Sorry, Lorraine, you have to actually READ the dictionary.


The Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for over 250,000 words. Is it any wonder that we get confused by a few of them? Here are twelve tricky word pairs that even a Rhodes Scholar could get wrong.


1. assent vs. ascent

Assent means agreement or approval. Ascent means a climbing or rising.

There was assent among the hikers as they agreed to start their ascent at sunrise.

2. dissent vs. descent

Dissent is disagreement. Descent means going to a lower level; ancestral lineage.

There was dissent among the hikers about when to begin their descent.

3. desert vs. dessert

To desert means to leave without intending to return.

A desert is also a dry region without water.

Dessert is the good stuff after dinner.

Hint: You can remember how to spell dessert by thinking of the following phrase: Dessert is so sweet. “So” and “Sweet” both start with “s” and there are two of them, get it?  (Please get it. Don’t make me write two Ss, esses or s’s, which would be wrong anyway.)

4. council vs. counsel

A council is a group of people, as on a board of directors or government committee.

Counsel is advice, or anyone whose advice is sought.

Lawyers are often called counselors. Guidance counselors give college advice to high school students.

5.  farther vs. further 

Although these two are nearly interchangeable,  farther refers to distance;  and further refers to quality or time.

You can drive farther than you did yesterday.

You can pursue an argument further.

6.  insight vs. incite

Insight refers to understanding or perception, intuition or awareness.

To incite is to move to action, urge, set in motion.

7.  palette vs. palate 

A palette is a group of color choices, or a selection of paints on an artist’s board.

Your palate refers to your sense of taste.

8.  amoral vs. immoral

People are amoral if they show no sense of right or wrong. Refers to a person.

Immoral refers to an act or behavior done without concern for right or wrong.

9. adverse vs. averse

Adverse means unfavorable, harmful contrary, opposite.

Averse means opposed or not inclined.

10.  compose vs. comprise 

Compose means to make up or be a part of. 

To comprise is to include or enclose.

Grammar Girl gives a clear explanation here of how the parts compose the whole, but the whole comprises the parts.

Many ethnic groups compose our nation.

Notice in this sentence that the parts come before the whole. If you wanted to start the sentence with the words “our nation,” guess which verb you’d have to use instead? Our friend “comprise”:

Our nation comprises many ethnic groups.

11. tortuous vs. torturous

Both words are related to “twist.”

Tortuous means full of twists and turns, winding, convoluted.

Torturous means inflicting of severe pain, causing torture.

A winding road is tortuous. A visit to the emergency room can be torturous. If you have a broken collarbone and six fractured ribs, a tortuous ride to the hospital is torturous.

12.  eminent vs. imminent

Eminent describes a person who is famous and respected in an area or profession.

Imminent means something is about to happen; impending, forthcoming.

The eminent blogger’s wealth was imminent.


I hope that all these confusing word pairs are now much clearer to you. If not, you could go with Lorraine (pictured above with the dictionary hat) and ask her friend Helena for help. She looks like a lady who answers a lot of questions.





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