Troublesome Words

Bill Bryson is one of my favourite authors (‘A Walk in the Woods’, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, ‘The Body’) because he somehow knows how to craft the best description to bring an idea across, whether he is being serious or funny. His choice of words have that perfect ‘fit’. Here are examples from his highly-recommended reference-for-writers book ‘Troublesome Words’ – often-confused words explained clearly and quickly:

acute, chronic. These two are sometimes confused, which is a little odd as their meanings are sharply opposed. Chronic pertains to lingering conditions, ones that are not easily overcome. Acute refers to those that come to a sudden crisis and require immediate attention. People in the Third World may suffer from a chronic shortage of food. In a bad year, their plight may become acute.’

adverse, averse. ‘He is not adverse to the occasional brandy ‘ (Observer). The word wanted here was averse, which means reluctant or disinclined (think of aversion). Adverse means hostile and antagonistic (think of adversary).’

amid, among. Among applies to things that can be separated and counted, amid to things that cannot. Rescuers may search among survivors, but amid wreckage.’ (It’s all about the nouns survivors and wreckage – survivors is a ‘count noun’ (things easily countable) like people, buildings, parks, and trees. Wreckage is a ‘non-count’ noun, like milk, sugar, water, wood, traffic, and sunshine).

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