This is the fourth in a series of posts on word pairs that frequently get confused, abused, or misused in written and spoken English. Thanks to everyone who has sent in False Friends suggestions; if you don't see your contributions here, look for them in a future installment.
- Ambiguous/Ambivalent: The two words share the Latin prefix that means "both," but they are used to describe different states. Ambiguous applies to situations; it means "unclear" or "undefined." Ambivalent is used with people; it describes the condition of being torn between two (and generally only two) opposing views. Here's a somewhat contrived example to illustrate the distinction: "Our policy on recycling is ambiguous, and the CEO says she's ambivalent about whether or not to clarify it."
- Perspective/Prospective: Perspective is a noun that originally meant "the science of optics"--a useful mnemonic, because perspective relates to vision. A perspective may be an outlook, a point of view, or the ability to perceive things in context ("Let's try to keep our perspective during this transition"). Prospective is an adjective that refers to the future, or one's prospects: You pitch an ad campaign to prospective clients, or send fundraising letters to prospective donors.
- Nonplussed/Nonchalant. These words are non-synonyms, but nonplussed--which means "bewildered" or "unable to go further" (non + plus = no more)--is frequently misused to mean unperturbed or unfazed or even calm. Those latter meanings are properly attached to nonchalant, from French words meaning "not heated"--that is, cool. Chalant is related etymologically to calorie, and that's your mnemonic. No-calorie emotion is nonchalance. When your mind is boggled--plus!--you're nonplussed.
- Oral/Verbal. When I hear "Could you deliver that verbally?" I'm always a bit, well, nonplussed--especially when I learn that the questioner wants me to speak, not write. Oral means "spoken by mouth" (its origin is Latin os or or-, meaning mouth; think of an oral themometer). Verbal means simply "in words." (In grammar lingo, it means "with verbs," as in "a verbal suffix.") The confusion stems from the fact that verbal has indeed been used over the centuries to mean spoken. When there's a possibility of ambiguity (not, I hasten to add, ambivalence), use oral to mean spoken and verbal to mean more generally "associated with words," as in "a verbal distinction" (not associated with content or ideas) or "a verbal confrontation" (without fisticuffs or weapons).
- Hark/Hearken: Hark and hearken are nearly synonymous (both come from Middle English harken) but are used differently. Hark back means "to return to a previous place in a narrative": "Her use of blog entries harks back to older forms of the epistolary novel." Hark!--used as an imperative verb--is a quaint way to say "Listen!" And so is hearken, although not as an imperative. (I learned the difference between hark and hearken by associating the "e" in hearken with ear.) Hearken back is incorrect, and harken (in an email from Springwise: "At Grom, gelato flavours based on seasonality harken back to times when storing perishable ingredients wasn't feasible") is a non-word.
- Comprise/Compose. Let's make this simple: Avoid saying or writing "comprised of" and you'll be fine. Comprise is closely related to comprehend in the sense of include. Here's your mantra: The whole comprises the parts. A team comprises its members--it isn't "comprised of" them. It's also OK to say "A team is composed of its members." For a whole lot more on this subject, from a bona fide linguist, see Michael Covarrubias's post on his blog, Wishydig.
Read False Friends the Second.
Read False Friends the Third.