Confounding Confusables, Part II

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2016-12-07


It sometimes seems like there is a never-ending supply of words that are confusing in one way or another! There are homonyms, synonyms, words that are one letter off in spelling but couldn't be more different, and words that many people argue are not words at all. Every time I look up a new set of "confusables," I learn something new and interesting. I hope that you have the same experience learning more about the  six pairs of common confusables below!



"Alternative" means "another choice," and it can be used as a plural to refer to more than two other choices, as in "The restaurant offers burgers and fries, tacos, fried chicken, and a few other alternatives." Alternative can also be used as an adjective in describing options or selections, as in "the alternative options." It can also be used as an adverb, as in "alternatively," meaning "as an alternative action."


Laurence Urdang's* Dictionary of Confusable Words notes that it may be easier to think of "Alternately" as a verb, meaning to move between two or more choices ("He alternates between running and walking," "The weather has been alternating between rainy and sunny"). When you consider the word this way, its use as an adjective becomes easier to see, as in "The concert has an alternate conductor tonight." Urdang notes that in American and Canadian English, "alternate" is also used as a noun to refer to "two or more people or things that have been selected among which one may choose."



Both appraise and apprise are verbs, making them even easier to confuse. Appraise means "assess" (someone or something). So, you may have that antique side table you inherited from your grandmother appraised. Or, you could appraise that particularly difficult project at work.


Apprise, on the other hand, means "inform" and it is most often used when someone apprises someone of something. For example, you may apprise your boss about the difficulties you've noticed in that work project.



Practise and practice can be a confusing one because usages and definitions change depending on location. In the US, practice can be a noun ("football practice") or a verb ("practicing football"). Practise, however, is only used in Britain and Canada. We use "practice" as a noun and "practise" as a verb. 



This is one that frustrates everyone who works with words, even though "irregardless" has actually been around for a while! People may sometimes mistakenly use "irregardless," when what they mean is "regardless." Regardless means "without regard," or despite something. So, Tom may eat that second piece of pie regardless of the consequences.


The reason so many people find "irregardless" annoying is that ir- is a negative prefix (think irresponsible, irrelevant, irresistible)—so when you add that prefix to a word that's already a negative (like regardless), what results is a double-negative word that means "without without regard."


While it is true that the word irregardless does appear in some dictionaries, it's worth noting that where irregardless is included, it is noted that the word is "nonstandard"—as in, the dictionary is saying that yeah, people use this word, but it isn't actually a proper word. The Dictionary of Confusable Words notes that the use of the word is "a mark of poor style and nonstandard usage."



This is one of those instances in which two words may look almost the same, but their definitions couldn’t be more different. Just one letter can make all the difference!


"Ingenious" means clever, creative, inventive, or original, and it can be applied different ways. A clever person could be described as ingenious, as could an inventive idea, or even a device of some kind.


On the other hand, "ingenuous" means innocent, unsuspecting, artless, or simple. Ingenuous is derived from the same Latin root (ingenuus, meaning native or freeborn) as the word ingenue/ingenu, which is used to refer to a naïve young woman/man. Originally, ingenuous was used as a positive term or attribute, and was along the same lines as being candid, or frank. However, the word's connotation has changed since then. Today, to be ingenuous is not considered a good thing, as the word is now more synonymous with "unsophisticated."



This set of confusables has a pretty simple answer! "Healthy" means "in good health," and "healthful" means something that promotes or contributes to good health. Thus, people are healthy (if they're lucky), whereas foods, spas, climates, etc., can be healthful.


Have a healthy holiday full of healthful alternatives!

* Laurence Urdang (1927-2008) was a lexicographer, editor, and author noted for first computerising the unabridged Random House Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1966. He was also the founding editor of Verbatim, a quarterly newsletter on language. Wikipedia