Navigating Tricky Word Pairs

May 19, 2023 | Posted by Jennifer

Affect or effect? Biannual or biennial? Illusion or allusion? These are just a few of the word pairs we have examined in past blog posts. These pairings can from time to time trip up even the sharpest minds. Today we are going to examine a few more tricky word pairs and clarify how to use them correctly.

Fiancé and Fiancée

First up is fiancé and fiancée. Both words are derived from the French language. Pronounced identically, the words are gender-specific. Because they are pronounced the same, perhaps that is why there is some confusion about the correct spelling. Simply put, fiancé refers to a man who is engaged to be married while fiancée refers to a woman who is engaged to be married.

Principal and Principle

Both words are derived from the same Latin root: princeps, which means “of highest importance.” As a noun principal has two definitions. One of the definitions refers to a person, namely the chief person in an organization. School children often learn to spell the word by remembering this jingle: the principal is your pal. Of course, the word is not solely used in academia. It is also used in general to refer to a person in control or at the head of something.

Another usage of the word expands beyond people to include things of primary importance. Used in this manner, principal could refer to a sum of money that has primary importance, for example, the sum of money that is borrowed and requires payment of interest.

Principal can also be an adjective. For example, we could examine the principal reasons a person chooses to do or not do something, or we could describe the principal exports of the United States.

The word principle functions only as a noun. It refers to something that is of primary importance, for example someone’s personal principles for living. Principles can be individual or can be cultural in nature. The philosopher Immanuel Kant even described a “principle for humanity.” What is commonly known as the Golden Rule is a principle for all people.

Lightening and Lightning

While many pronounce these words identically, a careful look reveals that one word has an extra syllable contained within it. Many people omit the extra syllable altogether, a process called elision, when they speak it. The words lightening and lightning share the same ancestor: the Old English word leht, which eventually evolved into the modern English word light. The base, however, has different meanings, or senses. In the word lightening, the word refers to weight. It is composed of the base light plus two suffixes: -en and -ing. Put together, they form the present participle form of the word lighten, which means to make lighter. If we help a coworker by assisting with some projects, we are lightening their work load, an emotional weight. Of course, the word can also be used in the physical sense. If we remove weight from something, we are lightening the load.

The word lightning also hails from the Old English ancestor; however, it refers not to weight but to brightness. Lightning is the bright streak of light observed in the sky that precedes the rumble of thunder.

Torturous and Tortuous

This last tricky word pair shares the same Latin stem: torquere. The stem traveled to English through French. As the words come from the same etymological family, they bear some relationship to each other. Torturous is perhaps the most familiar word to people. It conveys the idea of experiencing great pain and especially relates to the sense of writhing or twisting.

In contrast, tortuous simply means a thing that is full of twists and turns. One might drive up a narrow mountain road that is tortuous, and if any of the passengers in the car become carsick easily, the tortuous road could easily feel torturous to them. Another example is related to a medical condition. A tortuous colon (also called a redundant colon) is a condition in which a person has an extra long colon. To fit into the abdomen, it is forced to twist and turn, which in turn may cause the affected individual to feel pain, perhaps even torturous pain.


It is hardly surprising that tricky word pairs frequently share an origin. Imagine a wide, slow-moving river. Over time and one by one, new words gradually emerge out of the parent river and meander into their own metaphorical streams. Eventually, many words may evolve, each carving out its own separate path. We call these new words derivations, a word that literally includes the image of a river since it is formed from the stem riv- which comes from the Latin word rivus for river. Some of these streams take a wide swing away from the parent river and bear little resemblance to their parent; others run much closer to their origin. But, each claims its identity from the parent river. This process will repeat itself over and over as time passes because language is not stagnant. It is always changing and always moving as long as there is humanity around to use language.

Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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