04 February 2020

Words you think are synonyms--but they're not!

Are there some word choices that drive you nuts? Or should that be crazy?

English is full of synonyms. And it's full of words that many people think are synonymous but actually aren't. For the sake of language purists out there, I'm going to touch on some of these words that often are used interchangeably but shouldn't be.

Eager versus Anxious

Anxious has anxiety wound up in it. (Notice the first four letters in both words are the same!) If you are anxious about something that may happen or that will happen, you are worried about it. Eager, in contrast, has a positive connotation. If you are eager for something to happen, you are ... well, eager. Looking forward to it. So if you lost a tooth and know the tooth fairy always brings you a tidy sum, you are eager for the morning to come so you can check under your pillow. But if you are afraid of the dentist and need to have a tooth pulled, you are anxious about your upcoming appointment.

Convince versus Persuade

The difference here is subtle. You persuade someone else to do something. You convince someone that something is true. Persuade has an action element to it. Convince doesn't. So just remember: persuade to versus convince that. Example: I persuaded the love of my life to marry me by convincing him that I was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Currently versus Presently

Currently means something is happening right now. Presently means something is about to happen. I understand why people think these words are synonyms. The word presently sure sounds like it should mean in the present, but it doesn't. Example 1: Currently I am typing. I am about to finish this paragraph, and presently I'll begin the next one. Example 2: When a plane is a minute from landing, it currently is in the air but presently it will be landing.

Momentarily versus In a Moment

Momentarily addresses how long something is going to happen--for a moment. The term in a moment addresses when something is going to happen. Example 1: In a moment I'm going to pause momentarily (i.e., for a moment) to take a drink of water. Example 2: The terminally ill man may die in a moment or any moment now. But he's not going to die momentarily unless you expect he'll die and then come back to life soon after.

Historic versus Historical

If something is historic, it has importance in history. If something is historical, it happened in an earlier period of history. The election of the first female president of the United States will be historic. The mystery novel set in the year 1900 is considered historical.

Do you have any words you often see used as synonyms that shouldn't be? Please share in the comments.

And a little BSP:

I'm delighted that my short story "Alex's Choice" has been nominated for the Agatha Award this year. The story appeared in the anthology Crime Travel. You can read it on my website by clicking here. I'm nominated along with some fine writers: Kaye George, Cynthia Kuhn, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. The attendees of the Malice Domestic convention will vote on the winner during the convention in May. Links to all the nominated stories are available on the Malice website, which you can reach by clicking here. Then scroll down to the story titles.


  1. Congratulations on the Agatha nomination and best of luck with the story.

  2. Congratulations on the Agatha nom, Barb! And your word list really got me thinking.

  3. Congratulations on the Agatha nomination, Barb!

  4. Congratulations again on the nomination, Barb!
    "Nauseated/nauseaus"confusion bothers me to no end.I get nauseated when people say that they are nauseaus, (although sometimes they are telling the trusth without realizing it.)
    "Bring" and "take" are used interchageably, actually few people use 'take' anymore, have you noticed? The 'bring' everything everywhere and it drives me bonkers.
    Oh,I could go on, but I won't be nauseous.

  5. Congratulations on the Agatha nomination. Also, I love this kind of post--fighting to preserve the English language one word at a time. One of my bugaboos is fulsome used to mean lavish, instead of false, praise.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and for your congratulations regarding the nomination. It's much appreciated.

    Tonette, yes, the difference between nauseated and nauseous is something most people don't seem to know. In fact, I think most people don't know nauseated at all and instead think nauseous means feeling sickly, instead of making other people feel sickly.

    Susan, I thought fulsome could mean both of those things, depending on the context. No?

  7. Congrats Barb on Agatha nomination.

  8. Good list, Barb. The more we play, the more we learn.

    A troublesome pair I feel I never get right is sensuous v sensual. As far back as high school, I never feel 100% comfortable I selected the right one. Any tips?

    Congratulations about your story! I love 'em.

  9. Misused pair: fewer and less. Less is often used when fewer is correct (when the objects are countable). Jill ate less pie than Joe. Joe ate fewer cookies that Jill.
    Thanks for the discussion. I wasn't aware of the precise meaning of momentarily. Congratulations on the nomination, Barb!

  10. Congratulations on being nominated, and thank you for this helpful post.

  11. Thanks, Shelly, Leigh, Maya, and Dave. Much appreciated!

    And Leigh, I never thought about sensuous versus sensual. What does Google say?

  12. Well, according to the Dean's wife in Animal House, "vegetables are sensual. People are sensuous."

  13. Eve, that reminds me of a British Durex advert… which I dare not mention.


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