Avoid flaunting your confusion

Posted by on November 29, 2011

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?

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Comments (7)
  • Stan:
    All of these words seem to have lives of their own. No matter how often commentators write about them, the same mistakes occur over and over. As an editor, it used to drive me up a wall. I was always particularly crazed by the confusion over affect and effect, or should I say, affected by the confusion, which created a crazed effect on me?

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 29th November, 2011
  • I agree with Marc – they have lives of their own. Our corpus data suggests the problem lies with ‘flaunt’ (‘flout’ appears to be used correctly in 99% of cases). The typical objects of ‘flaunt’ include things like ‘wealth’ or ‘glamour’, but the two most frequent are ‘law’ and ‘rule’. Here’s an example from a Scottish county council website: “We will take action against those who flaunt the law or cause unnecessary obstruction”. A possible source of confusion is suggested by the adverbs that frequently go with these verbs: words like ‘brazenly’, ‘openly’, ‘blatantly’ and ‘shamelessly’ are found with both verbs and work equally well with either meaning.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 29th November, 2011
  • Marc: Yes, a certain amount of confusion seems unavoidable. My old post on affect vs. effect has examples of the error in newspapers and even in a book. I think if writers know they’re not sure which is which, they owe it to their readers to learn the difference. Maybe that’s old-fashioned of me!

    Michael: That’s a good point. What the words tend to collocate with probably contributes, in some cases, to their getting mixed up. Certainly it seems likely with flaunt and flout for the reason you say. The Scottish county council you mention could have done with a proofreader…

    Posted by Stan on 29th November, 2011
  • The e in stationery can be tied to letter and envelope

    This is an interesting distinction between our respective primary schools, because I always heard it tied to “pen”. (The a in stationary wasn’t tied to anything; it was just “the other one”, and of course, you don’t need to tie it to anything if it’s stationary.)

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 30th November, 2011
  • That is interesting, Adrian. Maybe pen wasn’t included in our mnemonic because we called them biros (and we called vacuum cleaners “hoovers”). It was only later that I realized these were eponyms, and that pen was the more generally used term.
    I’ve seen stationery companies call themselves stationary companies, which doesn’t inspire confidence.

    Posted by Stan on 30th November, 2011
  • re ‘stationery’ just remember that ‘paper’ ends with ‘er’

    Posted by Mary Horgan on 7th December, 2011
  • That’s another handy one, Mary. Thanks.

    Posted by Stan on 8th December, 2011
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