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Enquire vs. inquire

Enquire and inquire are often just different spellings of the same word. Where the two are used for the same purposes, inquire is the more common form. This extends to derivative words (inquiry, inquirer, etc.), and it is the case throughout the English speaking-world. There is one qualification to this. Some Britons make the distinction that enquire and its derivatives apply to informal queries, and inquire and its derivatives to formal investigations. While this distinction appears widely … [Read more...]

Liter vs. litre

There's no difference in meaning between liter and litre. Liter is the preferred spelling in American English, and litre is preferred in all other main varieties of English. The word is much less common in American English than elsewhere because Americans generally use U.S. customary units rather than the metric system, which other English-speaking countries use. In American English, liter comes up mostly in reference to beverages (for some reason) and foreign cars. Examples Outside the … [Read more...]

Amend vs. emend

To amend is (1) to change for the better, (2) to put right, or (3) to alter by adding. The word's corresponding noun is amendment.  Emend means to improve by editing (especially a text). Its corresponding noun is emendation. Emend is rare because it's mainly confined to contexts related to professional writing and editing. Etymology The two words share a root in the Latin ēmendāre, which means, roughly, to remove fault. The older amend came to English, around the 13th century, via French, … [Read more...]

Sui generis

The Latin loan phrase sui generis, which translates literally to of its own kind, is used in English to mean unique. The phrase is singular and doesn't conventionally apply to plural nouns (as only one thing can be unique in a certain way). Yet writers often disregard the phrase's literal Latin meaning and apply it to plural nouns anyway. Sui generis is long established in English, so there's no need to italicize it in ordinary use. Examples But Webb is sui generis, and I doubt anyone … [Read more...]

Proportional vs. proportionate

Something that is proportional (1) forms a whole with other quantities, or (2) is considered quantitatively with respect to something else. Proportionate means in due proportion. The distinction is subtle, but proportionate describes something that is made that way by an active agent, and it often describes quantities that are difficult to measure. Proportional doesn't necessarily involve an active agent, and it is the preferred term where actual measurements are concerned. Still, because the … [Read more...]

Appropriate vs. expropriate

To appropriate is (1) to take possession of for one's own use, and (2) to set something apart for a specific use. To appropriate something is not necessarily to deprive another of possession; for example, an artist might appropriate another's style, or one might appropriate a catchy archaic phrase from the 18th century. But appropriation does sometimes involve depriving of possession, such as when a government appropriates a private company. In its second sense, appropriate usually applies to … [Read more...]

Meteoroid, meteor, meteorite (and meteoric)

A meteoroid is a piece of rock, smaller than an asteroid and larger than a speck of dust, moving through space. A meteoroid becomes a meteor when it enters Earth's atmosphere. A meteor becomes a meteorite when it hits the ground (which rarely happens, since most burn up in the atmosphere). Examples Many of the dangers of space travel exist in a very scary way, from radiation poisoning and meteoroid crashes, to starvation and mental health. [Primary Ignition] A Somerville photographer … [Read more...]

Sine qua non

Sine qua non, meaning an indispensable element, is a loanword from Latin, translating roughly to without which not. It's always a noun, usually italicized (although italicization is not necessary), and it's usually preceded by the or a and followed by of. As with all rare loanwords, sine qua non works when you're reasonably certain most of your audience will know what it means. Elsewhere, using an English alternative is usually best (in this case, e.g., prerequisite, requirement, essential … [Read more...]

Defuse vs. diffuse

To defuse (something) is to make a threatening or dangerous situation safer. For example, you might defuse a violent argument by calming the people involved, or you might literally defuse a bomb by deactivating its fuse. Diffuse works as both a verb and an adjective. To diffuse something is to disperse it or spread it out. When something is dispersed or spread out, it is diffuse. Because diffuse works as an adjective, diffused is only necessary as a verb form. Defuse doesn't work as an … [Read more...]

Rack vs. wrack

Wrack is roughly synonymous with wreck. As a noun, it refers to destruction or wreckage. As a verb, it means to wreck. It is now mostly an archaic word, preserved mainly in a few common phrases. Rack has many definitions, but the one that makes it easily confused with wrack is to torture. This sense comes from the use of medieval torture devices---called racks---on which victims' bodies were painfully stretched. So, figuratively speaking, to rack something is to torture it, especially in … [Read more...]

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