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College vs. university

In American English, college and university are generally used interchangeably, but there are some subtle differences between them. University usually denotes a school that offers full undergraduate and graduate programs, while colleges usually offer more narrow programs and may have no graduate studies at all. But there are no official designations for these terms, and colleges and universities can call themselves what they want. In practical American usage, university has connotations of … [Read more...]

Abstruse vs. obtuse

Abstruse---usually used in reference to the content of a written, sung, or spoken text---means difficult to understand. Obtuse means (1) not pointed (in reference to an object) or (2) simpleminded or imperceptive (in reference to a person). So, if we go by these definitions, abstruse should never refer to a person or a physical object, and obtuse should never (or very rarely) refer to a text. The words are often mixed up---for example: Notoriously obtuse, he is refreshingly straightforward … [Read more...]

Hair’s breadth (hare’s breath)

A hair's breadth is a very short distance. Breadth in this phrase is synonymous with width, so the phrase literally refers to the width of a hair. Hare's breath and hair's breath are interesting images, but for the phrase denoting a short distance, they are misspellings. Examples On the following Tuesday the world's financial system came to within one hair's breadth of extinction.  [DeRosaWorld] Little by little, Mr. Calderón stretches the familiar into a scary, empty new world that is just … [Read more...]

Storey vs. story

For the noun referring to a horizontal level of a building, story is the standard spelling in American English, and storey is preferred in all the other main varieties of English. The plural of the American story is stories, and the plural of the storey is storeys. Of course, English speakers everywhere use story for an account of a series of events and related definitions. Examples U.S. The building will stand four stories tall along Franklin Street. [Chapel Hill News] An eight-story … [Read more...]

Rappel vs. repel

To repel is (1) to ward off or drive back, (2) to cause aversion or distaste, or (3) to present an opposing force. To rappel is to descend a vertical surface, especially a cliff face, by sliding down a rope with a device that provides friction. The words are easily mixed up, and the misuse of repel in place of rappel is especially common. Examples Rappel Then hikers leave the trail and go down a gully, rappel down a cliff, cross a creek and hike another 150 meters to get to the base of the … [Read more...]

Repel vs. repulse

The verbs repel and repulse are generally used interchangeably in modern English, but they do have slightly different senses. Both mean to ward off or keep away, but repulse usually refers to physical actions, while repel (which is different from rappel) is more likely to be used figuratively or to denote emotional states. So the adjective repulsive actually corresponds with repel rather than repulse. Examples They were met by waves of police and security forces who used water cannon, tear gas … [Read more...]

In excess of

In excess of is wordy for more than, over, or exceeding, and it could usually be shortened to one of those words or phrases. For example, consider how much better these sentences would sound if in excess of were shortened: All in all, Zynga has already helped raise in excess of [more than?] $4 million in Haiti relief funds. [Fox News] Most priced in excess of [over?] $50 per bottle, the wines sell out quickly every year. [Napa Valley Register] She's sold more than 4 million albums in each … [Read more...]

Interment vs. internment

Internment is the act of detaining a person or a group of people, especially a group perceived to be a threat during wartime. The United States, for instance, infamously put many Japanese-American citizens into internment camps during the second world war. Interment is what happens when a deceased person is laid to rest. It refers primarily to the burial, but it can denote all the parts of the burial process. Interment comes from the verb inter, whose participles are interred and interring. … [Read more...]

Recur vs. reoccur

Something that recurs happens repeatedly, perhaps at regular intervals. Something that reoccurs happens again, but not necessarily repeatedly or at regular intervals. For example, the sunrise recurs, and an unpredictable event that happens to occur more than once---such as an earthquake or a financial crisis---reoccurs. Examples Recur Fresh off Golden Globe and SAG Award victories, the HBO drama will add this British actor in a recurring role on season two. [TV Fanatic] Seizures might … [Read more...]

Licence vs. license

In American English, license is both a noun and a verb, and licence isn't used. For example, one who is licensed to drive has a driver's license. In all the other main varieties of English, licence is the noun, and license is the verb. So, for instance, one who is licensed to perform dental surgery has a dental surgeon's licence. Examples U.S. A judge on Monday threw out a legal challenge to Illusions magic bar's entertainment license. [Baltimore Sun] During the 90-minute operation, the … [Read more...]

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