Subtle Distinctions

Lawyers should possess semantic exactitude—we should appreciate subtle distinctions between words or expressions that look, seem, or sound similar.

In this issue, we explain the differences between:
alphabet and letter
ambiguous and vague
amount, number, and quantity
anyone and any one
awesome and awful
bath and bathe
been and being
borrow and lend
breath and breathe
Britain, England, Great Britain, and United Kingdom

alphabet versus letter
Alphabet refers to the entire system of letters of a language. Alphabet means “the letters of a language arranged in their usual order.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Alphabet is the set of letters. A, B, and Care not alphabets; they are letters. A letter is a unit of the alphabet.

ambiguous versus vague
Ambiguous means susceptible of two different meanings. To use ambiguous, you must have in the mind the two possible interpretations.

Vague means abstract; difficult or impossible to pin down. To use vague, you need not proffer or even contemplate a specific interpretation or several specific interpretations. The meaning is just not clear.

amount, number, and quantity
Use amount only with uncountable or mass nouns: amount of water, amount of food, amount of work. Never use amount with countable nouns: never say or write amount of people, amount of books, amount of phones. Say number of people, number or quantity of books, number or quantity of phones. Never say quantity of people.

anyone versus any one
Anyone always refers to a human being, but any one can refer to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. Say you have several cars and I want to borrow one. I should say, “May I borrow any one of your cars?” not “May I borrow anyone of your cars?” Of course in speech, they sound alike. But when you write, remember: anyone always refers to a human being.

awesome and awful
Awesome is positive; awful is negative. Awesome is good; awful is bad.
Although your dictionary may include a negative nuance in defining awesome, in usage awesome is positive. Your listeners or readers won’t read a negative connotation into awesome. God is awesome. Rolls Royce is awesome. Awesome means ‘amazing, astounding, awe-inspiring, great, splendid.’
Awful means ‘very bad or unpleasant.’

bath and bathe
Bath is the noun, bathe the verb. A bath could mean a bathtub or similar container in which we wash ourselves, or an act or instance of washing oneself or another. You take a bath. You go into the bath.
To bathe is to wash oneself or another, or to wash a part of the body. You bathe. You bathe the baby. You bathe the wound.

been and being (auxiliary verbs)
Been is past; being is present. Been is not merely past—it is typically completed past. When your client returns from the police station after an unpleasant visit, she has been interrogated. When your client is at the police station answering difficult questions and her husband calls you for an update, you report that she is being interrogated.

borrow and lend
The giver of a loan lends; the receiver borrows. Borrow me your pen is bad English. Say, lend me your pen.

breath and breathe
Breath is the noun; breathe the verb. Breath is an act or instance of taking air into the lungs, or the air so taken, or an amount of air that enters the lungs at one time.

Breathe means “to take air into your lungs and send it out again through your nose or mouth.” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)

Britain, England, Great Britain, and United Kingdom
Britain is an island comprising three countries: England, Scotland, and Wales. When you get a British visa, you can enter any of these three countries.

England is the part of Britain we’re most familiar with.

Great Britain is what the British call their island. I don’t think it’s great. I think Nigeria is great.

United Kingdom is short for United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So United Kingdom contains four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

What a complicated geography lesson!

2 thoughts on “Subtle Distinctions

  1. Charles Onyemobi .M.

    The newsletter is very educating. I would like to get more of it monthly. Thanks a million for this rare privilege.


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