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.]