Category Archives: Troublesome pairs

Mandolin or Mandoline?

Thank you to my husband Matthew for suggesting this one (he’s quite the fount of troublesome pairs, so watch out for more of his ones as we go through this new set of them), after he discovered himself that these two are in fact two different things.

So what’s the difference between a mandolin and a mandoline?

A mandolin is a musical instrument which is like a lute, with pairs of metal strings that are played using a plectrum.

A mandoline (which can also be spelled mandolin, hooray!) is that vegetable slicer thing (a flat body with adjustable slicing blades) that always looks like it will take your finger off.

“She was playing the mandolin, being careful not to hurt her fingers on the metal strings, while he cut vegetables using the mandoline, bring careful not to slice his fingers on the metal blades.”

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


Posted by on February 20, 2019 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Arc or arch?

When is an arc an arch? Is an arc ever in fact an arch?

An arc is first of all a curve that is made up of part of the circumference of a circle. So it has a particular form which may well be like that of an arch, but it’s always part of that circumference in this case. It can also be the electrical discharge that jumps from one point to another (so lightning forms an arc: not in this case a nice tidy bit out of a circumference) and finally we have the metaphorical use in a “story arc” in a fiction book, film, TV series or play (often across several episodes of a TV series) which traces the development of a plot or side plot. The verb to arc means to move with a curving trajectory, which could include arching over something.

An arch is a physical thing rather than a mathematical concept or a plot device (though you can have over-arching ideas that act as a sort of umbrella across a narrative or other story). So it’s a symmetrical curved (though that curve can be quite pointy) structure that supports a bridge, a wall, etc. It’s also the inner side of the foot, which is the same thing but in nature rather than constructed. The verb means to form an arch.

So an arc has a specific shape unless it doesn’t, and an arch is a physical thing unless it’s a metaphor. But you don’t have a story arch and most arches couldn’t be said to form part of a circumference of a circle.

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


Posted by on February 6, 2019 in Troublesome pairs, Writing



Upmost or utmost?

In this series of “Troublesome Pairs” I discuss words which people get easily confused, or where it’s not clear what the difference is between them – if indeed there is a difference. Some of these I find in my work, some out in the world at large, and some are suggested to me by friends, family and colleagues (do get in touch if you have a good one for me that I haven’t written about yet!). Some of the words are homophones (words that sound the same), some just seem to get people confused.

So today we’re looking at upmost and utmost. Words with just one letter different can be easily confused – even more so when they sound very similar. Do you confuse upmost and utmost? Here’s the difference.

Upmost is also spelled uppermost, and that might be the best one to stick with if you do mix these two words up. Uppermost means at the top, the highest in importance or rank or level.

Utmost means most extreme, the greatest amount or extent of something. That doesn’t neccessarily mean the highest of something like upmost.

“I did my utmost in training to appear on the upmost reaches of the chart showing who could lift the heaviest weight.”

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

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Posted by on January 23, 2019 in Troublesome pairs, Writing



Constantly or consistently?

What’s the difference between constantly and consistently? Find out below …

Constant means remaining the same but its primary meaning is happening continuously, and it also has a metaphorical meaning of dependable and faithful. So to do something constantly means to do it all the time, as well as remaining constant or the same (and also doing it dependably).

Consistent means done in the same way over a long period of time, including an attribute of fairness and accuracy. It also means being compatible with (as in x was consistent with y). So doing something consistently means doing it in the same way over a long period of time, which does echo the secondary sense of constantly, but constantly also includes a sense of doing it continuously, which consistently doesn’t.

For example, I am constantly taking photos that I put up on social media, every day if not more; I consistently post a books of the year round-up on the first of January every year.

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


Posted by on January 9, 2019 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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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