LawProse Lesson #284: A short quiz on lexical distinctions.

Few things are more embarrassing for a professional writer or speaker than to use a wrong word. It’s like a professional musician’s hitting a wrong note. You reach into your mind for a word and end up grabbing the one next to it instead. Because the English language is so full of pairs or even groups of nearly identical words, pitfalls abound. Many of these are needless variants—for instance, *disorientated for disoriented. But many others are products of what linguists call “differentiation”: the process by which similar words (usually sharing a common etymology) gradually take on distinct connotations and even definitions—think of collegiate (associated with college) and collegial (associated with colleague). Some of these differentiations result merely in differences of nuance or context; others create wholly separate (or even opposite) meanings.

Here are five questions of lexical distinction that can trip up even the most careful writers. Try your hand first and then check the answers at the end.

  1. At 16, Susan was emancipated from her [(a) adopted; (b) adoptive] parents.
  2. “Is that really the best you can do?” he asked in a [(a) derisory; (b) derisive] tone.
  3. In her closing argument, she employed pathos with a [(a) masterly; (b) masterful] hand to engage the jurors’ sympathies.
  4. The mediators managed to bring the parties to an [(a) amicable; (b) amiable] resolution.
  5. Ultimately, all the claims rest on an alleged June 9 conversation between Mayo and Lowen—a conversation that is entirely [(a) fictional; (b) fictitious].


Answers: 1. (b). Adopted children but adoptive parents. 2. (b). Derisive means “expressing derision”; derisory means “worthy of derision.” 3. (a). Past masters are masterly; tyrants are masterful. 4. (a). People are amiable; relationships are amicable. 5. (b). Fictitious means “false” or “imaginary”; fictional means “involving the literary genres of fiction.”

Did you hesitate before answering? You’ll find a detailed discussion on each of these points and more in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed. 2016).

If you enjoyed this quiz, check out the new Garner’s Modern English Usage mobile app, available on the App Store and Google Play. The app contains the full text of the 1,056-page 4th edition (2016), with over 8,000 entries and essays—plus 30 usage quizzes like this one, with immediate feedback and links to relevant entries for further guidance on each question. And it’s half the list price.

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