I enjoyed Ken Trainor’s column of Jan. 14 about his copyediting adventures [When words go bad, don’t go bare, Viewpoints]. Language fascinates me, too. Over the years, I have kept a list of word pairs — words that too often are interchanged and used incorrectly. 

Here’s my list:


The speaker implies a meaning that is not explicit from the text. The listener infers a meaning.


Well is an adverb modifying a verb. “He drives well.” Good is an adjective modifying a noun: “He is a good driver.”


Unique means “one of a kind,” so it is silly to say something is “very unique.” What the speaker means is that something is “unusual” or even “very unusual.” I grate when I hear this word used incorrectly. You will be safe if you just never use a modifier with “unique.”


Effect is a noun (result) and a verb (create). Affect, accent on the second syllable, is a verb (influence or pretend) and a noun, accent on the first syllable (emotional response). “Changing your diet will have no effect.” “Changing your diet will effect great change.” “His face reveals little affect.” “Horror movies deeply affect me.” One of the characteristics of this pair is that they sound the same in speech so you’re usually pretty safe. 

But like lots of English conventions, this one is imprecise. “Your advice affected my decision, which effected real change and that had a very beneficial effect, which is why my affect is so bright and cheery.”


“Eager” simply means showing keen interest, intense desire whereas “anxious” implies you are worried or uneasy. You probably don’t want to say, “I am anxious to see my wife who is just arriving.” It is easiest if you say “eager to” and “anxious about.”


This difference depends on who feels the ownership of the object in question. You may be envious when your neighbor buys a nifty new car. You may be jealous when he is making eyes at your wife.


Both farther and further are adverbs. But further can also used as a verb. Strunk and White point out that farther is for something we can feel and measure for ourselves, such as physical distance, such as, “I live farther from the city than he does.” Further is an abstract concept. It refers to distance when used as the adverb but is usually used figuratively or metaphorically. In such cases, the distance that the word is referring to cannot be really observed and measured, for instance; “I went further in school than I had planned.” Further as a verb means additional, as in: “Marrying the boss’s daughter will probably further your career.”

Thou/thee vs. You/you

Almost the only place American Christians and Jews encounter the personal pronouns thou and thee are in their bibles where God is addressed as Thou. Most people think that Thou is reserved for speaking to God to show high respect. In fact Thee and Thou, which are now archaic in English, are the equivalent to “tu” in French or “du” in German and are the pronouns you use when you are speaking to a close member of the family, a close friend, or a lover. In other words, an intimate relationship. “You,” which remains in English, is like the more formal “vous” in French or “sie” in German. The same distinction of using the familiar to indicate having an intimate relationship with God continues in most languages except English. I have checked foreign Bibles and they follow the principle.


This is probably the feeblest distinction because the words have been used interchangeably by so many of us. But deep down there still remain a difference. “Adventurous” has the meaning we normally think of — seeking a thrill. Merriam-Webster still points out that “adventuresome” is more likely to suggest an imprudent willingness to undertake great risk. (My trick to remember is that I always think that “ous” (us) would never do anything stupid whereas “some” would.)

People vs. Persons

Unfortunately obsolete, the old distinction here is that the “people” referred to are anonymous whereas “persons” refer to specific individuals. An example would be where the police say they are investigating “persons of interest.” They have specific individuals in mind.

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