Drier vs. dryer

Drier is a comparative adjective meaning more dry. A dryer is one of many types of electrical appliances used to dry things. The words were once interchangeable. The distinction crept into the language through the 20th century and has only recently solidified. Some dictionaries still list the words as variants of each other, but the words are almost always kept separate in 21st-century publications. Examples The two words are often (understandably) mixed up---for example: As Sherrod sat … [Read more...]


A dilemma is a choice between two unfavorable or mutually exclusive alternatives. (The prefix di- is Greek for two, which is central to the word's definition.) That's its traditional definition, anyway, and careful writers tend to confine the word to that sense. The word is also commonly used to refer to any difficult situation, even one that doesn't involve two mutually exclusive alternatives. Dilemma in the traditional sense is useful because English has few words denoting choices between two … [Read more...]

Cut and dried

The phrasal adjective cut and dried describes things that are (1) prepared and arranged in advance, or (2) ordinary or routine.  The phrase's exact origins are mysterious, but it seems to date from the early 1700s---when it was used in roughly the same manner as today---and it presumably comes from agriculture. Cut and dried is often written cut and dry, which isn't a serious error because dry works as an adjective with essentially the same meaning as dried.  The phrase can take hyphens … [Read more...]

Compel vs. impel

A person who is impelled has been persuaded to do something (perhaps based on moral grounds) and does so at least partially of his or her own volition. Compel implies that the person being compelled has no choice in the matter and is being coerced. For the person being compelled, the coercion is so strong that choice and morality don't enter into it. Examples Surely we won't need a third cataclysm to impel us, at long last, to take serious action? [Weekly Volcano] Schwarzenegger then sought … [Read more...]

Active voice vs. passive voice

If the subject of a clause acts, the clause is in the active voice. If the subject is acted upon, the clause is in the passive voice. For example, I kissed Sheila is in the active voice because the subject (I) acts (kissed) upon the object of the verb (Sheila). I was kissed by Sheila is in the passive voice because the subject is being acted upon. Voice only applies to verbs that are transitive (i.e., verbs that have direct objects). For example, the intransitive verb wait cannot be passive … [Read more...]

Blatant vs. flagrant

There are historical distinctions between blatant and flagrant, and English reference books still outline subtle differences between them, but in real-world usage the words are mostly synonymous. Both mean offensively conspicuous or conspicuously offensive. Offensively conspicuous is usually associated with blatant, while conspicuously offensive is associated with flagrant, but these two meanings tend to overlap. Combine this with the words' similarity in sound, and the result is that most … [Read more...]

Dissociate vs. disassociate

Dissociate and disassociate have the same definition---to remove from association or to cease associating. English reference books tend to recommended dissociate over disassociate. There's no etymological reason for this, as the words are approximately the same age (though dissociate is probably a little older),1 2 and there is plenty of precedent in English for both forms. The preference for dissociate probably has to do with its brevity. In any case, disassociate has gained ground over the … [Read more...]

Auxiliary verbs

Auxiliary verbs are irregular verbs that provide information about other types of verbs. The main auxiliary verbs in English are to have, to be, and their conjugated forms, while others include can, could, did, do, may, should, and would. To be To be and its inflected forms (am, are, be, been, being, was, and were) have several functions, but they're most commonly used as auxiliary verbs. When to be is placed before a present-participle verb, it denotes continuing action---for example: I … [Read more...]

Flair vs. flare

Flare, which is both noun or a verb (the verb usually followed by up), almost always has to do with fire, though it's sometimes used metaphorically, as in the phrase tempers flare. The other exception is where it refers to a rounded, spreading shape, as in a piece of furniture or an article of clothing. Flair refers to either (1) distinctive elegance or style, or (2) a natural talent or aptitude. For example, one might dress with a lot of flair, or one might have a flair for writing … [Read more...]

Ascent vs. assent

Ascent means (1) the act of rising or moving upward or (2) an upward slope. It's the opposite of descent. Assent means agreement or acquiescence. Assent may also be used as a verb meaning to agree. When you give your assent to something, you assent to it. Ascent's corresponding verb is ascend. Examples He stuck his finger into a jar of red ink and left an imprint signifying his assent. [New York Times] There has been no stopping the ascent of Alexa Chung's well-documented … [Read more...]

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