Posted by: Jack Henry | September 3, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Dissolving Distinctions, Pt. 2

Good morning! I’m back with your final five word pairs that have dissolving distinctions (and a little bonus information at the end). I know it’s only Thursday, but I can see the long holiday weekend from here, and I want to wish you a very happy Labor Day. But first, read on to learn about the distinct meanings of the following words.

  1. Convince/persuade: To convince someone is to cause that person to accept a truth, while to persuade is to cause someone, through reasoning or argument, to do something. Thus, the distinction is between influencing thought and prompting action.
  1. Ensure/insure: To ensure is to guarantee, while insure has a more specific sense of indemnity against loss, but the latter word is widely used in the sense expressed by the former word. (Assure, with the same root, means “convince or give confidence” and is also often employed as a lazy substitute for ensure.)
  1. Figuratively/literally: Figuratively pertains to hyperbolic or metaphorical references, while literally means “in an exact or strict sense,” but many people misuse the latter word as an intensifier when they intend to convey the sense of the former word, as in “My head literally exploded when she said that!” One who literally experienced such a phenomenon would no longer be alive to report it. [dbb – Many of you have told me this is a pet peeve. I hear you.]
  1. Libel/slander: Both libel and slander are, in legal usage, acts of defamation—communication of a falsehood that damages an entity’s reputation—but libel is written expression, while slander is an oral statement.
  1. Poisonous/venomous: In literal usage, the distinction is one of delivery—poison produced by living things acts on an individual when one eats or touches it, and chemical poisons, though they may be administered by a person to another, do not themselves “choose” to poison the victim. By contrast, venom is injected into its victim by a bite or a sting from another animal, either in self-defense or in an attack on prey by a predator. Figuratively, poisonous describes a psychologically dysfunctional environment or person, while venomous applies only to an individual, often one who is malevolent or spiteful.

Two other word pairs that deserve distinction are if and whether and what and which: In the case of if and whether, if is employed when describing a condition, as in “I will take a river cruise on the Seine if I visit Paris,” and whether denotes a choice or a doubt, as in “I don’t know whether I will (or “will have time to”) take a river cruise on the Seine when I visit Paris.” In conversation and in informal writing, if is acceptable in the latter senses, but in formal writing, use whether. Likewise, which is a more specific usage that what when referring to particular selections: “I don’t know which outfits I’m going to pack” is preferable to “I don’t know what outfits I’m going to pack.”

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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