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Not-Identical Twins

The English language contains a lot of words that are synonyms, meaning, in most cases, that either may be used in your sentence without the meaning of the sentence being in any way altered.

Naturally, words that are not synonyms cannot be interchanged without, at best, changing the meaning of the sentence and, more commonly, making the sentence wrong and the sentence-writer look less than attractive as a writer, less than trenchant as a thinker.

A good place to avoid, if at all possible.

Sometimes differences between words that are not interchangeable are subtle. If you care, you attend to these.

Below I have listed and attempt to distinguish a sampling of these not-interchangeable twins. I expect more will appear as time flies by. Your suggestions would be welcome, were you able to reach me. (You will be, at some point!)



Generally, you can tell these two words apart by their usage. Effect is generally used as a noun: The effect of the gag order was to dry up the presses.
Affect is generally used as a verb: We didn't think that the gag order would affect us that much.
Be aware that, yes, there is one towering exception to the "affect-is-a-verb" guideline, and that is when psychiatrists and psychologists use the word.

In the psychological sense, "affect" is a noun meaning feeling or emotion. As such, you will usually see it following a proper noun or pronoun, as follows: His affect was flat and disinterested.
You could also see, and written quite correctly: His effect was felt for years afterwards.
The circumstances under which the noun "affect" might be seen are narrow—referring as you saw to the physical manifestation of an emotional state.

Thus do "effect, the noun" and "affect, the noun", avoid being identical. If you haven't been exposed to the alternate meaning of "affect" before it may appear difficult to discern differences in those last two examples, but you may never again be faced with the like.

So, for all practical purposes, "effect" will wear the raiment of a noun and "affect" will ever dress as a verb.


Here I am using the many-flavored verb compose in the sense of making something or constructing. In this sense, it often takes the preposition of: Something is composed of something, be it bricks or brain cells or whey.
Au contraire, the accepted-in-polite-circles definition of comprise" is to include or contain something. It conveys a sense of a whole composed of various parts: The town comprised a church, a bar, and a laundromat, but nobody lived in town.
When comprise is used with the preposition of, the controversial alternate definition of comprise, to constitute, is being used (whether or not, and usually not, the author realizes it).

But not in this town!

Picture the difference between being part of something and containing something—this is like the difference between being part of a jar of peanut butter (label, lid, jar, and contents) and containing a jar of peanut butter (ditto).

When I say I could eat a whole jar of peanut butter, I mean what it is composed of, not what it comprises.


Continual means recurring frequently and usually regularly. The tolling of a bell, until it stops, might be continual.

Continuous means occurring without either changing or stopping. The wailing of a siren is continuous, until it stops.

Given the prepositional phrase "until it stops" in both of the above sentences, what then is the difference? Toll. Toll. Toll. Toll. Toll. Silence.
Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiillllll, silence
(The difference in placement of the two prepositional phrases is somewhat more subtle.)

Many people don't realize that "continual" and "continuous" are not synonyms. Now you can count yourself out of that group.


You may think at first glance that it would be impossible to mix those two simple words up. It happens more than you might think.

Few is an adjective applied to numbers—more than one but not a whole lot; something that can be counted, something discrete: a few pennies
a few teardrops
a few more bombs, what the hay

Little, on the other hand, is applied to something uncountable, or not separate and discrete like pennies: a little milk
a little bit
a little snarl

Need a more succinct distinguisher? How about this: Few modifies plural nouns
Little modifies singular nouns.

The same goes for many and much. span class="b">She ate a few too many peanuts and drank much too much beer. Many modifies plural nouns
Much modifies singular nouns.

While we're at it, do you believe "that" and "which" are interchangeable? As in, The boy's shoes which were untied did not fit his feet.
(Groan.) Which took a whole separate page!

Its and It's

This pair is so often interchanged they probably get confused themselves.

This—its—is a special case of possession (but needs no exorcism). Its is the possessive of it— meaning its possessions: Its breath is fetid;

its skin is hoary;

its teeth are long and bloody;

it's been a long day but,
we think it best not cooked for dinner.

As you might have noticed in the fourth line above, i-t-s contains an apostrophe, indicating that a contraction of two words into one is even then occurring. So how do you keep the two i-t-s straight? Or at least apart?

Yes, it's true that an apostrophe can indicate possession; it usually indicates possession in both singular (Mary's father's truck) and plural (the birds' chatter) nouns, and I fully admit that in the case of i-t-s this departure into a case of possession sans apostrophe is confusing, but in this case—when "it possesses" something (real-life example: "to find and execute code within its process")—there is no apostrophe in its. Why not? I couldn't say. I didn't concoct the rule.

Think of it this way. If the possessive "its" indeed did have an apostrophe, how could we tell it from the contraction of "it is"? Who knows (and somebody probably does), but maybe that's why the apostrophe-less possessive its came to be.

Speaking of contractions, you are, a noun and verb often in each others' company, become contracted to you're. If you're confused about that, I've got just the nostruma medicine of secret composition lacking proof of success, but I never promised you a rose garden for you.


How these two words are different (or, stated another way, why someone took it upon him- or herself to invent "restive" when we already had "restless"), I really can't say.

Restless of course means in motion, worried and uneasy, unable to relax.

Contrast this (if you can) with restive, which means impatient, especially under restriction or constraint. I don't see much difference there, do you? Well, there is a smidgen of difference arising from the restriction or constraint that more narrowly defines restive.

So I suppose that, if you find yourself feeling restless when your airplane sits on the tarmac idling for four hours, you are in fact feeling . . .

Wait—Here's a better one.

You've served seven years of a 14-year sentence, no parole (hey, maybe no habeas corpus these jack-boot days). You gaze longingly between the dark bars of the tiny, high-up window and into the gray veil of smog that always lies beyond, and somebody will be lucky if you can feel restive instead of less-benign alternatives.


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