Category Archives: Troublesome pairs

Adapt or adopt? Adaptation or adoption?

This is a Troublesome Pair that I find very commonly in academic writing, across a whole range of writers. It would be expected in people whose native language doesn’t use vowels (I had a very interesting conversation about Arabic-speakers having trouble with vowels in English) but I also find it in native English-speakers (it’s actually fairly uncommon to find both groups making the same errors)

To adopt something means to take it on as it is. For example, Laura might adopt my process of editing a text, then doing a spell check, then using software to check consistency. If the UN adopts a resolution, it means it takes it into its procedures as it is, with no changes. If you adopt a dog from a shelter, you take it as it is.

To adapt something means to change it according to specific circumstances. For example, Laura might adapt my process by choosing to edit the text, then run the consistency software, then run a spell check. The UN might adapt a resolution to take into account a new world order or the creation of a new country. You might try to adapt your adopted dog’s behaviour if you don’t want it to sit on the sofa.

Adoption therefore means the act of taking on something as it is, while adaptation involves you changing, or you changing something else, to fit the circumstances.

In academic writing, a researcher might well adopt a questionnaire method, but they might adapt someone else’s questionnaire if it needs more questions on widgets and fewer on bath mats, for example.

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


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Aglet or ferrule?

DictionariesThis is a cheeky one. Of course you all know the difference between these two lovely words. But I like them, and it’s my blog, and you never know who might look things up (even “mandrel or mandrill” is quite popular).

An aglet is the little tube that you find on the end of your shoelaces, usually made of plastic but sometimes of metal. Sweetly, it apparently comes from the French for “little needle”, even though it doesn’t really look like or act like a needle in itself, but is used to help you thread the lace through the holes.

A ferrule is the little plastic or rubber cap that sits on the end of a walking stick or umbrella and prevents it from getting damaged.

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


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Curb or kerb?

DictionariesHere’s one suggested by my friend and editing colleague, Linda Bates. As a special bonus, it has a US / UK English twist. How exciting!

A kerb is a noun meaning the stone edging of a pavement or path. There are some verbs associated with kerb, notably kerb-crawling, which is driving slowly on the lookout for a prostitute.

Curb is a noun meaning a limit or control (“I’m imposing a curb on the amount of alcohol you can drink at home”) and a verb meaning to keep in control or limit (“I’m curbing the amount of alcohol you can drink at home”). A curb is also a type of bit used in a horse’s bridle.

And, excitingly, American English uses the same word (curb) for both!

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

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Posted by on September 29, 2015 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Altar or alter?

DictionariesHooray, I seem to be doing these posts more regularly again now. They have lots of fans, so hope regular readers are pleased. Of course, if you’ve just found this post having searched for “altar or alter”, you’re going to be a bit confused by that statement, as you’re visiting from way in the future. This “Troublesome Pair” is but one of a whole series of them I’ve been posting for a few years now. Do pop to the links at the bottom of this post to find the whole alphabetical list of them!

Right, anyway … alter or altar?

Altar is a noun and refers to specifically the table in a Christian church, usually at the front, where the bread and wine are consecrated for communion, and more generally, to any flat-topped box or table that is used as the focus for some kind of religious ritual.

Bonus pair: What’s a shrine, then? A shrine is a place that’s regarded as being sacreed or holy because it’s associated with some kind of god / deity, or a reliquary or container containing holy relics. So you do religious things at an altar and a shrine keeps them safe.

Alter is a verb meaning to change (or change something or cause something to change) in appearance or character. In US and Australian English, it also means to castrate or spay an animal (so many bonuses today!)

“After she observed the seriousness of the actions performed at the altar, she altered her behaviour in church and stopped giggling during the services.”

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

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Posted by on September 24, 2015 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Hanger or hangar?

DictionariesHooray, it’s time for another Troublesome Pair (for any new readers, this was a series I used to run that I’ve recently restarted). This is another one suggested by my Australian friend Matt Patten, as he spotted an example just the other day.

A hanger is something that you hang something from – a clothes hanger being the obvious example.

A hangar is the big shed that an aeroplane lives in.

Nothing more I can say, really!

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


Posted by on September 15, 2015 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Expectancy or expectation?

DictionariesFor those who’ve been following this blog for a while, you might remember the Troublesome Pairs series I used to publish regularly. They’ve been very popular, and I certainly haven’t run out of them, but I didn’t seem to get the time to do them. But I have some more coming up, and here’s the first one! This one was suggested by my Australian friend Matt Patten, who’s asked me to write about a few Troublesome Pairs recently (and not so recently) .

I have to admit that this was one of those that I had to look up to check. But there is a difference (hooray) and it’s all about the level of certainty …

Expectancy is the anticipation or hope that something will happen – and that something is usually a pleasant something. It also refers to a future prospect, as in “life expectancy”. Expectant, the adjective, as we might imagine, means anticipating or hoping that something (pleasant) will happen – so you have expectant mothers, etc.

Expectation is the strong belief that something will happen – not necessarily positive. You can expect a storm or an inheritance (and in fact, someone’s “expectations” is an old-fashioned term for their prospects of inheritance.

“It was my expectation that the expectant mother would soon be seen travelling around with a pushchair.”

Note: nobody associated with this post is expectant!

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


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Mrs or Ms?

DictionariesI got married recently (hooray!) and when I was buying a new camera to take on our honeymoon, first of all I confused the shop assistant by claiming that the camera was reserved in my new name (Liz Dexter) when my husband had temporarily forgotten he’d married me two days previously and had reserved it in my old name (Liz Broomfield), and then I confused her further, when she was filling in my details on her computer, by stating that my title was “Ms”. She’d never heard of this title, or didn’t know what it signified, and so I thought it would be a handy thing to explain …

Mrs denotes a married woman. English-speaking countries are some of the only places in the world where you can tell whether a woman is married just from her title. Women in opposite-sex and same-sex marriages are free to use this title – some do, some don’t.

Ms denotes a woman. Women in opposite-sex and same-sex marriages are free to use this title – some do, some don’t. You can’t tell if a Ms Dexter is single, married, divorced, separated … anything apart from the fact that she’s a woman. It’s like Mr in that respect.

To get slightly political, people do tend to assume that someone using Ms is not yet married or perhaps divorced. I have no objection to being Mr and Mrs Dexter and to people knowing I am married to Mr Dexter if we meet people out and about and we’re together, or we’re signing up for something in both our names, like the house insurance. But if I’m signing up to a service or buying something independently, I title myself Ms. If more married women do that, maybe eventually we won’t have to have people knowing our marital status when it’s not necessary.

Small print: that’s my choice; I respect people’s right to call themselves whatever they want to call themselves. This post is for informative purposes only. Oh and because I got married!

*Edited to add: please note – this is part of my series of posts on pairs of words which get easily confused and was initiated by my discovery of someone not having any idea what “Ms” meant. This is not any kind of (gender) political manifesto and was intended to provide a light-hearted mention of my recent wedding on my blog, plus to firm up the association of my blog and website with my new name. I’m not trying to incite long and heated discussion on gender politics, naming or patriarchy, or get into long discussions on the background to these two names. Thank you!*

Mrs Liz Dexter

Mrs Liz Dexter

Ms Liz Dexter

Ms Liz Dexter










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


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