Problematic Word Pairs: Part I

by Tina Blue
March 23, 2001

Certain word pairs present problems for many speakers and writers. This article is the first in a series of three in which I will identify problematic word pairs and clarify their proper use. The ones I deal with in this article are those that I believe are most commonly encountered, and thus most likely to present problems for speakers and writers of English. To read the second article in this series, click "here". To read the third article, click "here".


The distinction between these two words is becoming blurred by sloppy usage, but careful speakers and writers do not confuse them.

~If something can be counted, it should be referred to in terms of number.

CORRECT:  A large number of books were sold during the last week.

INCORRECT:  A large amount of books were sold during the last week.

~If it can be measured, in the sense that detergent or water can be measured, then refer to it in terms of amount.

~He spilled a small amount of milk on the table.

No one mistakenly refers to measurable quantities in terms of numbers, but a lot of people mistakenly refer to countable things in terms of amount. Just remember: detergent comes in amounts; people, books, and other countable items come in numbers.


The confusion between these two words is similar to that between amount and number. Every time you go to the grocery store, you probably see a sign with this error:

~Express Lane: Ten Items or Less.

~Items are numbered, not measured, so the correct phrasing would be

~Express Lane: Ten Items or Fewer.

Similarly, a city with a declining population would have fewer people, not less people. A teacher who assigns fewer papers might give less homework, but not less papers.


Believe it or not, disinterested does not mean uninterested. Disinterested means impartial. Uninterested means being unconcerned with or having no desire to know about something.

~Disputes should be mediated by a disinterested judge.

~He did not want to judge the case because he was completely uninterested in the issues involved.


Use farther when referring to distance. Use further to indicate a continuation or extension in terms of time, degree, or anything else other than distance.  

~New York is farther from Florida than from Georgia.

~We went farther away from home that day than we had ever gone before.

~We could argue this point further, but we would probably not get any closer to agreeing.

~The problem of global warming calls for further study.


To founder means to sink or fail. A ship founders when it goes down--as does a company. To flounder means to act clumsily or ineffectively, or to thrash about helplessly. (As a mnemonic device, imagine a flounder on dry land, flopping about helplessly.)

~Before it finally foundered, the company floundered for several months.

(Not a pretty sentence, but it may help you remember the difference between the two words.)


Things are hung, people, when executed, are hanged.

~The mistletoe was hung over the doorway.

~The picture was hung on the wall.

~The prisoner was hanged at dawn.

Nowadays, in slang terms, a man may be referred to as being hung, but that would be a compliment, not a death sentence.


Most people are familiar with the term prone, but not really clear about what it actually means. It does not mean lying down or stretched out; it means lying face down.

Because so many people think prone means merely lying down or stretched out, they make such impossible statements as, "He was lying on his back in a prone position," or "He was lying prone on his back."

I assure you, he was doing no such thing!

Supine means lying on one's back.

~Prone = face down
~Supine = face up

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