Category Archives: Confusing Words

fictional or fictitious?

Both fictional and fictitious refer to something that is imagined or invented. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, fictitious “implies fabrication and suggests artificiality or contrivance more than deliberate falsification or deception”; an example given is ‘fictitious characters.’ (However, another example given for the same entry is: “She gave a fictitious address on the application.” That seems like ‘deliberate falsification’ to me!) (Fictional, according to Merriam-Webster, is “not real and existing only in the imagination.”)

Either adjective can be used in reference to a work of fiction, and neither necessarily connotes an intention to deceive or defraud. (In contrast, deception is intended when using words such as counterfeit, impostor, and sham.)

A fictitious name is an assumed name you adopt for your business that is different from your personal name. A fictional character is an imaginary person represented in a work of fiction. Fictitious is the broader of the two words. Use fictional when discussing a work of fiction (novel, play, film, story); fictitious can refer to such works, and it can also refer to other fabricated and invented identities.

fictional

The author created a fictional universe as the setting for her novels.

The fictional characters in this classic film are both memorable and endearing.

fictitious

A corporation is a fictitious entity created by law.

The agent uses a fictitious name for undercover activities.

 
 
 
 
 
 

passed and past

These two words are confusing because they sound the same and sometimes the meaning is similar.

Passed is almost always a verb.

Miranda drove past me on the highway. (Drove is the verb)

Miranda passed me on the highway. (Passed is the verb)

past

(adjective): Stanley is past president of the organization.

I’ve been preoccupied these past few months.

(preposition): I’ll meet you at half past five.

Walk past the statue in the center of town and you’ll find the theater on your right.

(noun): In the past, a quorum was sufficient; now, all members must be present.

Ask her about her past.

(adverb): Months went past but no letter came.

I was sitting on the porch when Alan walked past.

passed

(verb): The teacher passed out the exam.

He passed out after the party.

She passed by me without saying a word.

The measure passed without objection.

Joe passed a bad check and was arrested.

Passed can be used as a noun referring to those who have “passed away” (“Say a prayer for the passed”) and as an adjective in games and sports (e.g., a passed ball), but passed is most commonly used as the past tense of the verb to pass.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Is “comprised of” ever correct?

You’ve probably seen sentences that include the words comprised of.

comprised of error

As seen online

Perhaps you’ve used this phrasing yourself. Comprised of is considered incorrect usage by some authorities. Why?

To comprise means to include, consist of, or be made up of:

The whole comprises the parts.

Each agency comprises numerous departments.

The university comprises seven colleges.

To compose means to form the substance of or put together:

We will compose a letter and ask you to review it before we send it.

The planet Jupiter is composed of gases.

The committee is composed of representatives from every state.

Comprised of seems like a confused combination of composed of and comprised. (Notice, too, that of follows “consist (of)” and “made up (of)” above. You can see how the confusion may have arisen.)

However, of does not follow include, which is akin to comprise. You wouldn’t say, “The group includes of six men and four women,” and, clearly, you shouldn’t say “comprises of” either.

So what about switching the earlier sentences around and using comprised of as follows:

The whole is comprised of the parts. ?

Each agency is comprised of numerous departments. ?

The university is comprised of seven colleges. ?

Well, you wouldn’t say “included of,” would you?

The meaning of include is broader than the way we use comprise; include may be used to cover all of the subject’s constituent parts or in reference to some of them:

Attendees included the governor and his wife. (The governor and his wife were not the only people there.)

Two new drugs were among those included in the study. (The two new drugs were not the only drugs studied.)

The property that is for sale includes a three-bedroom house, a barn, and four acres of land. (The listing doesn’t mention a pond, and there may or may not be one on the land.)

Comprised is used to describe the whole or entirety:

The district comprises ten towns. (and no others)

When completed, the structure will comprise three interconnected buildings. (three and only three)

The task force will comprise delegates from all five regions. (In other words, representatives from all five regions will be included. The task force is made up of delegates from five regions.)

I belong to the camp that dislikes comprised of. But, languages change and evolve; that which was considered unacceptable yesterday may be fine today or tomorrow.

Objection to the use of comprised of will vary depending upon your field and audience, but if your standard is impeccability, be aware of the disagreement about correctness and adjust accordingly.

My advice is to consider rephrasing when you find yourself wanting to say or write “comprised of.” 


Leigh’s argument consists of assumptions and theories and is devoid of verifiable facts.

 
 
 
 
 
 

mowed or mown?

You’ve just finished mowing the lawn. You come inside and announce to your partner (as you wipe the sweat from your brow), “I mowed the lawn.” Then you see a dog outside, about to do its business—on your property. You open the door and scream,

“Stay away from my freshly mowed grass!”

You scratch your head and wonder if you should have said, “Get off my freshly mown grass.”

In this scenario, either mowed or mown is correct. (You would not, however, say, “I mown the lawn.” Mowed is the past tense of the verb to mow.)

The lyrics of the 1966 hit song “Daydream,” written by John Sebastian (of The Lovin’ Spoonful), include the following:

“I’m blowin’ the day to take a walk in the sun
And fall on my face on somebody’s new mowed lawn”

Although “newly” mowed would be the grammatically correct phrasing, as I discussed in a previous post, stylistic choices often favor deviating from rulebooks. That extra syllable would throw off the meter (metre), and newly “mown” might be harder to sing. Or maybe John Sebastian just liked the sound of “new mowed” (or likes breaking the rules!).

The choices you make as a writer create an effect; whether that effect is deemed artful or clumsy will depend on a variety of factors, including the expectations and preferences of your intended audience. When you know what the rules are, you can consciously choose to break, bend, or ignore them; the danger lies in unwittingly creating errors.

If your editing skills are limited, find a proofreader or editor, or ask a trusted friend who is a careful reader to review important projects before you finalize and submit them.
 
 
 
 
 
 

continual or continuous?

Continuous and continual are two adjectives that are similar in meaning but are not completely interchangeable.

When something forms an unbroken whole, without interruption, it is continuous:

The road runs parallel to the river for one long, continuous stretch before ending, at Suffragette City, only to pick up again twenty miles later, at Inspiration Point.

“The symphony will be performed in one continuous piece. Please do not applaud until the end.”

Continual can also mean* “continuing without interruption,” but, unlike continuous, continual is used to refer to a condition or action that repeats with some frequency (i.e., there are breaks in between):

The continual power outages this season have led to an increase in sales of generators.

My parents’ continual arguments created a lot of tension in our household.

The unit was subjected to continual attacks over a three-month period.

“These continual interruptions are trying my patience!”

“This continual rain has me feeling as gray as the sky.”

Continuous rain, on the other hand, would never stop.

On the planet Meru, rain is continuous.

Roads, lines, and some events have clear beginnings and endings. We can speak of a stretch of road being continuous—or not—because we can easily measure where it starts and where it stops. However, other situations and events are subject to periods of greater and lesser intensity before the activity fades or disappears completely. (A rainy day may include periods of drizzle or mist between heavy downpours, but one might still remark, “It’s been raining all day.”) Continual covers both kinds of situations. Consider:

Sabrina lives in a continual state of fear. (Who’s to say if fear is present in every moment of Sabrina’s existence? Her fear may or may not be continuous, but the meaning of the sentence is clear: Even if Sabrina has occasional moments where she can forget the real or imagined danger, fear dominates her life.)

Mitch seems to need continual reassurance since the layoffs started. (Mitch may forgets his troubles sometimes—even if only in his sleep!—but to those who witness his agitation, Mitch’s need for reassurance seems insatiable as he worries about being laid off himself.)

The continual public outcry eventually led to the practice being banned. (I doubt the outcry continued 24/7, but it could have. (Strikers, for example, might walk a picket line in shifts, so that the pressure is unrelenting and continuous). Often, the point of this kind of statement is in noting that the demand for change persisted over some period of time, bringing attention to a problem in need of a solution.)

We may disregard a dripping faucet for a time, but we can’t ignore the water gushing from a broken pipe. The actual starting point—whether the subject is a drip or the criticism of a policy or practice—may not have been noticed at the time. Sometimes a movement must build momentum before its significance is appreciated, and often the origins are as unobtrusive as a quietly dripping faucet. Once the dam bursts, action is required!

Continuously is an adverb, as is continually:

The alarm blared continuously until the police arrived.

The city boasts the oldest continually operating hospital in the U.S. (pun intended!)

“Is something wrong with your phone? I’ve continually tried to reach you for the last six hours!”

Takeaway: Continual can mean either unbroken and continuous or regularly recurring. Continuous means unbroken and uninterrupted.

The distinction would matter greatly to a designer or builder. Would you want pipes in your house that are not continuous? If they are disconnected at even one place, you might not have water when you turn on the faucet!

Likewise, a line that is continuous is unbroken—whether the line is drawn on a page or tablet or a family’s lineage is being discussed. If the line is broken at even one place, then it is not continuous.

 

*As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online) entry notes, the word continual is older than continuous and has, since the fourteenth century, meant “continuing without interruption.”
 
 
 
 
 
 

drier/dryer, flier/flyer

drier/dryer

Do your clothes get drier when you use a dryer?

If you are comparing several items in terms of how dry they are, you would say that one is drier than the other and the third is the driest of them all.

I prefer a drier climate.

This is the driest summer on record.

The appliance that dries your clothes is, according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “usually” spelled dryer. But if you really want to spell it drier, that usage is not uncommon, especially outside of the U.S. (I don’t recommend using drys instead of dries, however—unless you are referring to those who were in favor of Prohibition!)

Related:

dried:

These fruits all have to be cut into pieces and then dried.

These are too dried out to use.

My well has dried up.

I’ll bring along some dried fruit as a snack.

Her home is decorated with dried flowers.

drying:

I can’t go until I have finished drying my hair.

Water your plant regularly to keep the soil from drying out.

flier/flyer

Flier and flyer are similar; both words can refer either to one who flies the friendly skies or to the brochure or circular that you post to advertise your product or service, though the latter usage is “usually” spelled flyer.*

The flier returned from the mission a hero.

The team canvassed the city with flyers promoting the event.

In the U.S., airlines seem to prefer the y form for their frequent flyer programs—but the spelling used by journalists varies.

Compare:

“The 14 Best Airline Frequent Flier Loyalty Programs” (Travel + Leisure)

“Survey: Majority of Americans Confused By Airline Frequent Flyer Programs” (Forbes)

In short, you are safe using either flier or flyer. (But note that the plural of the noun fly (e.g., the insect) is flies (not flys)!)

 

* According to Merriam-Webster, flier can mean either “a person or animal that flies” or “a piece of paper that has something printed on it (such as an advertisement or an announcement) and that is distributed to many people.”
 
 
 
 
 
 

lose it or loose it?

The spelling of loose and lose is similar, but the meaning is different:

My tooth is loose. I’m afraid I might lose it.

Rather than provide definitions (which can be found easily) I’ll give examples of how these two words are often used. Repetition aids memory!

loose

“I think he’s got a screw loose.”

“I prefer loose-fitting clothing in hot weather.”

The escaped convicts are on the loose.

“Hang loose, man!”

“But Jeb told me to loose the horses!”

“In my day, we’d have called her a loose woman.”

“With a wave of this wand, I loose the demons that are trapped beneath the waves!”

loosen

Loosen your grip on the steering wheel and enjoy the ride!

“I must loosen my belt after that meal!”

lose

“I don’t want to lose you.”

“My career may be over if I lose this race.”

Lose the e when spelling losing.

Lost is the past tense of lose; loosed is the past tense of loose.

Sally lost ten pounds through diet and exercise.

Joe lost his temper and destroyed the model Jeri had built.

When Zeus loosed his fury, the ground shook.

Lost can also be an adjective: The lost child wailed.

The use of lost cause (a noun) arose after the defeat of the Confederacy.

And remember: “Don’t be a sore loser!”
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

advice or advise?

Advice is what is given; the one who advises is an advisor.

The spelling confusion is likely caused, at least in part, by the different sounds both c and s represent. The letter c is commonly pronounced with a k sound (as in the word commonly). The letter s can be pronounced as s (as in sound), z (as in wise), or sh (as in sure). (Yet another variation occurs in words such as measure.)

With the word advice, the c is pronounced as s, as in words such as lice, mice, and dice. Think of a vice squad and substitute advice squad as a memory prompt!

advice

(noun): “When I want your advice, I’ll ask for it!”

New investors may benefit from the advice of an expert.

advise

(verb): “Please advise me on the best way to proceed.”

“My doctors advised me to avoid secondhand smoke.”

Note that advised can also be an adjective, often used with well or ill:

Changing jobs now would be ill-advised.

“You would be well-advised to submit your application early.”

advisor (or adviser—both spellings are correct*)

(noun): He was the president’s most trusted advisor for many years.

Students should meet with their advisers before registering for classes.

advisory (always spelled with an o)

(noun): A travel advisory is in effect for the entire region.

(adjective): The advisory board will hold hearings on the matter before issuing a final report.

 

*One spelling may be preferred by particular regions (e.g., UK/US), publications (journals or newspapers), institutions (job titles, such as National Security Advisor) or fields (investment advisers). Such preferences should be followed when referring to specific entities. In your own writing, you may use either. Just be consistent!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A capital idea

When spelled with an a, capital can mean:

Excellent; first-rate (Splendid! Marvelous! A capital idea!)

Foremost; primary (Here at Capitol Industries, customer satisfcation is our capital concern.)

An uppercase letter (Capitol is spelled with a capital C.)

A capital offense is a crime that is punishable by death. (capital punishment)

Wealth (money, property) or other assets (We are trying to raise the capital to start a new venture.)

The official seat of government (Albany is the capital of New York.)

The center of some other activity (e.g., fashion capital, entertainment capital)

track capitol

Sorry kids! (Is anyone at this school paying attention?)

When spelled with an o, capitol refers to a building in which governmental functions are carried out. As a proper noun, the Capitol refers to the place where the U.S. Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) convenes:

The President is inaugurated at the Capitol and delivers the annual State of the Union address there.

Reference to the building in which a state legislature sits may also be capitalized when capitol is used as a proper noun (e.g., Visit the California State Capitol Museum on your next trip to Sacramento.).

Of course, other things can also be named after the Capitol, such as the neighborhood in which the Capitol is located (Capitol Hill).

Not surprisingly, other countries use similar terms (e.g., the Capitole in Toulouse, where you will find City Hall), for the main temple to Jupiter in ancient Rome (the Capitolium) was built on Capitoline Hill (and dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. This trinity became known as the Capitoline Triad.).

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

foreword or forward?

Before I discuss the difference between forward and foreword, let’s take a brief look at the prefixes for and fore.

Golfers shout “Fore!” to alert people who are ahead of them that a ball is coming their way. (For an interesting article about the history of “Fore!” see www.scottishgolfhistory.org/origin-of-golf-terms/fore/)

In general, for- (as in forget, forfeit, forbid, forbear, and forgive) means to go without (or lose) something, and fore- (as in foresee, foretell, forewarn, forefather, and foreplay) means to go before (in place or time).

The distinction has largely been lost in the words forego and forgo, which can now be used interchangeably. However, I will argue for the best practice:

Use forego and its variants to mean “to go before or precede”:

As you can see from the foregoing discussion, investing in the company at this time is not recommended.

It was rigged. The outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Use forgo and its variants to mean “to abstain or do without”:

I need to lose ten pounds, so I will forgo dessert.

By forgoing treatment, you put your health at risk.

The foreword is what comes before the main body of a book. It is a short introduction that is usually written by someone other than the author.

The word forward can be used as an adjective (“near, at, or belonging to the front part“), an adverb (“to or toward what is in front”), a noun (“a player who plays at the front [of] the team’s formation near the opponent’s goal”), and a verb (“to send or ship onward”).

As forward suggests movement “toward the front,” it is easy to see why people mistakenly believe the front part of a book might be a forward.

Remember that a book is made up of words and the section that comes before the chapters is called a FOREWORD!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

advance or advanced?

I often see the word advanced used when advance would have been the correct choice.

From a website that should know better.

If you are selling tickets before a scheduled event, you are selling them in advance.

If you are an author and your publisher sends a preview copy of your next book to reviewers, it is an advance review copy.

If you have a disease that has progressed, it is at an advanced stage.

When advance refers to forward movement, it can be used as a noun or as a verb:

noun: Significant advances have been made in recent years.

verb: “We will advance at dawn,” the commander informed his troops.

The past tense of the verb form is advanced:

When Joan hesitated, her opponent advanced.

Noun and verb forms are also used when advance refers to payment:

noun: Tom received an advance after his book proposal was accepted.

verb: “I’ll see if the bank will advance me a loan.”

Here, too, the past tense of the verb would be advanced:

The bank advanced me a loan.

Advanced is an adjective:

Because of her advanced age, Simone was allowed to board first.

His views were too advanced to gain acceptance by the public.

“I’ll be taking Advanced Calculus next term, but I’m not sure I’m ready for it.”

Advance can also be used as an adjective:

“We received advance notice of the offer.”

Incorrect:

Advanced tickets will go on sale February 14. X

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

complement and compliment

The words complement and compliment can be used as verbs or as nouns. The pronunciation is the same for both.

As a noun, complement most commonly means “something that completes something else” or improves upon it:

Dessert was the perfect complement to the meal.

Complement also refers to “the usual number or quantity” of a thing:

The ship departed with a full complement of cargo.

When used as a verb, complement is similar to the first meaning above:

Dessert complemented the meal.

 (Complement is also a grammatical term and a medical term.)

The noun compliment refers to an expression of praise, admiration, respect or regard, sometimes accompanied by a gift:

“My boss paid me the nicest compliment today.”

(plural) “Please enjoy this free appetizer, compliments of the chef.”

The verb compliment is used to express praise or approval, or to show regard or respect:

“I’m going backstage to compliment Marlo on a fine performance.”

He complimented her on her good taste.

 The adjectival forms are complementary and complimentary:

The two positions are complementary; both roles are indispensable.

This complimentary pass gives you full access to our services for one month.

Complementary can also be used to refer to colors and to medicine. “Complementary function” is a mathematical term.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

ensure and insure

The adjective sure means confident and certain; when a person is assured, she is confident (as in “self-assured”). Assured can also be a noun, with a similar meaning as insured. (See Black’s Law Dictionary: “Thus where a wife insures her husband’s life for her own benefit and he has no interest in the policy, she is the ‘assured’ and he the ‘insured.’ ”) As the past tense of assure, the verb assured can mean “to give confidence to,” or reassure (restore confidence or assure again).

Confusion arises because, in the U.S., insure, ensure, and assure can all mean “to make certain.”

The board favors expansion, but success is not assured.

Wise planning will ensure a successful event.

The regulations were designed to insure your safety.

Think of ensure as “making sure” something will or will not happen; when you insure something of value, you seek payment for losses or damages that are covered by the terms of your insurance policy. Statements are often made to provide assurance, but they may or may not be backed up by actions!

insure

(verb): Are you insured against potential losses?

Our house is insured by the company that runs those clever ads.

Remember that insurance (noun) is designed for protection:

My insurance policy will be expiring soon.

This contract provides insurance against a rate increase.

When you are taking affirmative steps to guarantee an outcome, ensure is often the best choice.

ensure

(verb): Please ensure that the belt is fastened securely before continuing.

Our quality control measures ensure that your data is safe.

Use assure when information, a pledge, or a guarantee is provided for the purpose of inspiring confidence.

assure

(verb): I assure you, we will find the culprit.

We have been assured that construction will be completed as planned.

Related:

reassure

(verb): I was reassured after I heard the prognosis.

The gesture reassured me that his intentions are honorable.

reassuring/reassurance

(adjective): A few reassuring words would set our minds at ease.

(noun): I don’t blame her for wanting reassurance, but I can’t give it to her.

Are you sure you know when to use insure, ensure, and assure?