Splitting the thinnest of hairs

Some word endings help us decipher meanings; most –ous suffixes are adjectives. But that understanding is just a start.

Take "facetious," "factious" and "fatuous." The first describes treatment with inappropriate humor, being glib, while factious members of a family experience a split or are discordant. A fatuous remark is silly, pointless or stupid. You probably wouldn’t want to use these words interchangeably.

If your doctor proscribes smoking, don’t try to say he recommended or advised cigarettes. To proscribe means to condemn or forbid.

Another nearly opposite pair is raise and raze. The former suggests increasing or lifting, and the latter is to demolish or flatten.

Two other words are versatile in definition as well as part of speech. The word "matte" is most often an adjective, often describing color as dull, flat, without shine. A noun or verb here has basically the same meaning.

If you use "mat" as a noun, it can be a sheet or cardboard on the back of a picture to form a border. As a verb, this three-letter word means to tangle, such as the hair.

Speaking of hair, a single length with three or more interlaced strands becomes a braid, sometimes called a "plait." Don’t confuse this with the standard "plate," a flat dish.

"Adverse" describes a thing or condition which prevents success or is harmful (Adverse weather caused cancellation of the race). It is a person’s feelings that are instead described with the word "averse," saying he has strong dislike or opposition to something (She is averse to formal social gatherings).

Both people and things are part of such words as eminent, imminent and immanent. The first of these describes a person who is famous and respected. "Imminent" defines something that is about to happen; "immanent" is a synonym for inherent, existing within (Spelling these correctly is an immanent part of using them appropriately).

Describing a person might include the word "discreet," being careful of speech and actions. If you use "discrete," though, you are speaking of things separate and distinct, unattached (These two contracts are totally discrete).

In my career, my work was inherently didactic, intended to teach, informative (at least I tried). My students, however, often saw me as pedantic: meticulous, finicky or fussy. Oh, well, I’ve been called worse.

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

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