Commonly Confused Words, Part VII

Here is my final set of commonly confused words. My other posts on commonly confused words are here (that/which/who; more than/over; few(er)/less; amount/number; farther/further; since/because/as; among/between; who/whom; attain/obtain), here (a/an/the; counsel/council; e.g.,/i.e.; it’s/its; principal/principle; then/than; utilize/use; you’re/your; affect/effect; tortious/tortuous; tack/tact; capitol/capital; motioned/moved; flesh/flush), here (although/while; assure/insure/ensure; complement/compliment; rational/rationale), here (a couple, a few, some, several, and many), here (born/borne; good/well; lay/lie; pair/pare/pear; peak/peek/pique; precedent/precedence; whether/whether or not), and here (disinterested/uninterested; discreet/discrete; elicit/illicit; liable/guilty; lead (lead)/lead (led)/led; loose/loosen/lose; plead/pleaded/pled; precede/proceed; prescribe/proscribe; site/sight/cite).

Adverse/averse – Both of these words are adjectives; that is, they describe or modify nouns. “Adverse” refers to something—or someone—that prevents success or blocks our path. It could be, say, adverse market conditions for certain investments; it could be an adverse party in a lawsuit. “Averse” means hostile or opposed to or showing a strong dislike or distaste, and usually refers to feelings about something. E.g., Analiese is averse to cigarette smoke. Or, Simon is risk-averse. That is, Analiese strongly dislikes cigarette smoke and Simon really doesn’t like taking risks.

Allude/elude – “To allude” is to suggest something indirectly. Like, Ryan’s report on our last meeting alludes to what we discussed the first time we met. “To elude” is to evade or escape, usually in a skillful or clever way. (Thus, you can remember elude = evade/escape.) E.g., The prisoners eluded the sheriff for a week before they were finally captured.

Assume/presume – My father used to have a saying about the word “assume,” which he once explained to me by drawing with his favorite pen on a napkin in a restaurant. It involved placing slash marks at two points in the word to show what happens when one assumes. “To assume” is to suppose or to believe, but without any proof. I assume that Jess won’t mind if we leave now means that I believe Jess won’t mind if we leave now, but really I don’t know for sure. I could be wrong. And if I am, well, there’s where my father’s diagram comes in.

“To presume” is to suppose or to believe, but with some probability. If it’s 7:45 p.m. and I say I presume it’s too late to make it to the 8:00 show when I live 20 minutes from the theater, I’m saying that I believe with some probability (almost certainty) that it’s too late for us to make it to the 8 p.m. show.

In law, we also have legal presumptions—things we presume to be true—and such presumptions carry legal weight. Some presumptions are conclusive and some are rebuttable. A conclusive presumption is presumed true whether it is true in fact. For example, in Wisconsin, children under the age of 7 are conclusively presumed to be incapable of being contributorily negligence. See Wis. Stat. § 891.44. Even if all evidence points to a child who is 6 years, 6 months old being contributorily negligent, the law says simply that she can’t be.

Rebuttable presumptions are those that we presume to be true, but one side or the other can show that they are not. The most common example here would be child custody in divorce. The court presumes that joint legal custody is in the best interest of the child, but either side can show that joint custody would, in fact, not be in the child’s best interest. See Wis. Stat. 767.41(2)(am).

Deprive/deprave – A single letter makes a world of difference here. “To deprive” is to deny something to someone. “To deprave” is to make someone immoral, wicked, perverted. To say that he was a deprived child means something very different than he was a depraved child. In the first example, the child was denied of something in some way—maybe of material resources, maybe of emotional support. In the second example, the child is immoral in some way.

Evoke/invoke – “To evoke” is to bring something to the surface, to draw something out of others; for example, a really good movie might evoke some emotion. “To invoke” is to cite to or appeal to something for support—such as, David invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent—or to call upon someone (a deity, perhaps) for help or assistance—such as, Judith invoked St. Jude when praying for her daughter. Be careful not to mix these two up: a good movie does not invoke emotion and David would not evoke the Fifth Amendment.

Imply/infer – “To imply” is to subtly suggest something rather than to explicitly say it. Tim wrote the fact section of his brief in way that implies negligence. “To infer” is to deduce or conclude. The judge reading Tim’s brief can infer (that is, deduce or conclude) from the facts as Tim has written them (subtle suggestion) that there is negligence.

Jealous/envious/zealous – These words seem interchangeable, but they’re not. To be “jealous” is to feel unhappy or upset because you feel someone is trying to take something that you feel is yours and that you don’t want to lose. Bryan A. Garner, in The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style 251 (2d ed. 2006), says that “[j]ealous properly applies only in romantic relationships.” I agree—in part. The word is most often used in the context of romantic relationships (e.g., Tom gets jealous when his girlfriend talks to other guys), but I don’t want to characterize romantic relationships as ownership of another. Jealous could also apply to how you feel when you think someone is trying to take something of yours, like your clothing style.

“Envy” is what you feel when someone else has what you wish you had. E.g., Dawn envied Pat’s vacation in London. Dawn isn’t jealous of Pat; she doesn’t have or possess a vacation in London and she isn’t in danger of losing one. Instead, she wishes she could go on one, too; therefore, she’s envious.

“Zealous” comes up frequently in law because of often-used prescription to be a “zealous advocate.” To be “zealous” is neither being jealous nor envious; instead, it means to show zeal, passion, energy. Do note that being zealous does not mean being a zealot. See also Rocklin et al., An Advocate Persuades 17 (2016). A “zealot” is certainly passionate about his beliefs (and in that sense, perhaps, is zealous), but he goes further: he’s a fanatic who wants others to share those views.

Rein/reign – “Rein” and “reign,” at base, mean essentially the same thing: control. But one of those words applies to a sovereign. “Rein” as a noun is the strap you use to control a horse. “Rein” as verb means essentially the same thing: controlling something, as in We need to rein in spending. Conversely, you may want to give up control: The supervising attorney gave the intern free rein to come up with her own arguments. “Reign” is also about control, but that of a sovereign like a king or queen. Queen Elizabeth II reigns over England. Perhaps on way to remember the difference is to remember that “reign” equates to “sovereign,” which contains the word “reign.”

Sheer/shear – Though pronounced the same, one word (sheer) is most often used as an adjective and the other (shear) is a noun. “Sheer” describes something that is transparent, like a sheer blouse, or it describes something very steep, like a sheer cliff. “Sheer” can also be an adverb and when used as an adverb means complete or absolute. E.g., I won that contest through sheer luck. “To shear” is to cut or clip, like shearing a sheep.

With these seven posts, I’ve created quite a long list of commonly confused words. There certainly are more, though these seem to be the ones I see most. I hope that my explanations and examples in all of these posts will help you to be more precise in your writing and speaking.

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