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I thought I would take a little break from our typical blogging format to talk about the kinds of things editors think about. One of those things is troublesome word pairs. And there are hundreds of them.

 

The General Problem with Troublesome Word Pairs:

The problem with troublesome word pairs is that either the words sound exactly the same, but are spelled differently, or that people get them wrong so frequently in speech that it “just sounds right” to say (and write) them wrong. I once read a story about a writing teacher, who exasperated by one her students’ frequent confusion over burrow and burro, wrote on the student’s paper that he didn’t “know his ass from a hole in the ground!” Ouch.

As an undergraduate, I wondered why I had to keep my “Discrete Math” class on the down low, a class that I often missed because I came down with a few serious illnesses that term and felt “nauseous.” Of course, back then I was a biology major, so I had an excuse. Right? Not really. It is important for writers, be they mathematicians, biologists, or doctors writing notes for their poor, mono-stricken patients to have a clear understanding of the usage of these five troublesome word pairs.

discrete/discreet

nauseous/nauseated

straight/strait

enormity/enormousness

around/about

 

discrete/discreet

What the Experts Say

First, let’s get a solid understanding of what the dictionary has for the definitions of these two words:

Merriam-Webster

Discrete: (adj): constituting a separate entity: individually distinct <several discrete sections>

Discreet (adj): having or showing discernment or good judgment in conduct and especially in speech: prudent; especially: capable of preserving prudent silence

Ok, so what I gather is that discrete (as in my math class), deals with distinct and separate elements. The other discreet reminds me of Victorian ladies who have the good judgment to not talk about unsavory topics while in polite society.

The Chicago Manual of Style also has an opinion on this matter, though it basically just repeats the dictionary: “Discreet means ‘circumspect judicious’ {a discreet silence}. Discrete means ‘separate, distinct, unconnected’ {six discrete parts}.” (page 277)

Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies puts it in simple terms:

Discreet/Discrete—The first shall mean “sneaky,” the second shall mean “separate.” (page 178)

I really like what Common Errors in English Usage has to say about the issue. “Sneaky” just doesn’t seem to be the right word because of its negative connotation. “Sneaky” doesn’t fit for the example that Common Errors uses:

The more common word is “discreet,” meaning “prudent, circumspect”: “When arranging the party for Agnes, be sure to be discreet; we want her to be surprised.” “Discrete” means “separate, distinct”: “He arranged the guest list into two discrete groups: meat-eaters and vegetarians.” Note how the T separates the two Es in “discrete.”

What I Say

  • Discrete Math isn’t math that just isn’t talked about. “Discrete mathematics is mathematics that deals with discrete objects. Discrete objects are those which are separated from (not connected to/distinct from) each other. Integers (aka whole numbers), rational numbers (ones that can be expressed as the quotient of two integers), automobiles, houses, people etc. are all discrete objects. On the other hand real numbers which include irrational as well as rational numbers are not discrete” (Computer Science Dept., Old Dominion University).
  • Two discrete objects are two separate objects unless you are referring to objects that are also people who won’t talk about certain subjects. If you are, then you’re rude to refer to people as objects.
  • Discreet, or discretion, often refers to speech.
  • You can have two discrete circumstances of discreet people.

Examples (Good and Bad)

  • I discreetly picked my nose so that the rest of the class wouldn’t see. (correct)
  • I had a discreet conversation with my manager about being harassed by a coworker. (correct)
  • I showed Paula several discrete examples of why I was right. (correct)

 

nauseous/nauseated

What the Experts Say

First, let’s get a solid understanding of what the dictionary has for the definitions of these two words:

Merriam-Webster

Nauseous: (adj) causing nausea or disgust: nauseating

Nauseated: (verb) to become affected with nausea

The Chicago Manual of Style goes into more depth on the usage difference between the two terms:

Whatever is nauseous induces a feeling of nausea—it makes us feel sick to our stomachs. To feel sick is to be nauseated. The use of nauseous to mean nauseated may be too common to be called an error anymore, but strictly speaking is poor usage. Because of the ambiguity in nauseous, the wisest course may be to stick to the participle adjectives nauseated and nauseating. (page 290)

Strunk and White are always good if you like forwardness:

Nauseous. Nauseated. The first means “sickening to contemplate”: the second means “sick to the stomach.” Do not, therefore, say, “I feel nauseous,” unless you are sure you have that effect on others. (page 53)

Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies quote Strunk and White, and then elaborates:

Nauseous/Nauseated—[Strunk and White quote from above]. Let all who speak the word nauseous thereafter use it in a way considered incorrect by Strunk and White and also the vast majority of language experts, never realizing that they are saying that they themselves are sickening to others! Yet let them be at the same time led in the opposite direction by a most respected tome, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, third edition. “Any handbook that tells you that ‘nauseous’ cannot mean ‘nauseated’ is out of touch with the contemporary language.” (page 185)

Common Errors in English Usage agrees with Snobs, but also offers alternatives for those who are perpetually confused:

Many people say, when sick to their stomachs, that they feel “nauseous” (pronounced “NOSH-uss” or “NOZH-uss”) but traditionalists insist that this word should be used to describe something that makes you want to throw up: something nauseating. They hear you as saying that you make people want to vomit, and it tempers their sympathy for your plight. Better to say you are “nauseated,” or simply that you feel like throwing up.

What I Say

  • It feels awkward to me to say that I feel nauseated. And the word is hard to spell at any rate. I like Common Errors’ suggestion to just say how you really feel, like throwing up, or perhaps just stomach achy.
  • Only say nauseous if something is making you feel that way, not if that is the way you are feeling. In that case, you are nauseated (or feel nauseated).

Examples (Good and Bad)

  • I felt so nauseated that I drove to work with a trashcan in the passenger seat just in case I needed to throw up. (correct)
  • God, I just felt so nauseous from drinking too much last night. (wrong)
  • I just feel so nauseated from drinking too much last night. (correct)
  • When I walked past the dead skunk it smelled nauseous. (acceptable)
  • When I walked past the dead skunk the smell was nauseating. (better)

 

straight/strait

What the Experts Say

First, let’s get a solid understanding of what the dictionary has for the definitions of these two words:

Merriam-Webster

Straight: (adj) free from curves, bends, angles, or irregularities <straight hair> <straight timber>

Strait: (noun) 1: a archaic: a narrow space or passage b: a comparatively narrow passageway connecting two large bodies of water—often used in plural but singular in construction c: isthmus

2: a situation of perplexity or distress—often used in plural <in dire straits>

So it seems that straight means something that is not bent, and a strait is a passageway between two bodies of water and it may or may not actually be straight. I have ignored the archaic form of strait, but it is good to know in case you are ever asked, and it helps to in understanding the origin of the word. It is also important to note that straight commonly appears as an adjective, and strait is commonly a noun.

The Chicago Manual of Style elaborates on the dictionary, drops the archaic forms, and offers straightforward examples of both terms for further clarity:

“A strait (often pl.) is (1) literally, a narrow channel between two large bodies of water {Strait of Magellan} or (2) figuratively, a difficult position {dire straits}… This is the word used in compound terms with the sense of constriction {straitlaced}{straitjacket}. Straight is most often an adjective meaning unbent, steady, sober, candid [let me be straight with you], honest, or heterosexual.” (page 297)

Common Errors in English Usage cuts to the point:

If something is not crooked or curved it’s straight. If it is a narrow passageway between two bodies of water, it’s a strait. Place names like “Bering Strait” are almost always spelled “strait.”

I could not find an example of a strait that was spelled as straight, and I consulted several lists of straits around the world.

What I Say

  • Straight means the quality of having no curves or bends.
  • Strait typically refers to a body of water between two areas of land.
  • If the jacket you are wearing is used in mental wards, the type of jacket would be a straitjacket (meaning narrow from the archaic form).
  • If you are heterosexual, you are straight.
  • If you are honest and candid, then you can be straight with people.
  • If you are uptight, a goody two-shoes, and are quite circumspect, then you are a straight sort of person. You might also be straitlaced in this case.

Examples (Good and Bad)

  • The Strait of Magellan is very dangerous, so it is best to go through the Panama Canal instead. (correct)
  • The cop will think you are drunk if you cannot walk in a straight line. (correct)
  • Please be straight with me about Maria. (correct)
  • Edward found himself in dire straits. (correct).
  • You can drive strait to church. (incorrect)

 

enormity/enormousness

What the Experts Say

First, let’s get a solid understanding of what the dictionary has for the definitions of these two words:

Merriam-Webster

Enormity: (noun) 1. an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act

2. the quality or state of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous

3. the quality or state of being huge

e.g.: We were shocked at the enormity of the crime.

Enormousness: (adj) marked by extraordinarily great size, number, or degree; especially: exceeding usual bounds or accepted notions

e.g.: They live in an enormous house, or The enormousness of the house was shocking.

Chicago Manual of Styled discusses the mistakes in usage between the two words:

“Enormity means ‘monstrousness, moral outrageousness, atrociousness’ {the enormity of the Khmer Rogue’s killings}. Enormousness means ‘abnormally great size’ {the enormousness of Alaska}.” (page 279)

Strunk and White:

Enormity. Use only in the sense of “monstrous wickedness.” Misleading, if not wrong, when used to express bigness. (page 45)

Common Errors in English Usage has a funny example that I hope helps you keep the two terms clear, while also briefly discussing the common ancestry of the two words:

Originally these two words were synonymous, but “enormity” got whittled down to meaning something monstrous or outrageous. Don’t wonder at the “enormity” of the Palace of Versailles unless you wish to express horror at this embodiment of Louis XIV’s ego.

What I Say

  • You can remember that enormity means monstrous and evil because the y has its arms up in the air in exasperation.
  • You can remember that enormousness refers to size because the word is so big that we’ve housed a mouse (minus the e) inside the word and you didn’t even notice.
  • Enormity is a clunky, and often misleading word since most people will just mistake it to mean “of grand size” anyway. It is probably best to be more specific about the monstrous wickedness of a particular deed instead.

Examples (Good and Bad)

  • The enormity of the war crimes appalled the jury. (correct)
  • The elephant was even more enormous than Joanna thought it would be. (correct)
  • The enormity of the tank made the enemy army run. (incorrect)
  • The enormousness of the tank made the enemy army run. (correct)
  • The enormity of the tank’s path of destruction was appalling. (correct)

 

around/about

What the Experts Say

First, let’s get a solid understanding of what the dictionary has for the definitions of these two words:

Merriam-Webster

Around: (adv) 1 a: in a circle or in circumference <the wheel goes around> <a tree five feet around>, (prep) 1 a: on all sides of, (adj) : about 1 <has been up and around for two days>

About: (adv) a: reasonably close to <about a year ago>, (prep) in a circle around: on every side of: around, (adj): moving from place to place

It seems like even in the dictionary that these two words are synonymous. When turning to the Chicago Manual of Style, there is no entry for these two words as troublesome word pairs. If you Google “around verses about” (and vice versa) nothing really comes up. Grammar Girl has nothing to say about the two words (we should all Facebook her and ask). Neither does Strunk nor White.

The Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage has a little to say on the issue:

British English still tends to prefer about as a preposition meaning ‘approximately’, although around is also used, whereas American English generally prefers around. (page 58)

About: (prep) In the meaning “roughly, approximately” (page 8)

Around: Around is obligatory in fixed expressions such as fool around, mess around, sit around…in some cases about is also possible, but not round. (page 58)

So, like straitjacket, we have a set rule for fool around versus fool about, and we know that Fowler’s thinks round is out of the question. About means “approximately,” but American English tends to prefer around for its way to express “approximately.”

Common Errors in English Usage touches on the subtly of the terms and urges that we discuss about topics, while around doesn’t quite touch on a particular topic:

Lots of people think it’s just nifty to say things such as, “We’re having ongoing discussions around the proposed merger.” This strikes some of us as irritating jargon. We feel it should be “discussions about” rather than “around.”

What I Say

  • About seems to express a more definite “approximately” than around. That is, you can be at a place for about 5 minutes, but only stay there for around 5 minutes. About seems to fall closer to the 5 minute mark than around does.
  • If you talk about something, it is up for discussion. If you talk around something, then you are avoiding the subject.
  • If you do something around the clock you sound like you are from America. If you do something about the clock you either sound like you are from England, or you have finally assassinated that annoying cuckoo that was chiming so maddeningly on the hour.

Examples (Good and Bad)

  • I worked at Pizza Hut for about two months. (correct)
  • I had worked at Pizza Hut for around two months. (correct)
  • I walked around the plaza. (correct; implies walking all the way around the perimeter of the plaza)
  • I walked about the plaza. (correct; implies walking within the interior of the plaza, but not necessarily around its border)

 

 

 

Works Consulted

Brians, Paul. “Common Errors in English Usage.” 2008.

http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/book.html (accessed January 16, 2011).

The Chicago Manual of Style. 16 ed. University of Chicago Press Staff. Chicago: University Of

Chicago Press, 2010.

“Introduction to Discrete Structures—Whats and Whys.”

http://www.cs.odu.edu/~toida/nerzic/content/intro2discrete/intro2discrete.html (accessed

January 17, 2011).

“Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.” 2011. http://www.merriam-webster.com/

(accessed January 16, 2011).

Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Robert Allen. New York: Oxford, 2004.

Strunk, William. E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4 ed. United States: Longman, 1999.