‘Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!’
Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals
Fortunately, few speakers or writers, real or fictional, misuse words to quite the extent of Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop, who has lent her name to the phenomenon of using a word that sounds similar to the correct one but means something completely different. Unfortunately (because of their humour value), malapropisms are actually a relatively rare occurrence and are too idiosyncratic to be worth cataloguing. Far more frequent, and far trickier to spot, are confusions between words that are fairly similar in meaning, whether they sound similar or not. Below are some examples that we often come across.
choice vs option
- There are two ____ for this question. Which is the correct word to fill in the gap?
- Students may make only one _____. Which is the correct word to fill in the gap?
‘There are two options for this question.’ but ‘Students may make only one choice.’ An option is something to choose from, and a choice is the actual decision, so multiple-choice questions are in fact a misnomer, as they are really multiple-option questions!
describe vs refer to
Question 1: What word describes the large, yellow astral body that provides light and heat/energy to our planet?
Answer: The Sun.
Question 2: What is wrong with ‘describes’ in Question 1 above?
Answer: The word ‘Sun’ doesn’t tell us anything about what that object is like; it simply names or refers to it. Adjectival phrases such as ‘large, yellow astral body’ describe the Sun.
different vs various
Rephrase the following sentence using the word ‘different’:
There are various stages in the process.
Answer: There are several different stages in the process.
Here at the Proofreading Agency, we often encounter ‘different’ being used where ‘various’ was meant, as in ‘The measure failed for different reasons.’, which should be ‘The measure failed for various reasons.’ as various refers to the number, more than one, while different refers to the lack of similarity.
especially vs specially
Complete the following sentences with ‘especially’ or ‘specially’:
- Hurricanes are frequent in Bangladesh, ____ in the rainy season.
- This activity has been ____ devised for higher-ability students.
This classic continues to cause confusion. Both words mean ‘particularly’, but ‘especially’ means ‘more than the others’ (think ‘e’ for ‘extra’), while ‘specially’ means ‘with this specific objective/intention’. So, the correct answers are:
- Hurricanes are frequent in Bangladesh, especially in the rainy season.
(Hurricanes are more frequent in the rainy season than in other seasons.)
- This activity has been specially devised for higher-ability students.
(It is intended for that group in particular.)
limited vs restricted
Can you explain the difference between these two sentences?
- Parking in this area is restricted.
- Parking in this area is limited.
In the first sentence, the lack of parking is externally imposed; there are plenty of spaces, but maybe some are reserved for staff members or can only be used by the public at certain times. In the second, there simply aren’t enough spaces for the number of drivers hoping to use them.
Incidentally, what Mrs Malaprop was presumably intending to say is, ‘… if I apprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my vernacular tongue, and a nice arrangement of epithets!’ Some of her other gems include: ‘I thought she had persisted from corresponding with him’ (for desisted) and, my own personal favourite, ‘I hope you will represent her to the captain as an object not altogether illegible’ (for eligible).
For more in a similar vein, see our previous post Making words mean what you want.
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