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Making words mean what you want

‘[…] There’s glory for you!’ [Humpty Dumpty said.]
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (

Despite his rather cavalier attitude to language, Humpty Dumpty does have a point – if enough people use a word often enough with a different meaning from usual, that new meaning will eventually come to be the accepted one. Few people these days would insist that ‘nice’ really means ‘fine or subtle’, as in ‘a nice distinction’, although that is what it meant in the 1500s, or, indeed, that ‘nice’ really means ‘stupid’, which was its meaning in the late 1200s. Similarly, not many people nowadays will insist that ‘disinterested’ means ‘unbiased or impartial’ while ‘uninterested’ means ‘having no interest in’, and most will consider them synonyms.

However, until mainstream English-language dictionaries (rather than bullies such as Humpty Dumpty) accept a new meaning of a word as standard, it is, obviously, helpful if we all agree on what words mean, and there are particular ones that cause frequent confusion.

Infer vs imply

It’s very unfortunate that these words both have two syllables and start with the letter ‘i’*, as this doubtless contributes to making them some of the most frequently confused words in English. However, an easy way to sort them out is to remember that ‘infer’ and ‘from’ both contain the letter ‘f’, so that ‘We can infer from the text that attitudes are changing’ but ‘The text implies that attitudes are changing’.

*For confusions in which spelling is the key difficulty, see the separate blog post on techniques for remembering tricky spellings.

Distinct vs distinctive

My carton of soya milk informs me that the drink has a ‘distinct taste’, and that’s true, it does, but I suspect that what the writer actually meant was ‘distinctive’, i.e. ‘characteristic of or unique to that particular thing’, rather than ‘noticeable or apparent’.

If vs whether

In many instances, it may seem unimportant which of these words is used. For example, it’s hard to detect a significant difference between ‘I’m not sure if it’s going to rain’ and ‘I’m not sure whether it’s going to rain’ – though, actually, the latter is correct, since ‘whether’ means ‘if … or not’.

However, to illustrate why the difference can be important, let’s suppose I’m texting a friend to make an arrangement for next weekend. ‘Let me know if you want to come’ means my friend only needs to reply if the answer is ‘Yes, please’, whereas ‘Let me know whether you want to come’ means I expect an answer either way.

Between vs in between vs in-between

Admittedly, no one is going to misunderstand the sentence if these words are used incorrectly, but grammar sticklers such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice are likely to feel somewhat irked. Here are some examples to illustrate how they ‘should’ be used (at least for now!):

When writing an essay for marking, please leave plenty of space between the lines. (‘Between’ is a preposition, and is followed by a noun or pronoun.)

When writing an essay for marking, please write in straight lines with plenty of space in between. (‘In between’, with no hyphen, is an adverb, and is not followed by a noun or pronoun.)

The marker can then write comments on the in-between lines. (‘In-between’, with a hyphen, is an adjective, between the article (the/a/an) and the noun.)

i.e. vs e.g.

There’s a crucial omission in the most frequently confused words that we encounter, and that is i.e. vs e.g., but this has a whole blog post of its own: How not to confuse e.g. and i.e.

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Posted in Etymology, Grammar, Vocabulary