So said Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady: “words, words, words, I am so sick of words.” And she goes on to complain that her teacher, Professor Henry Higgins is too insistent on pronunciation and accurate word use. Would that Prof Higgins were about today as we slide into the deepest ignorance with word use and English generally. 
 
Try yourself out on these word differences.
 
(I have mostly left out quotation marks when referring back to words as you will see- hope you do not find it too confusing.)
 
allusion- I am using the verb allude
illusion
delusion
 
Politicians allude to the incompetence of their opponents, are often under the illusion that they could do a better job than their opponents and, even more often, suffer the delusion that we are happy to put up with their point scoring at the expense of formulating policy. They also far too often misuse the three words.
 
anticipate
expect
 
We might anticipate a possible collision with an oncoming truck and take evasive action but surely no one expects to have the crash. We have lost the ‘follow up’ aspect of ‘anticipate’. To anticipate means to perceive and subsequently avoid. ‘Expect’ is rather more geared to something we might bank on.
 
boarder
border
 
Boarders pay for the privilege of living somewhere.  Where they live has a border.
 
check
cheque
 
We check up on our cheque accounts but if you are an American the same word does duty as an adjective, a noun and a verb.
 
compare
contrast
 
We may compare two cricket teams by asking what they have in common, apart from playing cricket presumably. However we would contrast their success in a match since one wins whereas the other loses. Contrast means opposite.
 
contemporary
modern
 
Modern Miss or Sir would like to be thought of as up to date but not contemporary with the competition since contemporary means being the same as, or doing the same thing with.
 
contemptible
contemptuous
 
A contemptible politician may be contemptuous of her opponent, who may indeed be contemptible but not contemptuous as contemptuous is never a noun or adjective.  (With obvious deference to Sir Humphrey.)
 
continual
continuous
 
Taps drip continually or repeatedly, they run continuously if you turn them on fully. Thus governments which continually run deficits would be continuously in debt.
 
defective
deficient
 
Oh dear, so often ‘defective’ government policies are really deficient or missing something important which prevents their working properly. A defective car will be deficient in operation.
 
derisive
derisory
 
Hard one!
We may be derisive of our messy, noisy neighbour and they may be derisory or fully deserving of our contempt.
 
discover
invent
 
We discover where we left our spectacles and invent reasons as to why we may have left them there.
 
disinterested
uninterested
 
Disinterested, or neutral, Freda attended the reading of her uncle’s will and she was subsequently uninterested in the outcome for her cousins. Most relatives attending Will readings are neither disinterested nor uninterested in the outcome.
 
economic
economical
 
Too often we are urged to be economic when we should be economical. Economic refers to an economy not to a thrifty person.
 
ensure
insure
 
We would insure the house to ensure we were protected against loss. 
 
especially
specially
 
Especially or especial are words we need to use with care. Often special is not only more accurate but more readily appreciated by the reader.
One might take especial, or particular, care of the vintage car because it only went out on special occasions.
 
fact
factor
 
Facts are facts are facts, i.e. truths which can be provable, not convenient inventions. Factors are contributory to an overall situation or position.
High temperatures were a factor in the house fire. It was a fact that the place was not insured.
 
flaunt
flout
 
Flaunting the rules really means flouting the rules. One flaunts one’s new red socks and flouts convention by wearing them to a funeral.
 
foregoing
forgoing
 
We might forgo that final drink because we had seen the foregoing TV programme on drink driving. Foregoing means before.
 
formally
formerly
 
You could be formally introduced to someone who had formerly been in gaol. 
 
in to
into
 
So often confused (even) by me and so often I am unaware that I have done it.
As we went into the room, Julia came in to tell us that Francine was pregnant.
 
It’s
Its
 
Oh yes so easy to mess up on this.
It’s is short for it is or it has, so…
It is a nuisance that its paintwork is scratched, even more so because it’s impossible to fix it accurately. 
 
less
fewer
 
They now have less money so fewer worries. Fewer refers to countable things.
 
loose
lose
 
The dog is easy to lose if its collar is loose. Thus also looser and loser: losers are so often looser with their financers.
 
may be
maybe
 
Maybe we could go tomorrow as it may be better weather then. 
 
partake
participate
 
We partake of food and participate in a dinner party.
 
scarce
rare
 
Rare really means always scarce.  Scarce can mean that a commonly available item is currently hard to find.
Rare coins are always scarce in the shops because there are so few coins to go around. 
It is not necessarily rare to find a scarce item.
 
sensual
sensuous
 
Viewing this wonderful landscape picture was a sensual experience. Von Landscape is such a sensuous painter.
So sensual refers to the effect of the experience on the mind and sensuous refers to the act- as performed by someone else-rather than the effect on the observer’s intellect. So sensual is usually an adjective and sensuous a verb.
 
sociable
social
 
Such a social person, or sociable person? Well strictly; sociable. Social refers to the society. 
How sociable they all were on this very social occasion!
 
stimulant
stimulus
 
Most people are not stimulated to take stimulants. So stimulus refers to incentive and stimulant to a substance or activity. 
 
translucent
transparent
 
Translucent means light passes through but we can not see through. The bathroom window is a good example. Transparent is a wonderful word meaning we can see through and it may apply to a material, a personality or a motive.
 
urban
urbane
 
Urban young men can be urbane but not necessarily so. So city-dwelling young men may or may not have good social skills.
 
Who’s
Whose
 
Who’s is an unattractive word meaning who is. Who’s coming to the tennis? Whose is much more functional- whose is this?
 
Your
You’re
 
Your not doing too well, or, you’re not doing too well? They can’t both be correct and the first use isn’t. Your tennis racket? (possessive); you’re so forgetful! Both correct here.

Represent
Resemble

Represent has a number of meanings, here I mean serving as an image or likeness; resembles means to look alike.  Thus twins resemble one another but their financial position could be represented by their bank balance.

Sign
Symbol

We might expect to receive a sign of affection from a sibling and that would be a symbol of the love which exists between us.

Sceptic
Cynic

Sceptics doubt the truth of propositions whereas we might be cynical about the sincerity of the person explaining the propositions.  Thus a sceptic is probably taking a more intellectual view than a cynic.  A sceptic might also be cynical but a cynic may not be prepared to go the extra mile to become sceptical.
 
Hope you enjoyed these.
 
JRT
Jan 2011