Some words are too close for comfort

Why is your friend so concerned with a problem he says has to do with lying stretched out on the ground face downward?

No, this isn’t a riddle, it is more of a faux pas. He told you he had "prostrate" difficulties, while what he wanted to say was "prostate."

There is only one letter different, but such a large distinction in meaning. The prostate is a gland surrounding the neck of the bladder in male mammals. You might miss the opportunity to empathize, and he may not get the help he needs, just due to one little letter.

Sometimes a blunder may be confusing; at times it can be a bit insulting. What if you are trying to be delicate as you walk away from your aged uncle, reporting to his dear friend that he is morbid. You were trying to say that he was "moribund," or on his deathbed; however, you have said he was abnormally interested in unpleasant subjects such as death and disease.

If you say that a hardworking man was able to scrimp and save in order to give his children a good education, this is a compliment, because he has been thrifty, he economized and spent money wisely. But when you use the word "skimp," this definitely has a negative connotation meaning to expend inadequate time, money or material on something in an attempt to economize. This usually suggests that cutting back has made the finished product faulty.

The words "pretentious" and "portentous" look rather similar. They both incorporate an attempt to impress. If you are pretentious, however, it is a simple case of affecting greater importance than you warrant. With portentous, there is no need to justify significance; it is simply something that is ominous, threatening. With a portentous message, it is its solemn manner that is meant to impress.

One must carefully exercise judgment in the use of words. This means the activity required to understand and be understood; it can also be exercise that is physical. A certain amount of good judgment is also needed to "exorcise" an entity, meaning to drive out or rid of an evil spirit.

It’s pretty obvious I am really interested in the study and origin of words; that makes me attracted to etymology. I surely wouldn’t consider this word reciprocal with "entomology," which refers to the study of insects. Two letters can make all the difference in the world. My curiosity in insects is practically nonexistent. If they don’t bug me, I won’t bug them!

— Sandi Ekberg taught high school English in Medford for 30 years. If you have grammar questions, email her at

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