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Word Choice: Similar Words or Similar Meanings

Our rich and annoying language has many words whose meanings are subtly distinct. It also has many words with similar spellings. Sometimes the two intersect, and we’re faced with a double whammy of confusion. Today we look at three sets of words that we suspect are only there to try to catch us out.

 Clever vs. Intelligent

In some circumstances, the words clever and intelligent can be used interchangeably. Indeed, in everyday speech or informal writing, when a person is described as clever, this often means they are intelligent. But there are some important differences between these words.

Someone who is intelligent is intellectual. They have a strong mental capacity. The word intelligent is not generally used to describe other skills, such as manual or artistic abilities. However, it can be used in phrases such as an intelligent use of your time.

Someone who is clever may be intellectual, but they may (for instance) be skilled or streetwise. This word can also be used to describe the skill or activity rather than the person who possesses or performs it. Clever is therefore a broader term than intelligent.

Blowing hummingbird bubbles: that’s a clever trick!

Recur vs. Reoccur

Both recur and reoccur mean to happen again. Take the two examples below:

            Symptoms may reoccur if treatment is discontinued.

            Symptoms may recur if treatment is discontinued.

Here, the two terms are interchangeable. Both examples mean that a person may experience their symptoms again if they stop treatment.

The distinction between recur and reoccur relates to frequency. Something that reoccurs simply happens again: there is no indication of how frequently it happens. Indeed, it may be that something has only happened twice:

The patient’s back problems reoccurred the following summer.

The word recur can be used when something has only happened twice, too, but it more typically suggests that something happens repeatedly or regularly:

I have a recurring dream that I’m doing a post-apocalyptic giant dog photo-shoot.

I wonder how soon the use of this particular stock photo will reoccur.

Compliment vs. Complement

Unlike the terms above, compliment and complement are never synonymous. But they’re still often confused, so it’s important for proofreaders to know their distinct meanings.

To compliment someone is to say something flattering or kind to or about them. A flattering remark is thus complimentary. Another use of complimentary, though, is to mean free of charge.

When something combines with or augments something else to good effect, it is complementary. And when all members of a group or set are present, it is described as a full complement.

As always, if you are unsure of what a customer is trying to say, leave them a comment asking them to clarify their meaning or check your changes.

If you find yourself complimenting the shopkeeper on his full complement of complimentary sweets, you may want to consult a thesaurus.

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