Confusables Redux

I never run out of examples of word pairs that are commonly confused. Here’s another list:

• “Fear of weight gain may mitigate against effective psychiatric treatments.”

The writer meant militate, which means to exert a force or influence. To mitigate means to alleviate, moderate, make something less severe. Thus, the latter word is never properly used with against.

• “Whatever food other people are eating around her, it doesn’t phase her.”

The word wanted here is faze, which means disturb, disconcert, daunt.

• “So, I’d do some digging before I went full boar into streaming.”

Although full boar conjures up an interesting image, the correct expression is full bore. The origin of the metaphor is disputed, but the term originally described the widest capacity of an engine cylinder or gun barrel, thereby suggesting the idea of maximum power.

• “Staff may be reticent to express themselves freely in the presence of supervisors.”

This is one of the most common linguistic mix-ups. The writer meant reluctant. The word reticent means reserved, quiet, taciturn. Thus, one is never reticent to do something.

I found all the examples quoted above by searching the Internet. The tens of thousands of incorrect citations that turned up demonstrate just how frequently these words are misunderstood and misused.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.