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Confusing & misunderstood words and phrases

Grammar Note

When you do have the occasion to use a.m. and p.m., however, remember that 'a.m.' essentially means morning, and 'p.m.' means night, so you never need to say, for example: "I take a walk every morning at 9 a.m.  Otherwise, you're saying 'morning' twice.  Likewise, don't say "I'll see you tonight at 10 p.m.  Actually you normally don't even have to use 'a.m.' and 'p.m.' as long as the meaning is clear.  Why say "I get up at 9 a.m. on school days?  We can assume you get up in the morning and go to bed at night....UNLESS you say differently!.

Grammar Note

Generally, we do not include articles with meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper) unless accompanied by an adjective. For example, we would say "I had dinner" or "I'll buy lunch."  However, with description, we'll add "a" or "the." For example, "I just want a light lunch," or "The dinner that I had last night was delicious."

dinner vs. supper. Although the usage of these terms vary somewhat, regionally, the definition of the words is fairly clear: Supper is the evening meal, and dinner is the largest meal of the day.  Since most people have their largest meal in the evening, those meals are technically both dinner (largest) and supper (evening), though dinner is used more often.  Americans traditionally might have holiday feasts (at Christmas or Thanksgiving) in the middle of the day, then snack later that same day. On those ocassions, they might say "I had Thanksgiving dinner at 1:00, and a light supper at 8:00 that same day.*

12 a.m. and 12 p.m.   Although many people use these designations, technically they're wrong, since a.m. acutally means before noon, and p.m. means after noon. It is impossible to be exactly 12 o'clock, AND before or after 12 at the same time. To be accurate and proper, use noon and midnight.

affect vs. effect   (n., v.) These are essentially just two different forms of the same word; affect is the verb, and effect is nearly always the noun.  An example:  "How does the sun affect your mood?" and "What is the effect of the sun on your mood."  Both sentences convey the same thought, but the first one uses the verb form, affect, and the second one uses the noun form, effect. Effect is also sometimes used as a verb, meaning to bring about, and often followed by the word 'change.'   "The best way to effect change in this world is to take part in protests."    

cheap vs. inexpensive  (adj.) Originally, when used to describe objects, the word cheap meant poorly made, but since so many poorly made products are also inexpensive, the two words are sometimes seen as synonyms, and only in context can the reader understand your true meaning. If your new economy car breaks down, you might say "Ah! Cheap piece of junk!" In this case, we mean it wasn't made well. It is not of good quality. If, however, you say "Chicken, only 30 cents a drumstick? That's really cheap!" Then, in this case, you mean inexpensiveCheap as a synonym for inexpensive is more commonly used in speech, with inexpensive considered more proper in formal writing.

frugal vs. cheap  (adj.) When using them to describe a person, both of these words mean being careful with money. It's the usage that is different.  Frugal has a positive connotation.  "Because she was so frugal, she was able to put herself through college without borrowing money."   Cheap, on the other, is an insulting way to describe the same thing.  "I couldn't believe it when my husband took me out to McDonald's for our 10th anniversary!  He is so cheap!"

Vocabulary Note

English lacks an inclusive word for all animals' flesh.  Technically, most now define meat as beef, deer, and pork, poultry as chicken, duck and geese, and fish/seafood.  Some use the word 'protein' to include all animals.

vegan vs. vegetarian. (n.) The word vegan means what vegetarian used to mean--a person who does not eat animals, or products that come from animals, including milk, eggs and cheese.  The word vegetarian has changed in common usage to mean a person who doesn't eat animals, but will eat products that come from animals, such as milk.  Some so-called vegetarians may eat fish, but as fish are animals, too, these people would not truthfully be vegetarians.  They may more accurately be called vegetarian "wannabes."

foreign vs. international  (adj.) The word foreign is gradually falling out of favor, it seems, and it's too bad.  It's one of the only words that means "something or someone from another place, particularly another country."   Some people say that it has  negative connotations, as in: "Oh gross! There's a foreign object in my soup!"   This however, simply means, something from another place.  In recent years, the trend has been to substitute the word foreign for international, a trend that is unfortunate, as the two words mean entirely different things.  Some universities have even renamed their foreign student office in favor of the less syntactically correct (yet apparently more politically correct) international student office.   A foreign student is a student who comes to study from another place.  An international student would  describe someone who goes to school in many countries, all over the world.

compliment vs. complement    (n, v.) To compliment someone is to say something nice: "You have such a beautiful smile!" "Thank you! What a nice compliment!"   As an adjective, it can also mean "at no extra cost," as in "This hotel offers a complimentary breakfast in the lobby." To complement means to go well together with.    "Your red shirt complements your gray pants." (They look good together) 

literal     Horribly overused and misused lately, the word literal means that you are not speaking metaphorically.  You are emphasizing that the actual words you are using, incredible as they may seem, are 100% truthful and accurate. For example, If someone says "I told you a million times to do your homework," we understand that it is mere hyperbole.  It's an exaggeration to emphasize a mother's impatience with her child.  But what if she said "do your homework" 10 times an hour, for 10 hours a day, over the course of the three years?  She has literally told her child a million times.  Likewise, if someone wishes to indicate extreme shock, he might say "If she marries that motorcycle guy, I'm going to have a heart attack."    What he really means is that he does not approve of the marriage.  However, if he was so incensed at the wedding that he had a heart attack right there and then, one could say "He literally dropped dead."      You would never say "his head literally exploded" unless it was splattered all over the wall. Some people use the word literal when they want the word virtual, meaning to give the appearance of.  If a concert is well attended you might say "Virtually the whole town came to the concert."  If literally the entire town came, that means not a single person is left at home.  That's obviously not true, though it may appear that way.

unique     This word comes from the root meaning 'one.'  It means that it is the only one in the world.  It's strange, therefore, when someone says "She's a unique individual."  Technically, all of us are unique, in that no one is exactly the same.  In cases like this, they might mean extraordinary, unusual, special or rare.  The planet Earth, for example is unique; most works of art are unique--if not, they are likely a craft, not a piece of art. Save the word unique for something that is truly different from anything you know

imitation / counterfeit / fake / faux / mock  (adj.)  All of these words mean 'not real,' but they are used in slightly different ways. imitation or faux (pronounced FO) generally have positive connotations.  The intent is not to fool anyone, but to let everyone know it is not the real thing.  Imitation vanilla, for example, is cheaper than actual vanilla; margarine is imitation butter; faux fur satisfies animal rights activists. Fake and counterfeit are not real, but are usually used in the negative sense, in trying to deceive.  A fake I.D. might be used, for example, to get into a club. The word counterfeit is generally reserved for extremely valuable items, such as famous paintings, jewelry and money. Mock is usually used to give people practice before experiencing the real thing, like a mock election, or a mock trial.

Feminine / Effeminate  (adj.)  The word feminine usually has positive implications, and is used to describe people and objects which  are like the standard perception of what a woman should be--soft, pretty, floral, etc.  It is most often used to describe women, as "she dresses very femininelyEffeminate, on the other hand, has a mostly negative connoation, and is most often used to describe men who look or act in a way that reminds them of women, as in "He looks rather effeminate in that frilly pink top." 

American Indian / Native American  (noun)  The term American Indian as we know, was based on the false perception that Columbus had landed in the Indies, not knowing that a continent stood in the way.  Partly for this reason, It's been fashionable over the past few decades to instead use the term Native Americans.  This, however, is fraught with even more issues.  First, a native is a person who is born in a particular place and has nothing to do with race.  Secondly, Indians on the reservation do not refer to themselves as Native Americans.  It's a white person's construct.  They generally prefer to be known as members of a particular tribe, but for the people as a whole, they typically use the term Amerian Indian.  In fact, the museum in Washington DC is named The Museum of The American Indian.

This website is still very new and we are constantly expanding. Please check back soon for more confusing words, such as:

  • college vs. university

  • house vs. home

  • large vs. vast

  • ultimate

  • native vs. immigrant vs. aboriginee

  • asian

  • date vs. appointment

  • holiday vs. vacation

  • transvestite, transgender

professional editing and English resources

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