• Similar but not synonymous

      English has many words that are very close to each other in spelling, and also many words that sound nearly identical. In some cases, the meanings of these words are also close enough to cause confusion. Here, we distinguish the meanings of some commonly confused words.

      • limit / delimit

        The verbs limit and delimit are similar in meaning but not quite synonymous. To limit requires a human agent to apply a limit to, or set a limit for, something. Limit is often used with the prepositions to or by.

        I will limit my searches by keywords. Searches were limited to certain journals.

        Delimit means demarcate or bound, and does not require a human agent in the same way that limit does. Delimited is followed by by, but not to.

        The nature area is delimited by a river on the north side and a farm on the east side.

        In a phrase like ‘tab-delimited data’, the tabs are just a marker of the values; the tabs themselves don’t play a role in the meaning of the values, nor in how those values came to be divided. Something that was called ‘tab-limited data’ would mean data that the tabs themselves had somehow imposed an order on.

      • lose / loose

        The word lose is a verb, and it means to drop or miss something, or to not win a contest. The word lose is used quite commonly, and it occurs in a variety of idioms.

        They will lose the game if they play badly. An airplane loses altitude when it starts to land.

        She was losing the race, but came back to win a gold medal. I keep losing my keys.

        The word loose is usually an adjective, and it is the opposite of tight. Rarely, it can be used as a verb, in which case it means to let go of something that is tied up (“Loose the dogs” ⇒ Release the dogs from their leashes). To describe the action of relieving the pressure of something that is tight, like a knot, one would usually use a form of loosen (“I tied my shoes too tightly, so I need to loosen my shoelaces.”)