The Language Perfectionist: A Roundup of “Confusables.”

It’s easy to mistake one word for another, especially when they look or sound similar. Here are five pairs that are often confused and misused:

  • You are averse to something if you are reluctant to do it, not adverse. “Adverse” is correctly used to modify a noun: adverse weather, adverse criticism.
  • When you boast about your achievement, you flaunt – not flout – it. You flout a rule when you ignore it, violate it, or treat it with contempt.
  • If you really want to catch a particular movie, you are eager to see it, not anxious. “Eager” means enthusiastic. “Anxious” means experiencing anxiety or worry.
  • Your kids may sometimes irritate you, but they don’t aggravate you. “Aggravate” means to make a condition worse, as in “He tried to help, but his interference just aggravated the problem.”
  • The word fewer – not less – refers to items that can be counted. As usage expert Theodore M. Bernstein advised, “Use less for quantity and fewer for number.”

A note about fewer vs. less: A literate friend of mine claims that he always shops at a certain supermarket because the signs, unlike those at competitive stores in his neighborhood, correctly read “10 Items or Fewer.”

[Ed Note: Don Hauptman was a direct-response copywriter for more than 30 years. For his direct-mail subscription packages, he won The Newsletter on Newsletters promotion award for 10 years. He writes about the English language, and is now working on a humorous new book in that genre.]

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.