Column: Don’t mistake these words


The English language has a lot of words that look alike. Some of them are related, some have nearly identical meanings, and others just don’t mean the same thing at all. The latter tends to cause confusion when speakers aren’t familiar with the differences. To help you avoid a mix-up, here are a few words that share looks, but not meanings.

Contingent and contingency – You probably know the word contingency. It’s often paired with plan and means a possible event. Its adjectival form, contingent, means subject to chance or dependent on something not yet certain (i.e. Your ability to go on vacation is contingent upon your request for days off being accepted).

The noun contingent, however, means a representative group or a quota of troops. The correct way to use it would be to say, “A contingent from the Associated Press has asked the White House for greater transparency.” Often those unfamiliar with the word will erroneously use contingency in a situation like this rather than contingent.

Levee and levy – A levee is a structure built to prevent a river from flooding nearby land. To levy is to impose a tax or draft.

Regimen and regiment – regimen is a regulated course of diet, exercise or manner of living. A doctor might prescribe a regimen of antibiotics to counter a bacterial infection in a patient. A regiment is a military unit.

Reign and rein – This one is a little confusing. A reign is the rule of a monarch, and reins are straps used to control an animal. However, phrases like “take the reins” – to take control – and “free rein” – to be without constraints – create, I think, an artificial similarity between the two words under the brain’s label of “words that mean control.”

Desert and dessert – You’d think people would have learned this one by now, but I’ve seen it messed up everywhere from billboards to restaurant menus to websites. A dessert is the course after dinner – typically something sweet like pie or ice cream. A desert is a barren or uninhabitable place. If you’re eating a desert after dinner, you’re doing it wrong.