English is a funny language sometimes.
There are around 500,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the list of words which didn’t make the cut is easily that amount over again. It’s an abundance writers take advantage of, certainly. For example, if I want to say that I’m sweaty, I’ve got some options: clammy, perspiring, sudoric, diaphoretic, soaked, damp, dripping, etc.
With all those words to choose from, you’d think we’d have no problem steering words with similar meanings away from similar pronunciations and spellings … but no; that would be too easy. This week, in celebration of the pain this causes many editors (and I’m sure just about everyone trying to learn English as a second language), I present four word pairs that should just go their separate ways.
Adverse and averse – These two are a pain. They’re both adjectives, and they both have a negative denotation. “Adverse” indicates an unfavorable condition, while “averse” (typically followed by the word “to”) indicates disliking or opposing something. The rule of thumb: If you’re talking about something you don’t like, you’re averse to it. If it’s something bad happening to you, it’s an adverse event.
Compliment and complement – If you ever wondered in math class when you would use all the stuff you were learning, that day has come. “Complement” with two “Es” indicates something that improves, augments or adds to another thing. In geometry, which, incidentally, also has two “Es,” complementary angles are those which add up to 90 degrees. A “compliment” with an “I,” however, is simply an expression of praise. For example: “Compliments on your interdisciplinary explanation,Jordan.” Thanks, reader.
Imminent and eminent – “Eminent” signifies prominence. A bishop is in an eminent position in his church. Many longtime residents are considered eminent members of their community. “Imminent” signifies that something is coming soon. There might be an imminent tornado warning, for example. In medicine, a transient ischemic attack, or mini-stroke, can be the warning sign of an imminent stroke. These two words aren’t as bad as “immigration” and “emigration,” which I’m sure will make a similar list imminently.
Intern and inter – In the interest of full disclosure, these two appear on this list out of personal experience (and not a small amount of chagrin). To “intern” somewhere is to act as an apprentice or student worker. To “inter” somewhere is to be buried. So, for example, when a rookie reporter who is assigned to the obituaries desk writes that someone was “interned” at the local cemetery, he is incorrect (Unless maybe he’s talking about a mortuary sciences student). Not that anyone I know has ever done that. Ahem.