7 confusing word pairs and how to determine the difference

Whether you’re a young writer or an experienced scribe, there’s a strong chance you have confused one of these words with its nearly identical twin.


The English language is full of confusing word pairs.

How many times have you changed accept to except or stationary to stationery when editing another’s work? The word pair that I correct most frequently—comprise and compose.

Considering there are an estimated 250,000 distinct English words, it’s easy to understand the confusion. Those of us who ply our trade with words are in a unique position to understand their shades of meaning. Others who are less experienced may not understand the distinctions.

Take note of the following word pairs. The distinctions between them are subtle but important.

Adverse and averse

Adverse means unfavorable or harmful.

• Example: Report any adverse effects from the drug to your physician.

Averse means opposed or strong disliking.

• Example: He was averse to the idea of starting a new diet.

Biannual and biennial

A biannual event occurs twice per year.

• Example: The report is published biannually in March and October.

A biennial event takes place every two years.

• Example: The Texas legislature meets biennially, during odd-numbered years.

Comprise and compose

To comprise is to enclose or include and is always used in the active voice; therefore, comprised of is not correct.

• Example: The university comprises six colleges and nine divisions.

Compose means to make up or be a constituent of. Compose can be used in the passive voice.

• Example: The company is composed of four employees.

Remember, the parts compose the whole; the whole comprises the parts.

Complacent and complaisant

To be complacent is to be smug, self-satisfied, or untroubled.

• Example: Years of success had made her complacent.

To be complaisant is to be willing to please or cheerfully obliging.

• Example: The leadership was divided, complaisant, and powerless.

Eminent and imminent

Eminent describes a person who is famous and respected in an area or profession.

• Example: At age 22, she had become one of the country’s most eminent paleontologists.

Imminent means something is about to happen.

• Example: Given all the traffic on the site, the crash was imminent.

Imply and infer

To imply is to speak indirectly or suggest.

• Example: You are implying that piracy is our only alternative.

To infer is to surmise or conclude.

• Example: I infer from your statement that you agree with this solution.

In The Careful Writer, Theodore Bernstein explains it this way: “The implier is the pitcher; the inferrer is the catcher.

Nauseous and nauseated

To be nauseous is to cause nausea.

• Example: Emetics are meant to be nauseous.

To be nauseated is to become ill.

• Example: I felt nauseated after riding in his car.

It is incorrect to say, “I feel nauseous,” unless you are causing nausea in another person.

Readers, any others?

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