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RocketReader newsletter - Vocabulary unleashed - the most misunderstood words of all time!


In the new world of instant messaging, emails and reports, the written word has never been more important.

Writing clearly and well is a valuable skill which will undoubtedly help further one's career and education prospects.

Everyone, from a high-flying business executive in New Haven, Connecticut, to a forestry student in Anchorage, Alaska, can benefit from the power of words.

One of the barriers to writing clearly are words which are commonly confused. These are words which have a similar spelling or sound but very different meanings.

When firing off an email to impress a potential employer after an interview, you don't want to ruin your chances of securing a job by writing, 'Nice to meet you and I look forward to becoming a member of your sales personal.'

This example may appear obviously incorrect, but it is a mistake commonly made. In this newsletter we reveal many examples of other commonly confused words.

Confusing words can cause major problems. People might perceive you as uneducated. You may communicate the wrong message to people. In addition, misunderstood words may hinder your own reading comprehension.

'Everyone can benefit from the power of words.'
If you want your communication to make an impact, it is crucial to know the difference between these commonly confused words. Read through the following words and give yourself a score. If you know the differences between most of these works you have already mastered a major step towards becoming a skilful and effective communicator. If you don't know the differences, fear not - this newsletter will help save you from social embarrassment!

Accuracy and precision

Accuracy describes the degree to which a result obtained from measurement agrees to its real and accepted value. On the other hand, precision describes the degree to which the same measurement is obtained over repeated measurements. We refer to a 'high precision' marching band as they all march in step. We refer to a high accuracy micro-fabrication plant as they are able to produce widgets of exact sizes.

Affect and effect

As a verb, affect means to influence or have an effect on something; effect as a verb means to execute, produce or accomplish something. As a noun, affect means a feeling or emotion, while effect as a noun means a result. In their most common usage, however, affect is usually used as a verb, and effect as a noun.

Examples: Many nutritionists argue fast food advertising affects children. The nutritionists say fast food advertising has a profound effect on children by influencing them to buy unhealthy food.

Alternate and alternative

As a verb, alternate means to occur in turns. Alternate as a noun means substitute. On the other hand, an alternative is a choice between two or more things.

Examples: Day alternates with night.
Paris Hilton considered her alternatives as she planned to indulge in another overseas trip: a beach holiday in Hawaii or a shopping spree in France.

Complement and compliment

When an object complements something, it makes that thing better, more complete, or more attractive. On the other hand, to compliment someone is to make a nice remark. A compliment is an expression of appreciation or respect.

Examples: Nicole Kidman's gold dress complemented her pearl shoes. Fashion critics complimented Nicole on her great style.

Discreet and discrete

To be discreet is to exercise self-restraint in speech and behavior in order to avoid embarrassment or attract too much attention, usually to keep something secret. Discreet also means modest and free from pretension. Discrete, on the other hand, means distinct or separate.

Examples: Some would say that his raucous behavior was far from discreet.
His personal life and work life are discrete entities.

Immoral and amoral

If something is immoral, it does not conform to what society considers as acceptable and moral behavior. However, amoral describes a state of being neither moral nor immoral. An amoral person does not have any moral distinctions or judgments.
Examples: His immoral behavior led to his excommunication from the clergy.
The first production cyborg was amoral and rational in its approach to values :- however, very soon it became sentient and developed a very strange sense of robotic-styled morality.

Farther and further

Farther refers to distance. On the other hand, further refers to advancement in degree, time or quantity.

Examples: I don't know how much farther this car will travel before running out of gas.
I think you will advance further in your career by becoming a better reader!

Infer and imply

To infer is to deduce, guess or conclude. However, to imply is to suggest. Therefore, the person/writer making the remark implies something, while the person listening or receiving the information infers something from what is being said.

Examples: Jane implied that her mother-in-law is quite a bossy person. From her comments, I inferred that Jane and her mother-in-law did not get along well.

'Vocabulary is highly correlated to reading ability and earning potential'.

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Inflicted and afflicted

Inflict means to force someone to experience something unpleasant. But to be afflicted by something means to suffer from a problem or illness.

Examples: The court inflicted a harsh penalty on the drunk driver.
The country is afflicted by war.

Incredible and incredulous

Incredible means difficult to believe. In informal usage, incredible means extremely good. In contrast, a person who is incredulous is someone who visibly expresses a state of being unbelieving of someone or something.

Examples: American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson was incredulous at the incredible success she experienced after winning the reality talent contest.

Principal and principle

Principal means first in order of importance. In financial terms, principal is the amount of money a person puts in or invests into a bank or financial institution in order to earn interest. A principal is also the head of an elementary or high school. On the other hand, a principle is a basic idea or rule, or a moral standard.

Dilemma and quandary

A dilemma is when a difficult choice has to be made between two different alternatives. This is different from a quandary, which is a state of being unable to decide what to do especially when there are many possible choices at hand.

Personal and personnel

Personal refers to something which belongs to a single person or particular individual as opposed to a group, or matters relating to someone's private life. In contrast, personnel refers to the people employed in an organization. Personnel also refers to the department within an organization which deals with its human resources.

Ability and capacity

A person's ability refers to their physical or mental power or skill to do something. In contrast, capacity is the amount something can hold, contain, produce, carry or absorb.

Examples: Former US president Bill Clinton is very charismatic and has the ability to engage an audience when speaking publicly.
The fuel tank's capacity is 50 gallons.

Accept and except

To accept is to receive or agree to something. Except means 'other than' or 'aside from'.

Reluctant and reticent

If someone is reluctant, they are unwilling to do something. When someone is reticent, they are reserved. Reticence can be a form of reluctance; it describes an unwillingness to speak your thoughts or feelings.


Words are powerful tools. But like any tool, you need the right tool for the job for maximum effectiveness. This newsletter only gives a few examples of some of the words which are commonly confused.

In order to read, write and communicate well, it is important to expand your vocabulary through hard work and practice. The Internet is a rich and fabulous resource for checking the meanings of words. Cross-check meanings at the vast array of online dictionaries and sites on vocabulary and grammar (which you can easily locate through a Google search). Most importantly, instead of merely memorizing the meanings of words, make sure you use the new words you learn, often. Consult websites and dictionaries not only for the definition of words, but also examples of how these words are used.

Another way of learning new and unfamiliar words is to read often. Reading the work of others will give you a better understanding of how new words are used and confidence to use the words yourself.

Remember, learning new words should not be a chore. Read and write more, and words which were previously confusing, will not be intimidating after all. Learning how to use words will help you become a convincing and credible written communicator. Cut through the confusion and clutter, and get the right message across, NOW!


Cambridge Online Dictionaries:
Merriam-Webster Online
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Reading Tips: ‘…If you are reading material for a school paper or essay, being able to define possible problems with a text helps to make your term paper or school assignments much better, since it shows your instructor that you have really thought about the text.…’  read article