The right word, used at the right time, can make all the difference. And the wrong word can lead you into trouble, especially if the definition of the word changes the meaning of what you really wanted to say. That’s why it’s so important to practice new words and use them in sentences so that you’re sure of their meaning. Look up examples of how other people have used them, and write out a few short paragraphs or phrases to lock the proper definition in your head before you allow the words to come out of your mouth (or through your fingers, if you’re typing). The three word pair examples below show how similar-sounding words can lead to very different conclusions on the part of your listener or reader.
distinct and distinctive
Distinct means “easy to see, clear.” Distinctive means “special, unique.” If you’re trying to describe the individual characteristic of something that makes it stand out from a group, you’ll want to use the second word.
Example: The distinctive “swoosh” of the Nike logo can be seen on many professional athletes’ shoes, and some say that the design of those shoes gives them a distinct advantage in competition.
rave and raving
Here’s an example of the need to know how words are used, and not just what they mean. The verb “to rave” becomes the verb “he is raving,” and has a negative sense, often meaning “complaining about” or “talking angrily.” However, the adjective rave is always positive. While some people do say “raving about” to mean “praising” it’s more likely that they’re criticizing something rather than giving it high marks.
Example: One critic gave the play a rave review, but most of the other reviewers were raving on about the poor quality of the acting, and half of the audience walked out in the middle of the opening night performance.
repeatedly and repetitively
Our last word pair also highlights a negative-vs.-positive use of words that essentially mean the same thing otherwise. If you do something repeatedly you’re doing it over and over, but if you do it repetitively it implies that this is not a productive or useful action.
Example: You need to repeatedly practice new vocabulary words until you’re sure you know exactly how you use them, or you may find you are repetitively making the same mistakes again and again.