Commonly Confused Words:

Prescribe and proscribe -- keep them straight, keep them separate. Oddly enough, both mean (more or less) "enjoin," but let's not go there.

Grading papers again?
2.27.2006 8:01pm
Dr. T (mail):
In the medical world, the distinction is simple. I prescribe things that will help a patient (drugs, special diet, exercise, physical therapy, etc.). I proscribe things that will harm a patient (food before surgery, jogging immediately after knee surgery, high fat meals, etc.)
2.27.2006 8:09pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Dear Eugene,

Sorry, but I can't resist: In Florence King's novella When Sisterhood Was In Flower, the protagonist works for a time writing porn novels, and when she takes the job she's handed a style sheet, amongst whose items is this:

Areola is the pink area around the nipple; aureola is a synonym for halo. Kindly learn the difference.

I can't really quote the rest of it, except to say that it also banned "the interrogatory 'Come again?'"
2.27.2006 8:10pm
I want everyone on the internet to know the difference between "lose" and "loose" before we set our sights any higher...
2.27.2006 8:12pm
civil truth (mail):
To cirumscribe this issue (but not to abscribe any malicious motives to what the author has inscribed above), I would subcribe to a definition of proscribe as being "to enjoin with extreme prejudice"; whereas prescribe would describe that only in Oregon or the Netherlands.
2.27.2006 8:21pm
JLR (mail):
For what it's worth, I think Professor Volokh's post is most interesting for implying something about the word "enjoin" that, in my opinion, makes it a special word in the English language: two of its denotations are roughly opposites.

There aren't too many English words that are like "enjoin" in that respect, and often those words act as such only when comparing different dialects (e.g., British vs. American English).

For example, in Britain, a "public school" is funded independently of the state, while in America a "public school" is one operated by a governmental entity. So depending on which side of the pond you are on, you could accidentally mean the opposite of what you intend if you cite your education in "public schools."
2.27.2006 8:25pm
civil truth (mail):
Correction: ascribe not abscribe
2.27.2006 8:25pm
JLR: your post should be sanctioned.
2.27.2006 8:33pm
mariner (mail):
Inflammable is an interesting word.

If something is inflammable, does it burn or does it not?
2.27.2006 8:37pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):

Yes, "sanctioned." And "tenuous." "Impregnable" is another one. Does it mean "open to fertilization," or "shut to everything"?
2.27.2006 8:44pm
"Tenuous" means "thin," but does not mean it's opposite -- does it?
2.27.2006 8:51pm
sorry for the apostrophe in "its"
2.27.2006 8:51pm
It's hard to avoid confusion when using "proscribe" in ordinary speech, unless you emphasize the first syllable. But the problem with "sanction" is much worse.
2.27.2006 9:04pm
Kate Litvak (mail):
I once had difficulty distinguishing "prosecution" from "persecution"...
2.27.2006 9:16pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
I wish we'd've kept 'constitute' and 'comprise' distinct.
2.27.2006 9:56pm
Mom of Two (mail):
What about "mute" and "moot" ??
2.27.2006 10:17pm
gerry (mail):
To Kate Kitvak as re: "difficulty distinguising between :"prosecution" and "persecution.""
Modernly there is little difference, except that one of them has been delegated to the Press.
2.27.2006 10:22pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):

Re "tenuous," you're right, of course. I think I've seen it (mis)used for "tenacious" so often that the rot is seeping in.
2.27.2006 10:26pm
BDK (mail):
JLR - How about "cleave?"
2.27.2006 10:27pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):

I knew I'd forgotton one.
2.27.2006 10:40pm
JLR (mail):
Mr. Choset and all you Puzzlebloggers out there -- this thread is for you :-)

I agree Hank btw -- we should issue a sanction on the thread as a whole -- but I'd prefer it to be a sanction qua approbation. :-) And BDK -- yes, "cleave" is another. What is interesting about "cleave" though is that it comes from two different Old English roots. "Cleave" as in "to split" comes from the Old English "cleofan," while "cleave" as in "to cling" comes from the Old English "clifian." Yay for Old English classes. The Battle of Maldon should be required reading for the Bush Administration.


I can also think of idiomatic phrases that mean the opposite of what you'd think they mean. One example is "I could care less." Usually people who say that mean that they could NOT care less. After all, if a person COULD care less, then that would mean that person would care at least to some extent. English is always full of fun surprises. :-)
2.27.2006 10:49pm
Jacob T. Levy (mail):
Just today I'd added prescribe/ proscribe to my list for students of errors to avoid; seems to have been a sudden surge of lack of understanding of the distinction this year.
2.27.2006 11:54pm
TomHynes (mail):
How about

This particularly struck a cord with me ..

Getting struck by a 4' x 4' x 8' pile of wood would be painful, Dave Bernstein.
2.28.2006 12:26am
18 USC 1030 (mail):
inflammable= flammable
2.28.2006 12:34am
Syd (mail):
If something is fast, it could be stuck in place or moving rapidly.
2.28.2006 12:42am
Serenity Now (mail) (www):
2.28.2006 12:53am
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):

And "fixing" something broken means either making sure it stays broken (by making sure no one can move it), or else making it not-broken. Go fig.
2.28.2006 1:26am
civil truth (mail):
fix -- for JLR, another word which has opposite meanings, including to repair versus to create an unrepairable situation. Then of course there's the meaning to surgically sterilize, which is hard to know where it fits relative to these other meanings.
2.28.2006 1:50am
civil truth (mail):
Come to think of it, to surgically sterilize would create an unrepairable condition (at least in intention).
2.28.2006 1:53am
Eugene Volokh (www):
Kate Litvak: Yeah, but what do you Russkies know about the English language anyway?

Plus remember that though "prosecutor" is "procuror" in Russian, "procurer" is a different thing altogether. At least usually.
2.28.2006 2:23am
On flammable/inflammable, nothing beats the quip in Strunk &White:

Flammable is an oddity, chiefly useful in saving lives. The common word meaning "combustible" is "inflammable." But some people are thrown off by the "in-" and think "inflammable" means "not combustible." For this reason, trucks carrying gasoline or explosives are marked "flammable." Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use "inflammable."
2.28.2006 2:52am
Xmas (mail) (www):
Actually, my high school AP European History teacher used those two words to describe the two main branches of Protestantism.

In Calvinism, whatever isn't prescribed is proscribed. In Lutheranism, whatever isn't proscribed is prescribed.

(Take that with the huge grain of salt that generalizations about religions usually prescribe.)
2.28.2006 8:53am
Guest2 (mail):
I wish we'd've kept 'constitute' and 'comprise' distinct.

Welcome to the Comprise-in-Exile movement!
2.28.2006 9:12am
M.E.Butler (mail):
Perhaps we should start with "lay" and "lie" and their conjugations before we move on to the weightier matters of "lose" and "loose" and "prescribe" and "proscribe."

Milk before meat.
2.28.2006 9:25am
some more examples, with (what I think are) the differences:
further / farther
(one further's one's interests; an object is farther away (or is it just farther--is "farther away" an error like "whether or not"?))
mistrust / distrust
(one is a verb &the other is a noun; now I can't figure out which is which)
continual / continuous
(one means "without end" &the other means "without interruption"--don't know which is which)
uninterested / disinterested
(uninterested: doesn't care about; disinterested: has no stake in the outcome of)
2.28.2006 10:10am
NYU Jew (mail):
I thought the inflammable/flammable discussion sounded familiar!
2.28.2006 10:36am
Houston Lawyer:
To decimate is to kill one in ten. It really hurts to hear that Katrina decimated New Orleans. Oh the horror!
2.28.2006 10:48am
How about "disperse" and "disburse?"
2.28.2006 11:01am
The NJ Annuitant (mail):
Here's one -- run the GANTLET; throw down the GAUNTLET.
The first uses a phonetic spelling that is of a recent creation . More properly, both words are spelled GAUNTLET, but in the first usage it is more correctly pronounced, GANTLET, while in the second usage , the correct way to say it is, GAUNTLET.

Here's another -- the UCC spells the word, " indorse", but in every other context, I have only seen it spelled, "endorse."
2.28.2006 11:06am
Here's another -- the UCC spells the word, " indorse", but in every other context, I have only seen it spelled, "endorse."
Not sure what you are getting at -- could you use that in a sentence? Maybe: "Da rain is really coming down hard. Youse guys better go indorse."

cathy :-)
2.28.2006 11:46am
Guest2 (mail):
CEB -- You seem to be looking for guidance. I suggest Bryan Garner's work: Garner's Modern American Usage and (if you're a lawyer) A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. Both are excellent.
2.28.2006 11:54am
Mikeyes (mail):
Nauseous and Nauseated (as in "Are you...?"

Affect and Effect

Hopefully instead of "I Hope"
2.28.2006 12:28pm
"I wish we'd've kept 'constitute' and 'comprise' distinct"

Or 'comprise' and 'compose.' The part that infuriates me is that people only make the mistake of using comprise for compose when they are contriving to sound formal and knowledgeable.
2.28.2006 1:26pm
sonicfrog (mail) (www):
Someone wrote about the word "Inflammable". What about "Invaluable"? As in "I found it invaluable that the local public radio station aired the Alito confirmation hearings".
2.28.2006 1:30pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
I believe that "disburse" is primarily associated with giving out money -- see burser -> reimburse. Where as "disperse" is a general wide-spreading.

Something that is nauseous makes me feel nauseated.

Continual vs Continuous -- think back to calculus. A continuous function is one that is unbroken.

I think it's because I'm from down in the south, but I get absolutely infuriated (as opposed to just plain ol' furiated?) when I see people write y'all as ya'll, suggesting it is a contraction of ya and will (like I'll, we'll, you'll, they'll, etc)
2.28.2006 2:43pm
Sean E (mail):
What about "Invaluable"?

I know! I'm always getting invaluable and unvaluable mixed up.

I actually only recall ever hearing two people use nauseated correctly, one being my francophone wife. Even though I know it's correct, I still find it jarring.
2.28.2006 3:54pm
zev (mail) (www):
Ensure and insure?
2.28.2006 10:04pm