Sometimes nature reports come from unexpected sources. The Twitter account of Iarnród Éireann, Ireland’s national railway system, recently posted a picture of a visitor to their tracks, accompanied by the description: “Another prosecution as Frog flaunts trespassing laws!”
The company is to be applauded for sharing wildlife photos with light-hearted humour, but its word choice raises a minor problem. What was meant was not flaunts but flouts. To flaunt is to show off; to flout is to deliberately ignore a rule or convention.
It’s an easy mistake to make: the two words are similar, and neither is especially common. We read them now and then in print, but I think most people would go a long time without using either, if they ever did at all.
There are many pairs of words whose meanings persistently elude or confuse us, sending us on repeat visits to the same page of a dictionary. For some, it’s compliment and complement; for others, appraise and apprise, chord and cord, altar and alter, militate and mitigate, pedal and peddle, insidious and invidious, or comprise and compose (ignoring those meanings of compose that are never confused with comprise).
One way to resolve such uncertainty is by using a mnemonic: a memory aid in the form of a line, rhyme, formula, or image. To remember that flaunt means show off, for example, you could think of the aunt in flaunt and picture your aunt behaving ostentatiously. To make it doubly effective, address the other word in the pair, too: notice the lout in flout and think of a lout flouting the law – cocking a snook at police.
It needn’t be an elaborate image – a single letter can suffice. The e in stationery can be tied to letter and envelope, the a in stationary to car and van. (I’ve used this one since primary school.)
Mnemonics can help us only if we put them to work. First we need to be aware that there’s a difficulty, and to take responsibility for it. The tricks we devise can be personally meaningful or arbitrary and absurd, so long as they’re readily brought to mind. The more memorable they are, the more reliably they’ll do the job.
If you can’t think of a mnemonic, another strategy is to list troublesome words and write brief definitions or synonyms on a page near your desk. Consult it often enough, and eventually the meanings will come to you automatically, which will help you save effort and avoid frustration.
Are there word pairs you struggle to distinguish? What techniques do you use?Email this Post