Vocabulary Stretchers: Commonly Confused Words

This section of EnhanceMyVocabulary.com focuses on vocabulary stretchers, specifically on words that are commonly confused because they look or sound alike or are somewhat related.


Sometimes the words are actually akin to each other. Continuous - continual and enormity - enormousness are examples. Sometimes they merely look or sound much alike. Mean - demean and affect - effect are examples. Sometimes the things they designate are more or less related, so that the ideas behind the words, rather than the words themselves are responsible for the confusion. Contagious - infectious and knowledge - wisdom are examples. Let us distinguish between the two members of each of the pairs named.

A thing is continuous if it suffers no interruption whatever, continual if it is broken at regular intervals but as regularly renewed. Thus "a continuous stretch of forest;" "the continual drip of water from the eaves."

Enormity pertains to the moral and sometimes the social, enormousness to the physical. Thus "the enormity of the crime," "the enormity of this social offense;" "the enormousness of prehistoric animals."

Demean is often used reproachfully because of its supposed relation to mean. But it has nothing to do with mean. The word with which to connect it is demeanor (conduct). Thus "We observed how he demeaned himself" implies no adverse criticism of either the man or his deportment. Both may be debased to be sure, but they may be exemplary.

To affect means to have an influence upon, to effect to bring to pass. Thus "He affects a fondness for classical music," "The little orphan's story affected those who heard it;" "We effected a compromise." Affect is never properly used as a noun. Effect as a noun means result, consequence, or practical operation. Thus "The shot took instant effect;" "He put this idea into effect."

A disease is contagious when the only way to catch it is through direct contact with a person already having it, or through contact with articles such a person has used. A disease is infectious when it is presumably caused, not by contact with a person, but through widespread general conditions, as of climate or sanitation.

Our knowledge is our acquaintance with a fact, or the sum total of our information. Our wisdom is our intellectual and spiritual discernment, to which our knowledge is one of the contributors. Knowledge comprises the materials; wisdom the ability to use them to practical advantage and to worthy or noble purpose. Knowledge is mental possession; wisdom is mental and moral power.

Editor's note: This section of EnhanceMyVocabulary.com is excerpted and adapted from Project Gutenberg's The Century Vocabulary Builder, by Creever and Bachelor.


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