7 Similarly Spelled Word Pairs With Very Different Meanings

Thursday, August 33 min read

As with “dessert” and “desert,” some word pairs look and sound almost identical but have very different meanings. They are not true homonyms, but they are pretty close. Such is the case with the previously mentioned pair, which makes the phrase, “I’m eating desserts in the desert,” possible. The speaker is eating some tasty sweets (desserts) in a dry, barren place (the desert). What makes that pair (and the others below) so tricky is that the definitions are completely different and unrelated, which can lead to some confusing mix-ups.

Allusion vs. Illusion

An allusion (noun) is something that’s being referenced without being mentioned directly: “The swordfish’s name is undoubtedly an allusion to its long bill.” It’s also a popular literary tool used to indirectly reference a person, event, or thing, as in, “The author was known for her Shakespearean allusions.”

An illusion (noun) is something that is incorrectly interpreted or perceived, e.g., optical illusions. “The dark paint gives the illusion of a higher ceiling.” It can also refer to a deceptive appearance, as in, “The photos gave the illusion of a bigger crowd.”

Appraise vs. Apprise

“Appraise” (verb) means “to assess the value, quality, or price of something.” For example, “They hope the inspector will appraise their house higher before putting it on the market,” or, “The painter stepped back to appraise his progress.”

“Apprise” (verb) means “to inform or tell someone,” as in, “She had to apprise her boss of the situation immediately.” These two words are often confused in American English for their similar spelling, but there is even more to this mix-up. In British English, “apprise” (or “apprize”) is an archaic verb meaning “put a price upon; appraise,” which is identical to the definition of “appraise” in American English. Know your audience when using these verbs to avoid confusion.

Elicit vs. Illicit

“Elicit” (verb) means “to draw out a response from someone,” as in, “The interviewer failed to elicit any further information from the mayor,” or, “Positive words elicit positive behavior.”

“Illicit” (adj.) describes something that is forbidden or illegal: “Prohibition caused an influx of illicit ‘bathtub gin’ production.” The word doesn’t always have to describe something that is against the law; it can also be something considered generally unacceptable, such as an “illicit love affair.”

Explicit vs. Implicit

“Explicit” (adj.) describes something that is clearly stated, usually in great detail, as in, “The product assembly instructions were written in explicit detail,” or, “The new parking laws were very explicit about weekend restrictions.”

“Implicit” (adj.) refers to something that is implied, not clearly stated — which is the opposite of “explicit.” For example, “The mayor saw the budget cut as implicit criticism of his time in office.” The confusion here can come from a secondary definition, because “implicit” can also mean something that is absolute or without a question (yet still implied), as in, “They put their implicit faith in religious beliefs.”

Historic vs. Historical

“Historic” (adj.) describes something that is famous or important in history, as in, “The historic Battle of Yorktown was the last major stand of the American Revolution,” or, “The Supreme Court released its historic decision today.”

“Historical” (adj.) can describe anything concerning past events — it does not have to be momentous. For example, “She was interested in the historical background of the case,” or, “The reenactors played historical instruments as they marched.” “Historic” has an implication of great importance, while “historical” can be used for everyday things.

Ingenious vs. Ingenuous

“Ingenious” (adj.) describes a clever or inventive person or thing: “Einstein is known for his ingenious theory of relativity,” or, “She was ingenious enough to correct the software error without delay.”

“Ingenuous” (adj.) is also an adjective, but it’s used to describe someone or something as innocent or unsuspecting, as in, “His ingenuous attitude suggested that he was innocent of the prank.” It can also mean naive or trusting: “It was ingenuous of her to leave the car unlocked all weekend.”

Stationary vs. Stationery

“Stationary” (adj.) describes something that is not moving, as in, “The car remained stationary due to the flat tire.” Less often, it describes something that is not changing in quantity or condition: “Research shows that the bird population remains stationary despite conservation efforts.”

“Stationery” (noun) refers to letter-writing materials, especially paper, but also many other products, including matching envelopes or RSVP cards: “They chose foil-pressed stationery for their wedding invitations.” Many of these word pairs just need to be committed to memory, but this one has a memory aid: The “e” in “stationery” matches up to the “e” in “letters.”

Feature image credit: Agnes Kantaruk/ Shutterstock

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