Words are all we have when it comes to writing and speaking, and that can be a problem when we don’t use them as precisely as we otherwise could. Our job is to take our readers and listeners to a high clearing from which they can have an unobstructed view of our ideas—and we do that by using just the right word in the right way at the right time. That’s not something we achieve in a first draft, so when we revise (which is something good writers always do), we make sure we’ve used the correct word, or haven’t used one that doesn’t even exist. Here are a few confusions to watch for.
We compliment someone when we praise or congratulate them, but we complement a dinner when we finish with the right dessert: to compliment means to praise, and to complement means to complete (something we can remember by seeing that both complement and complete have the letter e). And if you’re enjoying that dinner in the hot summer of August, you might run the air conditioner continually throughout the evening, and I might run it continuously: continually means repeatedly, continuously means without interruption. We go to the dentist with a few symptoms and leave (with any luck) with less pain; we use the word fewer with things we can count, the word less with things we can’t.
If I need to talk with you about a problem I’m having, am I looking for your counsel or council? Counsel is advice or guidance; council is a formal meeting where policy and problems are discussed. If you show me a rock and I say it’s paper, is that an illusion or a delusion? An illusion is a misperception (as in the phrase optical illusion); there might be something wrong with my eyes that can account for my mistaking rock for paper. A delusion, on the other hand, is something I falsely believe, even when my eyes tell me otherwise. Do I understand or do I believe that God created the world? To understand something is to comprehend the significance of it; to believe is to accept it as true. If I don’t think as you do, am I skeptical or cynical? To be skeptical means to be doubtful about something, perhaps with good reason; to be cynical means to have the mind of a cynic, someone who is critical of everything everywhere, and believes that human beings do very little that is not in their own self-interest. And is it likely that a cynic is an egoist or an egotist? An egoist believes in the value of a just and proper self-interest; an egotist holds that same belief a little too much—it’s always about him. And irregardless? It’s not even a word in standard English.
Worrying like this about words has nothing to do with grammatical etiquette. These distinctions are important not because rules are rules, but because writing and speaking clearly is a difficult business: it’s just too easy to get lost in the bramble of ideas, and so a little care to keep our words in good working condition will help both our readers and ourselves see just what we are trying to say. To think clearly means to make meaningful distinctions. This guards us against subscribing to vast and silly generalizations that are attractive at first because of their emotional appeal, but which don’t make any sense when we ask more questions. We think with language, and words represent the ideas we think with, so if we watch our words and the distinctions they make, we can test the quality of our thinking—and examine more closely the thoughts of others on whom our own peace and happiness can often depend.