anticipate something means “to foresee or expect something to happen in the future, and to perform an action in preparation for it.” So, if a bunch of martians anticipate a bumpy ride to Earth (friendly trip, of course), they’ll build a special force field beforehand to make sure nobody gets UFO-sick.

Expect means to regard something as likely to happen, but it doesn’t require any action beforehand. “We expect a good turnout at the Silly Putty Convention.” No action required, because everyone knows Silly Putty is awesome.

Avenge/Revenge

Both words relate to inflicting harm on someone who has done another person harm . . . but from slightly different perspectives.  

With avenge, the people doing the avenging are doing it on behalf of the victim. “Uncle Herbert avenged his toothless nephew by burning the evil hockey puck.”

Revenge can be a verb, but it’s more common as a noun. Instead of wider social retribution (i.e., Uncle Herbert on behalf of his toothless nephew), revenge is about personal retribution, getting even over something done directly to you. “After her brother smacked her with a water balloon in the face, Kelly plotted her revenge: glittery slime balls she could throw at her brother.”   

Avert/Avoid

Avert is used both in the sense of “turning away” from something (“Agh! I’m averting my eyes from the naked man on the street!”) and as “preventing” something from happening. But, avert is different from avoid because averting disaster means “taking some active measure to stop the disaster before it happens.” “Gordon Ramsay didn’t yell at the chef because she averted the overflowing pot by lowering the heat just in time.”

Avoid means “prevent” but is less related to active preventive measures to keep something from happening. It’s more about pulling away from a disastrous situation (that may have already happened). “Gordon Ramsay yelled bloody-effing murder as he and the chef stepped back to avoid the boiling soup that splashed out of the pot.”

Bias/Prejudice

Bias and prejudice both relate to subjective judgments about a person, thing, or idea, but one is more negative than the other.

A bias can be either favorable or unfavorable. Favorable: “I love chocolate, but Willy Wonka’s my dad so I’m biased.” Unfavorable: “The boy’s frequent experience with bullies made him biased against all people, even those trying to help.” This second example shows how even a negative bias can be created based on reason and experience. 

On the other hand, a prejudice is unfavorable, made for no apparent reason, and may be formed with little basis in fact or reality. “A prejudice against the entire Muslim population is unfounded.” “Dorkus is prejudiced against all brown foods, even chocolate—what the fudge!”

Blush/Flush

Blush pertains to a reddening of the face; flush is a reddening of other areas of the body (the neck, the chest, etc.). But, there are other distinguishing factors beyond the physical location of the crimson hue.

Blush typically applies in situations where someone’s face reddens as an emotional response (like being embarrassed, ashamed, or pleased). “When Prince Charming kissed Snow White back to life, she blushed redder than the apple that almost killed her.” 

Flush is used more when the person is feverish, warm from the heat, or energized after physical activity. “He was flushed from three hours of kickboxing."”

Childish/Childlike

A child has every right to be childish because they're doing things that kids do. When applied to an adult, however, childish is demeaning and likens some quality of the adult to being “weak” or “silly.” A childish adult would make fart jokes in work meetings . . . and that’s no longer OK!

On the other hand, it’s weird to call a child childlike because that implies the child is like a child but isn’t actually a child. However, an adult’s sense of childlike wonder is a good thing because that adult has qualities similar to the positivity of childhood: innocence, curiosity,  unadulterated joy.

Contempt/Disdain

Contempt and disdain are icky feelings. Both words express disapproval and repugnance over something perceived as vile or worthless. But, each type of disapproval is tinged with a different shade of dislike.

Contempt is disapproval with disgust: “My grandma is disgusted by all the boobs and butts she sees in the media now. She feels contempt for the ‘sex-obsessed society our kids are living in.'” 

Disdain is a type of disapproval mixed with superiority. With disdain, the person or thing that is disapproved of is unworthy of respect or notice. “The selfish businessman shouldered past the homeless person with disdain.”

Continual/Continuous

To describe unfolding events, continual refers to an event that occurs repeatedly . . . but with breaks in between. “The couple’s continual arguments were taking their toll.”  

A continuous event is one that proceeds without interruption. “The continuous drone of the shopping channel all night made the husband crabby, which is why the couple continually argued.”

Don’t worry—people have come to use these words interchangeably and they survived unscathed. Now, if the wife could just shut off the TV, that couple might survive, too!

Convince/Persuade

The traditional difference between convince and persuade is that the first involves changing minds and the second inspires the action of doing something (beyond just thinking about it).

From the Latin for “conquer” or “overcome,” to convince people to agree with a particular perspective requires presenting them with information that will cause them to “conquer” or “overcome” their former beliefs about something: “The measurements convinced him that Double Stuf Oreos contain only 1.86 times the ‘Stuf.’”

To persuade someone is to go beyond convincing them of an idea or opinion; in fact it is to convince them so strongly that they do something as a result. “The evidence persuaded him to make his own version of Double Stuf Oreos, what he calls REAL Dbble Stff Faux-reos.” No copyright infringement, here.

Deceitful/Deceptive

The distinction between these terms lies in intention.

A deceitful person is someone who has a tendency to deceive or to be dishonest. Objects and animals can’t be deceitful because they lack the human intention to lie.

But, a trippy optical illusion is deceptive because the eye is deceived or misdirected into thinking something else is going on.

Basically, it’s a matter of focus: intention on the one hand and effect on the other. A deceitful adman (who intends to lie) produces a deceptive advertisement (with the effect of misrepresenting a product). Like the 1950s Inflatable Wonder Sauna Hot Pants that were supposed to help you shed the pounds. Total deception right there.

Deliberate/Intentional

When speaking about purposeful action (not something that happens by chance), deliberate and intentional are often used interchangeably, but there are flavors of differences.

A deliberate action is taken with full realization of what one is doing. It can carry a negative connotation, especially when used as an adverb: “The brat deliberately threw the ball at my head.” “Why are you deliberately being such a *%$*#?” 

The word intentional is more neutral. “I intentionally sang him a happy song.” That’s nice of you. But for whatever reason, if you insert deliberately in that sentence, it’d sound like you were trying to annoy/anger the person with sing-song cheeriness.

Disused/Unused

This one’s super easy. An item that was handled or put to use before but isn’t used any more is disused. An item that has never been used is unused.

“The unused paper plates from last year’s family reunion are still taking up space in the kitchen cabinet.”

“Shirley knows she has a bad habit of trying out new shampoos. Her disused bottles are everywhere in the bathroom.”

Emulate/Imitate

Both emulate and imitate signify “copying” to some degree, but emulation is purely positive.

To emulate means “to try to equal or excel.” “The young amateur emulated his golf-pro father on the green.” The word also means “to rival with some degree of success.” “Surprisingly, Patti’s Palms for Pennies emulates the best astrology business in the country.”

To imitate someone is “to copy, follow as a model, or mimic.” Imitate isn’t necessarily positive: “‘Waaaaah wah waaaah, I never get what I want,’ Brian imitated his brother sobbing in the backseat.”

Envy/Jealousy

For most speakers (whether they like it or not), these are used interchangeably. But, there are certain contexts where one can’t substitute for the other.

Envy is craving someone else’s possessions or advantages. “Sabrina was envious of her sister’s good looks.” Most people would say jealous could easily sub in here with no damage to the meaning. So, in this case, envious and jealous are interchangeable.

But, when we look at another important meaning of jealousy—"anger at the possibility of romantic infidelity or rivalry"—envious can’t substitute. “He was a jealous husband.” If the husband were envious, he might want his wife’s money . . . or maybe her good looks (and that would be an even trickier problem).

Horrible/Horrific

Hopefully, you don’t need to use these words often. Although they both relate to “horror,” each one carries different connotations.

Horrible is used to describe something that is disagreeable, gross, or intensely disliked: “The horrible smell rising from the garbage bag meant it was time to take out the trash.” Horrible is best used to describe everyday unpleasantness, like “a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” . . . you know. 

A horrific experience is truly upsetting, overwhelmingly painful, frightening, or revolting. “The slaughter of innocent people is a horrific crime.” Horrific applies in circumstances of war, violent crime, brutality, and tragedy.

Incapable/Unable

Incapable and unable signify a lack of ability to do something, but they describe “not-ableness” from two points of view.

Incapable conveys a sense of “inherently lacking” the ability or power to do something. “The two-year-old was incapable of comprehending War and Peace.” Uh, right. Some of us feel the same way, as adults! Here, the inability is internal to the person, implying that the person can’t do anything to change the incapacity.

The word unable is a relaxed version of “not-ableness.” The person is capable of doing the thing, but there’s a temporary block. “She was unable to listen to the clown’s life story while he juggled his balls in the air.” “I’m unable to read War and Peace if the TV’s blasting.”

Incentive/Motive

An incentive stimulates someone to perform an action or demonstrate a desired behavior. It’s an external stimulus (like candy): “The promise of a trip to Disney World was Daisy’s incentive to quit thrashing and get off the supermarket floor.” Too bad it’s probably an empty promise made by a frazzled, pleading mom.

Motive, on the other hand, is more aligned with something driven from within. “Daisy’s caring disposition was her motive to help Mom get the groceries.” 'Atta girl. You’ll get to Disney World that way.

Infamous/Notorious

Sometimes fame is too hard to handle. It’s already easy for people to confuse famous and infamous, but even the shadier types of fame have differences.

Infamous is entirely negative, relating to shamefulness, outrageous or evil actions, and criminal behavior: “The infamous Charles Manson died while still in prison.”

On the spectrum of fame, notorious is more negative than positive. A notorious person isn’t known for evil or shameful behavior necessarily, they are just kind of famous for no reason (so many of those now, right?) or known for being “up to no good.”

Small tip: Use notorious (not infamous) if you want to joke around: “She’s a notorious blanket-hogger at tailgates.”  

Lonely/Lonesome

Unless prefaced by all, the word alone is the most neutral to use for “spending time by oneself.” Lonely and lonesome introduce emotional components to the colorless state of being alone.

Lonely conjures a sadness and a sense of loss in isolation. “The house, once full of life, was still. He felt so lonely after his wife died.” “She was lonely without her phone in her hand.”

Lonesome mingles the sadness of loneliness with a yearning for companionship, a longing to fill the void again. “His lonesome heart beat with faint hope that love was still possible.” “Her lonesome fingers itched to be reunited with her phone again.”

Luxuriant/Luxurious

So often people use luxuriant when they mean luxurious. Both have “lux” but the luxury lies in one, not the other.

Luxuriant means “abundant or lush in growth.” A luxuriant shampoo doesn’t make sense. Put it this way: “Try our new “lush-in-growth” shampoo!” The shampoo itself isn’t “full of growth,” right? But, if it works, it’ll produce luxuriant, thick, healthy hair like in the commercials.

A luxurious shampoo makes complete sense. The lather is luxurious if it’s expensive, pleasurable, or indulgent to the senses. Luxury—”delicacy, enjoyment, self-indulgence”—rests solely in luxurious.

Perverse/Perverted

“He took a perverse interest in disagreeing with his boss.” Don't worry, this has nothing to do with a bizarre sexual fetish!

Perverse means “cantankerous,” “obstinate,” or “willfully determined to go counter to what is expected or desired.” Someone with a perverse disposition is just a stubborn old mule (no offense to mules).  

If the guy above took a perverted interest in disagreeing with his boss, then human resources needs to step in. This dude’s getting weird pleasure from arguing with higher-ups.

Sensual/Sensuous

Even though these words are casually interchangeable, careful communicators should know sensual and sensuous have very different meanings.

Sensual has the “carnal,” “of-the-flesh” meaning people know today. It sometimes carries unfavorable undertones because the word is all about pleasures obtained through indulgence. “The sensual movement of her hips as she walked drove him wild.” “Their sensual appetites were sated as they ate the plate of oysters.” 

Because sensual is just too raunchy, the poet John Milton coined sensuous. Sensuous has a favorable air and means “literally pertaining to the senses.” “The sensuous art film was so vibrant, it was like watching a Monet in motion.” (A sensuous film is not porn!)

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