Uncle John Helps You Pick the Right Word

December 26, 2023

By Brian Boone

The English language is a gigantic and always changing with plenty of words that mean almost the same thing—but not quite. Result: Even the most eloquent among us use the wrong word. Here’s a guide to some commonly confused words.

Complimentary vs. complementary

To be complimentary is to deliver positive, confidence boosting comments. Things that are complementary are those that are more than the sum of their parts—they go together well.

Imply vs. infer

Both are about conveying subtext or extra meaning. The correct word depends on the participant in the conversation. The speaker implies something, while the listener is the one who infers.

Emigrate vs. immigrate

Frequently used interchangeably, one describes the act the act of leaving and the other the idea of coming into a new place. A person emigrates out of their home country but immigrates into their adopted homeland.

Seek vs. search

Both words mean “to look for,” but the proper usage depends on what’s being sought. Seek should be used for concepts or intangibles, like inner peace or happiness; search is to be used when one is after something specific and physical.

Affect vs. effect

Both words have to do with change coming from an external stimulus. Affect is a verb, and effect is a noun. The thing that makes the change is what does the affecting, and the result of that is the effect.

Altogether vs. all together

Altogether is a synonym for “completely.” It’s an adverb, while all together is a command or adjective that means to make complete.

Lead vs. led

Lead can refer to a type of strong or toxic metal, but it’s also used as a synonym for guiding and directing. That’s in the present tense; the past tense of lead is led.

Farther vs. further

The first should describe only physical distances. The other refers to concepts. For example, you can run a few miles farther than you could when you were a kid, while you took dance lessons to further your dance training.

Amused vs. bemused

They don’t mean the same thing, as is commonly believed. To be amused is to be gently delighted; bemused means baffled.

Capital vs. capitol

capital is a political seat—where the official government business of a state, province, or nation gets done. A capitol, confusingly, is a building where those government entities meet. This means a capital may very well house a capitol.

Flaunt vs. flout

Flaunting means to shamelessly show off. A certain shamelessness also characterizing the similar-sounding flout, which is probably why these words are so often confused. Flout refers to someone shamelessly ignoring a well-known rule or law.

Everyday vs. every day

The only thing differentiating these two is a space…and their definition. Everyday means average, ordinary. An everyday occurrence is something you might encounter every day—a two-word phrase used to refer to a period of time.

For thousands more fun facts about words, language, and virtually anything else you can think of, like history, science, pop culture, food, and more, get yourself a copy of Uncle John’s 37th big book, Uncle John’s Weird, Wonderful World Bathroom Reader.