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Word Choice: Similar Words or Similar Meanings?

Our rich, annoying language has many words whose meanings are subtly distinct. It also has many words with similar spellings. Sometimes the two intersect and we get a double whammy of confusion. Today, we look at two pairs of words we suspect are trying to catch us out.

The first is recur and reoccur, which look similar written down and overlap in meaning. The second is compliment and complement, which are even closer in spelling and pronunciation but differ more significantly in meaning. So, then, how do these terms work?

Recur vs. Reoccur

Both recur and reoccur mean happen again. These terms are thus often interchangeable, such as in the example sentences below:

Symptoms may reoccur if treatment is discontinued.

Symptoms may recur if treatment is discontinued.

Here, both 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.

Consequently, you should consider frequency when using recur and reoccur.

Compliment vs. Complement

Unlike the terms above, compliment and complement are never synonymous. But people still confuse them, so it’s important for proofreaders to know their distinct meanings.

To compliment someone is to say something flattering or kind. A flattering remark is thus complimentary. Another use of complimentary, though, is to mean free of charge. And a complimentary compliment would be a kind word offered for free.

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

All these words are commonly misused, so it’s important to watch out for them when proofreading. And, as always, if you are unsure what a client 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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