Everybody mixes up words. It’s a rare day when I don’t encounter speakers and writers using “infer” (to deduce) when they mean “imply” (to hint). Or “disinterested” (impartial, with no stake in the outcome) when want to say “uninterested.”
I mix up words like anybody else. For example, before I developed a good system to remember them, my brain used to routinely slip a gear when it came to “complement” and “compliment” and “discrete” and ”discreet.”
How do you remember the differences between evil-twin words? I believe the best way is to develop a memory trick to aid recall, a device defined as a mnemonic. (The “m” is silent; it’s pronounced neh-MONN-ick) A mnemonic can be a word, rhyme, an image, — whatever works for you. Think “lefty loosy righty tighty” – the standard remedy for recalling which way to rotate the screwdriver.
We were all taught mnemonic tricks in school, such as remembering that, “the principal of your school is your pal,” a device that reinforces the concept that a school principle is a person, rather than an abstract idea expressed by a “principle.” And the distinction between “affect” and “effect” centers on the memory device reminding as that “a” is for “action.”
But the best device is the one you make up yourself. To cure my “complement/compliment” binary brain-freeze I invented this memory device: “When you want to use complement to mean ‘add something extra,’ use the ‘e’ for ‘extra.’”
I also tended to mix up “discreet” and “discrete.” I solved this by reminding myself that in the version of the word that means “separate” the letter “E”s are separate from each other.
It’s my view that the human brain remembers associations and stories more readily than anything absorbed by rote memorization, and the more vivid the association the better – so go crazy and make up an outlandish and mind-sticky scenario.
Those of us of a certain age will remember memory guru Harry Lorayne, who was popular on the Johnny Carson Show in the 1960s and 70s. Lorayne would sometimes memorize the names of the entire studio audience — hundreds of people. How? By picturing each person in a situation or image that jogged his memory. If a woman was named “Beth,” for example, he might picture her sitting in a bath.
Want another example of a memory association? An Internet memory guru who identifies himself only as Douglas provides this hint for remembering the capital of an Eastern European nation: Picture a bull named Gary — it helps if he is wearing a sweatshirt with “Gary” emblazoned on it — relaxing on a sofa. A “bull named Gary” relaxing on the sofa will unavoidably stick in your mind. And so will the fact the Sofia is the Capital of Bulgaria.
If you can’t come up with your own story, maybe the bones of the plot already exist in the root of the word. You can look up “criticize” and “ostracize” several times and not remember the difference if they happen to be words that fall into your personal brain-gap.
But let me tell you the story of the words:
“Criticize” comes from the Latin word “criticus,” meaning a judge. You know the word anyway, but the image of a judge saying disapproving things is now permanently and visually implanted in your mind. But “ostracize” — meaning to shun or cast out – comes from a Greek word meaning (roughly) “tile.” The citizens of Athens would write the name of people they they didn’t like on pieces of tile and when the pieces were collected and tabulated the unpopular folks would be banished for five or ten years.
Now, try to forget the proper usage of “ostracize.” I dare you.