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Breath vs. breadth (vs. width)

Breath is the air you breathe in and out your lungs. That one is easy. Breadth is a synonym of width (hence the expression hair's breadth, meaning a very short width), but there are two subtle distinctions breadth and width. First, whereas width is used for the side-to-side extent of things of all sizes, breadth is generally reserved for things whose spans are especially large. For instance, rooms and streets are often described in terms of width, while hurricanes and large geographical … [Read more...]

Percent vs. per cent

The one-word percent is standard in American English. Percent is not absent from other varieties of English, but most publications still prefer the two-word per cent. The older forms per-cent, per cent. (per cent followed by a period), and the original per centum have mostly disappeared from the language (although the latter sometimes appears in legal writing). There is no difference between percent and per cent. Choosing between them is simply a matter of preference. Examples U.S. The … [Read more...]

Pore over vs. pour over

The phrase meaning to study carefully is pore over. It comes from a little-used sense of the verb pore---namely, to meditate deeply. In modern writing, this sense of pore rarely appears outside this phrase. Pour over is of course a meaningful phrase in its own right, but it has nothing to do with studying. It's what you do, for example, with milk to a bowl of cereal. Examples Major employers are using specialist anti-union lawyers to pore over the legislation. [Libcom.org] Young men pore … [Read more...]

Incipient vs. insipient (vs. insipid)

Something that is incipient means beginning to exist or just starting to happen. Insipient is an archaism meaning wanting wisdom, stupid, or foolish. It is almost nowhere to be found in 21st-century English, except as an occasional misspelling of incipient. Although insipid (from the Latin in- and sapidus, meaning not savory) is sometimes used to mean simply bad, it traditionally means (1) lacking flavor or zest, (2) lacking exciting qualities, or (3) dull. Examples Incipient In a related … [Read more...]

Said

The use of said as an adjective meaning aforementioned comes from legal and business writing, and it's essentially a briefer replacement of words like aforementioned and aforesaid. Although replacing a long word with a short one is usually a good thing, in this case the shorter word can sound funny to people who are not used to legal and business writing. Plus, said when used this way would often bear outright removal. In these examples, said serves no purpose and could be removed: The said … [Read more...]

Saccharin vs. saccharine

Saccharin, with no e, refers to a white crystal powder used as a calorie-free sweetener. It is always a noun. Saccharine, meaning (1) sweet, (2) cloyingly sweet, or (3) excessively sentimental, is always an adjective. The words are pronounced alike, but that e is pivotal in writing. Examples Saccarin He offered the example of saccharin, a sweetener often used in coffee that until recently also appeared on the federal list of substances regarded as toxic waste. [NY Times] EPA removed … [Read more...]

Rock ‘n’ roll, rock and roll, rock’n’roll, etc.

Rock 'n' roll is the most common spelling for the genre of music, but rock-and-roll, rock and roll, rock-'n'- roll, rock & roll, and rock'n'roll also appear often. Rock 'n' roll has a breezy and colloquial look that reflects the spirit of the music, while rock-and-roll and rock and roll are a little more formal. In any case, there is no right or wrong way to write the term, though rock 'n' roll is the most common version and hence the safest. Examples Rock 'n' roll Today marks the 52nd … [Read more...]

Emigrate vs. immigrate

To immigrate is to settle in a new country or region. To emigrate is to leave a native country or region to settle elsewhere. Obviously the words are closely related and similar enough to elicit confusion, but they're easy to remember if you think of immigrating as arriving and emigrating as leaving. For example, someone who grew up in France and now lives in Spain emigrated from France and immigrated to Spain. Immigrate is usually followed by to, and emigrate is usually followed by from. The … [Read more...]

Riff vs. rift

A riff is (1) a short, rhythmic phrase played on an instrument, especially in jazz, blues, or rock music, or (2) a clever or inventive spoken commentary. The word also works as a verb, usually followed by the preposition on, meaning to make a clever or inventive spoken commentary. A rift is (1) a narrow fissure, or (2) a break in friendly relations. As a verb (very rarely used), rift means to split open. Examples You may have heard a bracing guitar riff from Gang of Four's Andy Gill on TV … [Read more...]

Dispense with vs. dispose of

The phrasal verbs dispense with and dispose of are synonymous in some of their uses, but there are other senses in which they're separate. The phrases are also interesting in that dispense with and dispose of are quite different from their one-word equivalents, dispense and dispose. Dispose of Dispose of has a few meanings: (1) to attend to; (2) to part with, as by selling; (3) to get rid of, usually by throwing out; and (4) to kill or destroy. The third sense, as used in the following … [Read more...]

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