Nothing can diminish your credibility faster than using the wrong word. Unfortunately, improper usage is so commonplace in today's world that it's not easy to determine which phrases and words are correct based upon the situation. Learning some of the more frequently confused words is a great way to check your current usage and avoid future mistakes.
Adverse / Averse
Adverse means harmful, while averse means to oppose something or someone. These two are more than likely confused due to the word adversary, which means an opponent.
Correct uses: The stranger had adverse motives. / She is averse to the issue.
Sample sentence: She faced adverse conditions in her quest but felt averse to the alternative.
Allusion / Illusion
An allusion is an indirect reference to someone or something and an illusion is a deception.
Correct uses: He alluded to the error. / The magician performed an act of illusion.
Sample sentence: He made a wry allusion to the article's assertion that everything happening is pure illusion.
Complement / Compliment
Complement means adding to something. A compliment is a flattering remark or something given free of charge. Both words are positive, but complementary is primarily used when referencing design and aesthetics. Complimenting that design's beauty is something else.
Correct uses: Your blue shirt complements your eyes. / The critic gave a complimentary review.
Sample sentence: The art teacher complimented the child's broad use of complementary colors.
Complacent / Complaisant
Both words are used to negatively describe someone, but complacent means someone who is not concerned or apathetic. Complaisant is used to describe a follower who goes along with the crowd.
Correct uses: Congress's complacency angered many. / The child appeared complaisant with the bully's request.
Sample sentence: Noting the company's complacency about workers' wages, employees organized a strike that demonstrated their collective refusal of further complaisance.
Defuse / Diffuse
Defuse means to lessen a situation's harmfulness or danger, and it's also (not surprisingly) used to describe removing a bomb's actual fuse. Diffuse, on the other hand, means to scatter and can be used in adjective form to describe something that's widely spread.
Correct uses: We had to defuse the situation. / Those prescribed the medicine report diffuse complications.
Sample sentence: When a fire broke out at school, teachers struggled to defuse the chaos as the smoke diffused throughout the hallway.
Disburse / Disperse
Disburse means to distribute money, while disperse means to scatter (much like "diffuse" above). Since scattering money is typically frowned upon, it's important to ensure these words are not used interchangeably.
Examples of correct use: The committee met to discuss how to disburse funds. / Afterward, the crowd dispersed.
Sample sentence: When the manager's lengthy meeting on how to disburse refunds ended, the sales associates quickly dispersed.
Flounder / Founder
Although similar, flounder means to struggle, and founder means to sink or fail.
Correct uses: She has floundered this semester while balancing school and work responsibilities. / Despite their best efforts, the relationship foundered.
Sample sentence: The man floundered amidst the ocean's waves, and rescuers worked quickly to reach him before he foundered.
Alternative is used to describe additional options. Alternate means every other one or taking turns.
Correct uses: One must consider the alternative. / To prevent burn-out, alternate between tasks.
Sample sentence: She didn't want to alternate driving responsibilities with her husband, but the alternative of hearing him complain made her reconsider.
Correctly differentiating between these commonly misused words supports the professionalism and overall integrity of your speech and written work.