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Category Archives: Troublesome pairs

Instant or instantaneous?

What’s the difference between instant and instantaneous? Is there in fact a difference?

There are lots of pairs of words that mean the same thing, but one has a precise meaning and the other has a range of meanings. Now, if there are two words with subtly different meanings, I’m all for keeping both of them and retaining the richness of our wonderful language, etc. But when one just covers a subset of the other’s meanings, I’m not, to be honest, quite sure. At least here there seems to be a technical term lurking around which will keep the smaller (yet longer!) word going.

So, instantaneous, to cover the smaller meaning first, means being done or happening instantly. It does have a specific meaning in physics around being measured or existing at a particular time.

Instant means occurring immediately, as you would expect, as well as a precise moment in time or a very short time. It also means something that’s processed to allow it to be prepared quickly, in the case of food, mainly, Also, and I dimly remember this from when I learned to type in the Dark Ages, it means “of the current month” (your letter of the 16th instant) although surely no one uses that now?

Both of them come from the same original source, from Latin for “be at hand” (instare), but instantaneous came through medieval Latin, which added -aneus to the original instant (thank you, Oxford English Dictionary for that information). I would advise using instant unless you’re a physicist, just to save complication and make it easier to read.

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.

 
 

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Complicated or complex?

DictionariesThis one was suggested by Neil Langley posting on my main Troublesome Pairs post.

So what is the difference between complex and complicated? Is there one?

The answer is that their meanings overlap. The main dictionaries in the US and UK (Oxford, Merriam-Webster, etc.) define complex using the word complicated, so the adjective complex means made up of many different parts, or complicated. Complicated means consisting of many interconnecting parts, or intricate. So very similar.

The noun complication moves on to describe something that makes something complicated, a complex state (there we go again) and in medical terminology, a disease or condition that is secondary to the main one but makes it worse.

Complex as a noun can mean a few more things – an interlinked system (the military-industrial complex), and then Oxford links but Merriam-Webster lists separately, a group of interlinked buildings. It also has a meaning in psychology of a group of emotionally significant but repressed ideas which cause an abnormal kind of behaviour or an abnormal state (a persecution complex), and by extension, a more pop-psych preoccupation or exaggerated reaction (I have a complex about spiders). There’s a chemical meaning to do with connections, too.

So the nouns vary, but if you’re describing something made up of lots of different things that might be a bit confusing or intricate, it can be complicated OR complex.

Having done some rooting about, I did discover this Washington Post resource claiming to delineate a difference.

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.

 
 

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Hassock or cassock?

Hassock or cassock?

Inspired by a good friend sharing a photo of her husband and their son in matching church choir garb, in this article I’m covering a bit of an ecclesiastical theme. Now I’m wondering if everywhere around the world even has both of these things – maybe some non-UK people will let me know in the comments …

A cassock (a word which probably comes from Turkish, through Italian and French: thank you, Oxford Dictionaries) is a long article of clothing which is worn by some members of the Christian clergy and members of church choirs (not all wear them, but you’ll recognise it when you see it).

A hassock is a little cushion that you kneel on in church: you find them in the pews and choir stalls, often decorated in tapestry by church members. Interestingly, in America it also refers to a footstool – so does this indeed mean other countries don’t have the classic hassocks in their churches? The second meaning is a clump of grass or other plants found in marshy ground – I always thought that was a tussock and now I feel another Troublesome Pair coming on …

So, don’t get your hassocks and cassocks mixed up, or you might be insufficiently clad and kneeling on something far less comfortable than it should be.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2018 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs

 

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Everyday or every day?

Everyday or every day?

It’s Troublesome Pairs time and this one was suggested by my friend Greg, who had spotted a whole record label which might need some proofreaders.

I need to stress here that he shared it out of interest and as an example of a troublesome pair I hadn’t yet covered, and he knows I would never laugh at an error (unless I made it) because I’m here to help people express themselves. I will often have more experience of the rules and usage of English than the people who come to me for my editing and proofreading services, and more experience of the rules and usage of British English than the people who come to me for my localisation services, but that doesn’t make me in any way “better” than them. I really hate it when people talk about “grammar nazis” and think I will tut and frown if I see an error in a comment or on a sign, although I’m all for educating people and showing them how these distinctions I make in this series of articles help people to get their meaning across more clearly. But I try not to laugh or point, as it’s not my style (and isn’t the style of most of my edibuddies, either).

Anyway, rant over.

Everyday is an adjective or noun referring to the mundane, the usual, things that happen, well, every day. So “We expect you to carry out everyday tasks with cheerfulness and efficiency”. “I got sick of the everyday and wanted to try something different and more varied”.

Every day is a phrase which means “on all days”, “each day”. So, “I expect you to check the visitor numbers every day”, “Every day, my everyday jobs became more dull”.

It’s often used incorrectly on signs, etc, “New offers everyday”, but I’ve not seen the reverse used incorrectly.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2017 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs

 

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Disc or disk?

Disc or disk?

I will have to re-do this picture soon. I now have a new “New Oxford Style Manual”, a new “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” and a new “AP Stylebook” AND my new “Chicago Manual of Style” should be arriving tomorrow. Time for a new photo then, I think.

Anyway, it’s Troublesome Pairs time and I had to check this one just in case the other day when I was doing a transcription – really, we don’t use these words very often now that computers don’t use floppy disks any more, and although vinyl records are a ‘thing’ again, they tend to be referred to as ‘vinyls’ rather than ‘discs’. Oops, I’ve given the game away already, haven’t I!

So, just to spell it all out for future reference …

A disc is a flat round thing (also used metaphorically, for example for the Sun, which is obviously really a sphere) and is the spelling used for the kind of disc that is a record. I think a disc only has to be flatter than it’s round to be a disc, because you get discs of cartilage in your spine which can slip.

A disk is the computer kind of item. It contains a disc on which data can be magnetically or optically stored (the latter including CD-ROMs).

And just to confuse, in the UK you can spell both with a k, and then you have to work out which it is from the context.

The talk of the first kind of disc got me thinking about cylinders. These have straight sides and an oval or circular cross-section, so in effect a disc is a kind of cylinder as long as it has some kind of three dimensional existence.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2017 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs

 

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Possum or opossum?

DictionariesBecause possums are known for playing dead, I thought this would be a good post for April Fool’s Day. But I’m posting this after midday in the UK, so it’s only still appropriate in later timezones than ours. Ah, well.

So, what’s the difference between opossums and possums? Well … there is and there isn’t a difference.

An opossum is an North American marsupial which is from the family Didelphidae and is handily also sometimes known as a possum. The word opossum was borrowed from the Powhatan language in the 1600s.

When Americans or those who knew the opossum first went to Australia, they found there was a similar-looking BUT NOT THE SAME animal from the Phalangeriformes family, and promptly christened it the possum. Except that it’s sometimes called an opossum.

Here’s the North American type, the opossum (or possum) (both pictures used from Wikipedia  on creatives commons licences):

North American opossum

and here’s the Australasian variant, the possum (or opossum):

Australasian possum

You’re welcome!

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.

 
 

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Undulate or ungulate?

My husband, Mr Libro, likes these words, he suggested last week’s too. I have to say I agree with him, too, even if any confusion between them in likely to be more of a typo than an error in meaning.

To undulate means to move smoothly in a wave-like manner.

An ungulate is a hoofed mammal, such as a cow. I thought it only meant hoofed animals that chew the cud, so you really do learn a new thing every day!

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2017 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing

 

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