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Pesky Pairs of Similar-Sounding Words

This article continues our discussion of confusing and misused words, especially in English translations.

Building off of our discussion of terms that are frequently confused in case reports, this article focuses on some words that sound very similar but have distinct meanings. These “pesky pairs” can cause trouble for any author. In addition to the examples below, you can see other individual articles for information about comprise and compose, e.g. and i.e., few and a few, and who and whom. We also have more information about that and which and less and fewer, which do not sound similar but could still be considered pesky pairs. If you have questions about terms that you don’t see listed here, please search AJE Scholar or send us an email.


Continuous means without stopping. Continual means regularly over a given time period.

  • Cells were treated with a continuous dose of radiation for 1 hour.
  • The online database is updated on a continual basis.

Imply means to strongly suggest or insinuate. Infer means to deduce or conclude from available evidence.

  • These results imply that gene X is not transcribed.
  • From these results, we can infer that gene X is not transcribed.

Last refers to the final item in a group of 3 or more. Latter refers to the second of only 2 items.

  • Survival of V. cholerae in the wild requires oxygen, temperate climates, and chitin, the last of which is found in the shells of marine copepods.
  • Gram-negative bacteria contain an inner membrane and outer membrane. The outer face of the latter is composed almost exclusively of lipopolysaccharide.
  • Note: the same is true for first/former.

Principal as an adjective means ‘chief’ or ‘main.’ Principle is a noun meaning a fundamental concept.

  • Principal component analysis revealed surprising results.
  • Epistasis is an important principle of genetics.

Loose is an adjective meaning not tight. Lose is a verb meaning to misplace or have taken away.

  • Brian’s pants were too loose, so they fell off.
  • Many antibiotics lose their effectiveness when left at room temperature overnight.
  • Note: these words are more commonly interchanged as a typo.

Thanks to Cade Hildreth of BioInformant for letting us repost definitions for these tricky terms:

  • Technically, neural means “pertaining to a nerve or nerves, which are the cordlike bundles of fibers made up of neurons” (see Biology Online Dictionary). This is a broader term, because it pertains to any structure of the nervous system, including neurons, glia, and more.
  • Technically, neuronal means “pertaining to neurons, which are the conducting cells of the nervous system” (see Biology Online Dictionary). This is a more specific and defined term, because it only pertains to neurons.

We hope that this post has helped clear up the use of some similar-sounding English words. As always, write to us with any questions. AJE wishes you the best of luck with your research and publication!

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