14 words that always get mixed up, mangled and misunderstood.

Most people have pet words that they always get confused. It’s possible that you’ve gone your entire life without realising your repeated mistake.

People have probably noticed but not said anything. Then when someone does correct you, you’re indignant (or defiant?), sure that you’re right. You must be – you’ve been using the word with confidence for years. You look it up and find that you’re wrong.

The exasperation (exacerbation?) of it all. Why didn’t you look it up earlier? Why didn’t someone tell you before? You then think of the times when you might have used it incorrectly. Did you use it in the interview for that job you didn’t get? Or in your wedding speech? How many witty Facebook rants have been met with silent scorn?

Writer, Andrew Thompson. Image:

It’s not a good feeling when the penny finally drops. Read on to ensure that you never suffer these embarrassments again.

1. Adverse - versus - Averse.

Q. If you are against doing something, are you adverse or averse to it?
ADVERSE means ‘hostile, harmful or unfavourable’. It usually relates to things (something that works against something else) and not people. It derives from the Latin word adversus, meaning ‘hostile or opposed to’.
AVERSE means ‘having a strong feeling of opposition for something or being disinclined or unwilling’. It describes an attitude, often relating to people, and derives from the Latin word aversus, meaning ‘turned away’.

It’s more commonly recognised as the word aversion.

The adverse weather conditions served to increase his aversion


Adverse = ad-worse and is bad for you; averse = reverse and goes in the opposite direction when opposed. Or ‘I have an aversion to that .

2. Affect -versus- Effect.

Q. If you receive bad news, does it affect or effect your mood?

AFFECT means ‘to influence or to produce an effect or change in something’. Generally speaking, affect is a verb, although it can also be a noun (principally in psychology), meaning ‘an emotional response’. But as a rule, if a verb is called for, affect will be used. If you can substitute the word transform, then affect will be the verb to use. Affect has been confused with effect since as early as the 1400s, and this is one of the most commonly confused pairings today.

EFFECT means ‘a consequence or something that is produced or brought about’. It’s usually a noun, but it can also be a verb, meaning ‘to bring about’, such as ‘to effect a change’. As a rule, if a noun is called for and you can substitute the word ‘consequence’, effect will be used.The effects of alcohol greatly affected his ability to drive.

A verb is an ‘action word’, which starts with a: affect is an action.

Also, if something affects you, it usually has an effect on you.
‘You can affect an effect, but you shouldn’t effect an affect.’ – Unknown

3. Alternate -versus- Alternative.

Q. If you choose one way over another, do you take the

ALTERNATE means ‘one after the other’ or ‘to switch back and forth in turn’. It derives from the Latin word alternus, meaning ‘one after the other’.
ALTERNATIVE means ‘one or the other and that a choice exists between two things’. It derives from the Latin word alternativus, meaning ‘offering one or the other of two’.
The debating teams alternated sides, arguing alternative positions.

4. Amoral -versus- Immoral.

Q. Do some people consider medical tests on animals immoral or amoral?
AMORAL means ‘being unaware or indifferent to questions of right or wrong’. People are amoral if they show no sense of right or wrong.
IMMORAL means ‘morally wrong, or contrary to established moral principles’. Immoral acts violate socially accepted principles – they are the opposite of moral acts. A scientist should be amoral in his work, even if the experiment is immoral.

5. Assume - versus - Presume.

Q. If you think an event may have happened but you are not sure, do you
ASSUME has a variety of meanings, but in this sense it means ‘to suppose or take for granted – to believe something without any evidence when you’re not sure, or to make a guess’. It’s from the Latin word assumere, meaning ‘to take up or adopt’.

PRESUME is very similar, but means ‘to take for granted in the absence of evidence to the contrary’. The difference is the degree of certainty. A presumption is an informed guess and derives from the Latin word praesumere, meaning ‘to anticipate’.


6. Astrology -versus- Astronomy.

Q. If you study the planets and how they influence people, are you studying astrology or astronomy.

ASTROLOGY is the study that attempts to interpret the influence of celestial bodies, such as stars and planets, on human affairs. It derives from the Greek word astron, meaning ‘star’.
ASTRONOMY is the scientific study of individual celestial bodies and of the universe as a whole. It has the same origin as astrology and originally the two were intertwined. Nowadays, however, astrology is generally considered a pseudoscience – never refer to an astronomer as an astrologer!

7. Continuous- versus-Continual.

Q. If it rains on and off all day, is the rain continual or continuous?
CONTINUAL means ‘repeated, but with breaks in between’. Continual actions are frequent, but need not be uninterrupted, only repeated.
Slightly confusing but provided for consistency, it derives from the Latin word continuus, meaning ‘to hold together’.
CONTINUOUS refers to actions that are uninterrupted and unceasing. It has the same origin as continual.

8. Convince -versus- Persuade.

Q. Do you convince or persuade someone that your argument is correct?
CONVINCE means ‘to move someone by argument or evidence to a belief or agreement’. It comes from the Latin word convincere, meaning ‘to demonstrate incontrovertibly’, with vincere meaning ‘to conquer’. Convince should only be followed by that or of and never by to.
PERSUADE means ‘to prevail upon someone to do something’. It is to induce by appeal, advice or urging. It’s from the Latin word persuadere, meaning ‘to urge or advise’. A person can be convinced of something (by evidence or arguments made to intellect), but persuaded to do something (by appeals made to emotion or moral sense).

9. Diagnosis -versus- Prognosis

Q. When enquiring about the outlook for someone with an illness, do you want to know the diagnosis or prognosis?
A DIAGNOSIS is the result of an evaluation of the nature and cause of a condition. It derives from the Greek word gignoskein, meaning ‘to perceive’. Diagnosis relates to disease detection.

A PROGNOSIS is the forecast of the probable course and outcome of a condition and the chances of recovery. It is the prediction based on the information that a diagnosis provides. It comes from the Greek word prognosis, meaning ‘foreknowledge’.

Differ -versus- Vary

Q. If our opinions are not the same, do our opinions vary or differ?

DIFFER means ‘to disagree in opinion or belief’. It derives from the Latin word differre, meaning ‘to set apart’. People’s opinions differ.


VARY means ‘to change or alter, or cause to be different from something else’. It’s from the Latin word variare, meaning to ‘change or make different’. While vary can mean differ, saying ‘their opinions vary’ means that the opinions are changing; ‘their opinions differ’ is correct.

10. Disinterested -versus- Uninterested.

Q. Is a fair and unbiased referee disinterested or uninterested

DISINTERESTED means ‘impartial’: unbiased by selfish motives and not influenced by personal advantage. Someone who is disinterested is impartial and capable of making an objective decision.

UNINTERESTED means ‘indifferent and not having any interest in something’.
In the 1600s, uninterested meant ‘unbiased’ and disinterested meant ‘indifferent’, but the words evolved in the late 1700s; so, unless you’re a time traveller, you have no excuse not to use the right version.

11. Elicit -versus- Illicit.

Q. If you draw out an answer from someone, do you elicit or ELICIT means ‘to draw out, extract or obtain a response or the truth’. It is from the Latin word elicere, meaning ‘to lure forth or entice’.

ILLICIT means ‘unlawful, illegal or contrary to accepted morality’. It derives from the Latin word illicitus, meaning ‘not allowed’.

12. Emigrate -versus- Immigrate.

Q. If you leave England and go to Australia to live, are you immigrating

EMIGRATE means ‘to leave one country and settle in another’. It derives from the Latin word emigrare, meaning ‘moved away’.
IMMIGRATE means ‘to enter and settle in a new country’. It comes from the Latin word immigrare, meaning ‘to move into’.
He emigrated from England and immigrated to Australia.
When you emigrate you exit your country; when you immigrate you go

13. Empathy -versus- Sympathy

Q. If you feel sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, do you feel EMPATHY relates to the ability to understand the feelings of another. The ability often comes from the person having shared a similar experience in the past. It derives from the Greek word empatheia, meaning ‘affection or passion’.

SYMPATHY relates to feelings of pity and sorrow for another’s misfortune. It comes from the Latin word sympathia, meaning ‘suffering or sensation’.

14. Emulate -versus- Imitate.

Q. If you copy someone else’s bad habits, do you imitate or emulate them?

EMULATE means ‘to try to equal, match or surpass’. The word has a purely positive function. It comes from the Latin word aemulari, meaning ‘to rival’.
IMITATE means ‘to mimic, impersonate or copy’ and derives from the Latin word imitatus, meaning ‘to copy’. While imitation can have positive connotations, it involves copying, so unlike emulation, it can also be negative.

This is an edited extract from The Suppository of All Wisdom by Andrew Thompson published by Affirm Press, $19.99. You can purchase the book here.

For more stories to cure your grammar woes, why not try ...

‘Forgotten swear words and my one-woman mission to revive them.’

7 tricky words you’ve probably been using incorrectly.

The best words we never use today. And should.