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How to Tell Fate from Destiny and Other Skillful Word Distinctions

Preview of the book, which will be published in October 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Charles Harrington Elster. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

INTRODUCTION


Quick, answer these questions: What’s the difference between a compendium and an abridgment? How about the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic, a verdict and a ruling, a simile and a metaphor, or an emoticon and an emoji?

Can you distinguish the verbs to imitate and to emulate, the relative pronouns that and which, or the adjectives pliant, pliable, and supple? Do you know whether it should be hone in or home in, pled or pleaded, loath or loathe, recur or reoccur, rotate or revolve, or sanguine or sanguinary? And do you know whether you’re eating Welsh rabbit or Welsh rarebit?

If you don’t—or even if you kind of do—How to Tell Fate from Destiny and Other Skillful Word Distinctions will help you sort it out and make the right choice. (More reliably and entertainingly than Wikipedia!)

Think of this book as a combination of a thesaurus, chock-full of perspicuous and perspicacious synonym discriminations (like perspicuous and perspicacious), and a usage manual, replete with advice on how to differentiate commonly confused words and steer clear of verbal trouble.

Why do we need these fine distinctions? Because they clarify the mind and general discourse. Who decides how or how not to make these distinctions? We all do, whether or not we’re thoughtful about what we’re expressing, and whether or not we’re sure that we’re using whether or not correctly. But thoughtlessness is the norm that only breeds confusion, and I have written this book in the hope of dispelling some of that fog.

For example, if you peruse these pages you will find out whether you are actually perusing or just browsing them. You will find out whether you are done or finished, whether you are seedy or seamy, whether you are a sociopath or a psychopath, and whether you have Alzheimer’s or dementia. And you’ll learn all that before you have dinner or supper, and long before you wind up in limbo or purgatory. But before you surrender or capitulate to someone who may have no sympathy or empathy for you, ask yourself whether you have a definite opinion about it or a definitive opinion about it. Am I being too simple here, or too simplistic? Do you have a hypothesis or a theory about that?

Whether you’re a boomer, a Gen-Xer, or a millennial, if you peruse, browse, or even skim these spindrift pages you will (not shall) become versed in the fine art of differentiation. You will learn, for example,

— how to tell whether you’re a who or a that

— how to tell whether you suffer from pride, vanity, or hubris

— how to tell whether you’re contagious or infectious

— how to tell if you’re pitiful or pitiable

— how to tell if you’re astonished or surprised

— how to tell if you’re self-centered or self-absorbed

— and how to live an ethical life in a moral universe.

I hope the painstaking distinctions in these pages will energize, not enervate you, and that you won’t forgo (or forego?) this fortunate (or fortuitous?) opportunity to become not only more skillful in your choice of words but perhaps also a professional distinctioneer.