Say what you mean. Mean what you write.

I love words. Words impart the power to express yourself with nuance and clarity, but only if you use them correctly. Some words, as we know, sound similar to others but mean very different things. You might slip by in conversation, but if you write the wrong one, your ignorance glares out at the reader, possibly obscuring the meaning of a sentence and definitely causing the reader to pause and consider your writing ability, thinking:

Whenever I realize that I’ve been using words imprecisely, I take note, happy that I’ve discovered the error and a bit chagrined that I’ve likely made it several times. Below are four pairs of words I haven’t been using quite right, perhaps my confession will help you avoid the same mistake. All definitions are taken from the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Emersion v. Immersion

These two are opposites, yet sound the same. Kind of like emigration and immigration, where one means to leave and the other means to arrive, emersion is a process of exiting and immersion is a process of entering.

emersion (iˈmərZHən) noun

  • the process or state of emerging from or being out of water after being submerged.

Root word: emerge

immersion (iˈmərZHən, -SHən) noun 

  • the action of immersing someone or something in a liquid
  • deep mental involvement
  • a method of teaching a foreign language by the exclusive use of that language, usually at a special school.

Root word: immerse

Shear v. Sheer

Both shear and sheer can be a verb or a noun, and sheer may also be used as an adverb or an adjective. I was trying to use one in verb form, so those are the definitions I will list below. I discovered my ignorance on their difference when I was writing about shearing action in an earthquake fault. The two actually have similar origin, but should not be used interchangeably.

shear (SHi(ə)r) verb (past participle shorn |SHôrn| or sheared)

  • [ with obj. ] cut the wool off (a sheep or other animal).
    • cut off (something such as hair, wool, or grass), with scissors or shears: I’ll shear off all that fleece.
  • break off or cause to break off, owing to a structural strain: [ no obj. ] : the derailleur sheared and jammed in the rear wheel | [ with obj. ] : the left wing had been almost completely sheared off.

sheer (SHi(ə)r) verb – 

  • (typically of a boat or ship) swerve or change course quickly: the boat sheered off to beach further up the coast.
  • avoid or move away from an unpleasant topic: her mind sheered away from images she didn’t want to dwell on.

Revelry v. Revel in

I recently wanted to ask someone to join in my revelry, by which I meant extreme enjoyment of, but luckily looked up my usage before I sent the email. As it turns out a revelry is not necessarily the product of reveling in something.

revelry (ˈrevəlrē) noun – lively and noisy festivities, esp. when these involve drinking a large amount of alcohol: sounds of revelry issued into the night | New Year revelries.

revel in (ˈrevəl) verb – get great pleasure from (a situation or experience): Bill said he was secretly reveling in his new-found fame.

Oral v. Aural

A simple difference, and hard to distinguish when used verbally.

oral (ˈôrəl) adjective – of or relating to the mouth: oral hygiene.

aural (ˈôrəl) adjective – of or relating to the ear or the sense of hearing: aural anatomy.

If these word pairs have your inner wordsmith riled up, you might like to take a look at these thesaurus visualization websites that show networks of word definitions:

  1. Visuwords – visuwords.com
  2. The Visual Thesaurus – visualthesaurus.com
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