Posted by: Jack Henry | September 1, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Dissolving Distinctions, Pt 1

Greetings, friends, and happy September! It’s hard to believe that autumn is just around the corner.

I recently read an article about pairs of words that have dissolving distinctions—meaning that the two words originally had separate meanings, but these days they’re used interchangeably. Some of them made me sad, but I guess that’s the nature of language. It’s always evolving. Unfortunately, I don’t get to choose the course of evolution. And you should all be glad, or we might all be talking like Shakespeare or one of Jane Austen’s characters.

There are 10 word pairs all together along with information about each word’s individual meaning—in case, like me, you are interested in preserving the distinction. I’ll give you five pairs today and five on Thursday. We all need something to look forward to these days. 😊

  1. Accurate/precise: Accuracy is the degree to which an estimated measurement or a predicted result matches the actual extent or outcome, or, in the context of aiming, how close a projectile or an effect (such as a laser beam) comes to an intended target. Precision is the degree of variation between or among two or more measurements. In competition in which relative skill is determined by having competitors hit a bull’s-eye target, a competitor may demonstrate precision (all attempts are in proximity to each other) but not accuracy (the attempts are far from the center of the target).
  1. Allude/refer: The distinction between allusion and reference is one of degree of fidelity to the source. If one refers to a well-known saying, one says or writes, “The early bird catches the worm.” An allusion, however, is indirect; one might say or write, “I caught the worm this morning,” which, if one’s audience knows the saying, they will understand to mean that one was early.
  1. Anxious/eager: One who is anxious about something is, according to the source of the adjective, experiencing anxiety, while one who is eager is excited, impatient, and/or interested. Many people use the words interchangeably to refer to a positive feeling, but careful writers will maintain the distinction.
  1. Amount/number: Amount applies to uncountable nouns, such as in general reference to noise, while number pertains to a measurable quantity, such as how many decibels a sound registers. Another comparison is between a reference to an amount of money, such as a million dollars, which is a single “item,” as opposed to the count of the number of bills in a stack of currency.
  1. Fewer/less: As with amount and number, the distinction between fewer and less is one of countable and uncountable things, in that order. For example, one would write, “Fewer houses were built this year compared to last year,” but “Less housing is available his year compared to last year”; the first sentence refers to countable structures and the second one pertains to houses collectively. [dbb – Thank you grocery stores for confusing so many people with your incorrect “15 items or less” express lane signs!]

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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