Communication

10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

To save yourself some embarrassment, here are the definitions of 10 tricky word pairs.
10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead
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5 min read

Is your new co-worker antisocial or asocial? Is your spouse jealous or envious? Not sure? Don’t worry -- most of us get confused by these similar words.

Related: Ditch These 28 Boring Words and Use These Instead (Infographic)

A recent article published in the journal Frontiers in Education identifies 50 psychology “term pairs” that people often get wrong. From empathy and sympathy to disease and illness, “These terms are so frequently confused in popular parlance that few people are aware that they differ,” the article’s authors explain.

While people use these psychology related terms frequently, most don’t know that they’re using them wrong -- even teachers. "In psychology, many terms are confused not only by new students but also by advanced students, psychology instructors and science journalists,” said Emory University psychology professor and co-author Scott Lilienfeld in a summary of the findings.

Related: 15 Words You're Probably Not Using Right

To help people speak properly, the co-authors reviewed previous research to construct a list of 50 word pairs that people shouldn’t use interchangeably, but often do.

To save you from having to bite your tongue after using the wrong word, here are 10 word pairs and their definitions.

10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

Envy vs. jealousy

Envy vs. jealousy
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Believe it or not, these words aren’t synonymous. According to the Frontiers in Education article, envy is used when there are two people involved and usually occurs when one person lacks something desireable that someone else has. Jealousy is used when there are three or more people, and it typically occurs when something a person already possesses is threatened by another person. For example, a person would be envious of a colleague who recently got a raise, while a person would be jealous upon seeing his or her spouse flirting with another person.
10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

Prejudice vs. discrimination

Prejudice vs. discrimination
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Prejudice refers to a person’s thoughts or beliefs that “prejudge” someone or something, while discrimination describes someone’s actual behavior. So, characterize someone as prejudiced when referring to his or her premature negative thoughts about someone or something. If someone is insulting another person or limiting another person’s opportunities, it’s appropriate to describe their actions as discriminatory.
10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

Antisocial vs. asocial

Antisocial vs. asocial
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You often hear people say they don’t feel like doing something that involves social interaction because they’re “antisocial.” Turns out, that’s far from the correct use of the word. In fact, people who are antisocial are those who often perform reckless or irresponsible actions against other people. This means that another person’s presence is required for someone to be truly antisocial. The word “asocial,” on the other hand, describes a person who is shy or often withdraws from social situations.

Related: 10 Misused Words That Make Smart People Look Stupid

10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

Race vs. ethnicity

Race vs. ethnicity
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While these concepts overlap slightly, it’s important to note that they’re not interchangeable. According to the Frontiers in Education article, race refers to a class of people, for example Caucasian or African-American, defined by biological differences. While ethnicity encompasses race, it is more broad and also involves other variables such as language and birth country -- for example, German or Chinese-American.
10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

Sex vs. gender

Sex vs. gender
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Sex refers to biological differences (i.e. male vs. female) and gender refers to social differences (i.e. men vs. women). When filling out a job application, a company might ask for your sex.
10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

Repression vs. suppression

Repression vs. suppression
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Trying to repress an embarrassing memory? Actually, that’s not what you’re doing. Repression refers to unconsciously forgetting something, while suppression is conscious. So, if you’re purposely trying to forget that time you accidentally emailed your boss instead of your friend, you’re suppressing the memory.
10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

Symptom vs. sign

Symptom vs. sign
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Symptoms are subjective and signs are objective. In other words, patients report their own symptoms, but doctors detect signs of certain conditions. For example, fatigue is a symptom of depression, while slowed movement is a sign of depression.

Related: Inspiring Leaders Know to Choose Their Words Carefully

10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

Disease vs. illness

Disease vs. illness
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While they both refer to someone’s health, diseases and illnesses are different. The word disease typically refers to a diagnosis by doctors or health professionals based on a patient’s physical state. Illness is more general, and it encompasses a patient’s emotional reactions to being unwell or to a disease.
10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

Study vs. experiment

Study vs. experiment
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There’s a big difference between these two words, but it’s easy to see why people get them confused. A study refers to a psychological investigation, whereas an experiment is a specific type of study that involves separating subjects into groups and manipulating an independent variable.
10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead

Empathy vs. sympathy

Empathy vs. sympathy
Image credit: Juanmonino | Getty Images
Despite similar uses and spellings, the definitions of these two words differ. If a person demonstrates empathy, it means they have the capacity to experience the emotions of another person, from happiness to sadness to anger. Sympathy is more specific, and it’s about understanding the suffering of another person and showing compassion without vicariously experiencing that suffering.
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  • 10 Words You're Probably Using Wrong -- and What to Say Instead
  • 1. Envy vs. jealousy
  • 2. Prejudice vs. discrimination
  • 3. Antisocial vs. asocial
  • 4. Race vs. ethnicity
  • 5. Sex vs. gender
  • 6. Repression vs. suppression
  • 7. Symptom vs. sign
  • 8. Disease vs. illness
  • 9. Study vs. experiment
  • 10. Empathy vs. sympathy
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