Writer’s Conundrum: Three Problem Word Pairs that still Confuse Me, and My Fixes for Them



I am ashamed to say it. I can’t remember the difference between fiction and nonfiction writing. No matter how many times I look it up, this pair of words continue to embarrass me. They refuse to stick in my brain.

A couple of homophones are also among the problem pairs that frequently force me to stop midsentence to go check my dictionary. These are

  • enquire and inquire
  • discreet and discrete

Today I am going to beat this confusion once and for all. Are you ready to join me?

Enquire vs inquire.

My conundrum most happens when I am writing a job application letter to enquire about vacancies. I stop to ponder, should I write, “I wish to enquire about the post … or “inquire about the post…”?

I’ve drawn on my word analysis knowledge about other verb/noun forms starting with the en– vs  in– initials. But the fact that this pair has verb forms and noun forms which are equally close in spelling doesn’t help to un-muddy the concept in my mind. Context clue knowledge, another strategy that can help decode unknown words, doesn’t help in this case either.

To tackle the problem I reach for my dictionary. Oxford online. Oxford, because my British English schooling has engendered a reserve about American dictionaries and word spelling, not meanings. Hence when I need to check words I habitually reach for a British dictionary. My regard for  Merriam Webster has grown. Web writing has changed the rules so I can write using both the Queen’s English and  American English. But,  I am still a creature of habit. No doubt you’ve noticed that in how I spell ‘colour’ and ‘programme’. But I digress.

Condundrum solved!

So, it turns out that all the hullabaloo was much ado about nothing. According to the reference page at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com, the usage of ‘enquiry’ vs ‘inquiry’ is more of a regional preference than any major discernible difference in meaning!  (Well, whoduv thunk it?)

It explains further that Americans like to use ‘inquire/inquiry’ and the British, ‘enquire/enquiry’.

Old habits are hard to divest and I now understand that the source of my confusion may have emanated from my old school English classes sticking with me. This explanation in the reference explains exactly where I am coming from:

“The traditional distinction between enquire and inquire is that enquire is to be used for general senses of ‘ask’, while inquire is reserved for uses meaning ‘make a formal investigation’. In practice, however, enquire (and enquiry) is more common in British English while inquire (and inquiry) is more common in US English, but otherwise there is little discernible distinction in the way the words are used.”

I’m a tiny bit peeved, but much relieved that I no longer have to worry about committing  any grammatical gaffe at my next encounter with this troublesome pair, although I suppose with this new knowledge, I must now choose which to use based on where my audience comes from. As my American friends like to say, ‘no worries’.

One bugbear down.  Now It’s time for  no. 2.

2. Fiction and non-fiction

Hold a minute. Let me check up on this pair.  See what I told you?  I can’t tell you which is which without having to go look them up.

I know they refer to the two classifications of writing; I also know that one discusses an imaginary world, and the other is based on real world ideas, facts or opinions. The challenge I have to tackle is calling each by its right name.

I went in search of a reliable literary source to guide me.

Dan Kurkland at Critical reading.com posits these definitions:

Fiction: poems, stories, plays, novels

Nonfiction: newspaper stories, editorials, personal accounts, journal articles, textbooks, legal documents

How The Conundrum Happens

Further, Kurkland has posed one interesting reason why these words have gradually become more confusing to persons like me. The lines between fictional writing and nonfiction have become blurred because more writers of both genres are crossing over by using elements of each form.

And they have license to do so. “Writers of fiction such as novelists can write about real life experiences and characters (nonfiction) while historians  (writers of nonfiction) have incorporated imagined dialogue (fiction) to suggest the thoughts of historical figures,” Kurkland writes.

Let’s look at the movies. All fictional, right? Not quite. If  it’s a documentary movie, it  is nonfictional, and so is a movie review because the text is based on someone sharing their opinions about the movie.

Newspaper articles are nonfictional even when fabricated.

Well, if you have to figure out all this each time you have to use the term, wouldn’t you have a conundrum too?

My Fixes

Knowing all this really helps, but, I still have to unfog my mind so as to avoid making these blunder once and for all. So let’s look at three solutions to tackle these problem words.

1. Look at the  form  The writer, Dan Kurkland suggests looking at the appearance of the text to determine whether the work is fiction of non fiction. For example, fiction is commonly divided into three areas according to the general appearance of the text:

  • stories and novels: prose–that is, the usual paragraph structure–forming chapters
  • poetry: lines of varying length, forming stanzas
  • plays: spoken lines and stage directions, arranged in scenes and acts

That clue is very usable. I can see myself using that. But that’s not all.

2. Test the assertions    The next thing you can do is to look at the assertions in the text. “The test is not whether the assertions are true. Nonfiction can make false assertions, and often does. The question is whether the assertions claim to describe reality, no matter how speculative the discussion may be,” Kurkland explains.

3. Retain with mnemonics   After using these guidelines, it’s time to memorise. To help my students retain a difficult concept during my teaching days, I often used a memorisation strategy called  Mnemonics. Remember how your music teacher taught you the music score EGBDF by reciting Every Good Boy Deserves Favour? It’s almost thirty years and my mind has retained it. Can I apply it here to help me distinguish between fiction and nonfiction in the future. Let’s see.  I only need to know what ‘fiction’ means. I know that the prefix non– means not, so I don’t need to study ‘nonfiction’ since both words share a common base (fiction).

Here’s my mnemonic:

F– Fiction-writers

I – iconise

C– Cinderella

T– tales (as)

I– imaginative

O – organs of

N– tertainment

Now, to remember that. Oh well, I’ve tried. I’ll post it where I can see it frequently and recite it over the next three days until I know it.

This mnemonic may need further reinforcement to learn it. I am confident that writing this post will also help to rivet the differences in my mind. There are a few other tricks up my sleeve that I’ll be using additionally. Read on.


3. discreet and discrete

 Like many people you are probably very familiar with the adjective ‘discreet‘. People may have cautioned you to do this or that ‘discreetly’. But not many persons (unless they are math buffs)  know there was a word twin, spelt discrete. (I must admit the word is not new to me. If you read avidly you would have met the word.)
The pair constitutes what we call in English homophones (words that sound alike but are different in spelling or meaning or both). Both can be very confusing.
Problem lies in the differences
The confusion for most people including me, arises from not knowing or remembering what ‘discrete‘ means. Those who know may have trouble spelling the words correctly in usage.
Dictionary.com  offers this distinction between the two: 
Discreet implies the showing of reserve, prudence and cautiousness in one’s behavior or speech.
Discrete means something quite different – ‘distinct, separate, unrelated’.
My Fixes and Recommendations
Know. First learn the different meanings. It’s a good idea to read as many sentences as possible to see how the word is used. The Reference page of most online dictionaries provides a fair number of examples, but you can google the terms and find additional sites with plenty more examples.
Practice. For words to be committed into your personal vocabulary and your working memory, you need to reinforce through practice. In short, use the words. Practice on your family and work peers, even if it feels a little silly. When you speak and when you write, use them, repeatedly until they fall off your tongue easily.
Here are my attempts to do what I just advised.
Note how I’ve included the synonym (s) for the featured word at the end of the sentence in parentheses.
Usage Examples
  • A man who wants to  hide an affair from his wife is going to be very discreet. (cautious)
  • If you want to explain why an apple is not an orange and vice versa, you’ll probably talk about their discrete tastes and appearances. (separate, individual)
  • The organisation has three discrete divisions that handles consumer affairs. (separate, individual)

Try writing your own now.


Tackle spelling

If you are having difficulty with the spelling, this quick and easy mnemonic may be helpful. It’s simple to remember. Say it over and over. Write it on a sticky paper and attach it to your mirror, refrigerator or laptop cover. The frequent exposures can do the trick

Double duty Mnemonic:
The “ee’s” in discreet hide together in the middle of the word,
but the “t” in discrete separates them.
I love this one because it does double duty to help me attack my double trouble pair. Notice the key words in bold. Use them as synonyms to help you remember what each word means.
So let’s go over the strategies I’ve used and recommended  to conquer these vocabulary conundrums.
1. Look up the troublesome words in a dictionary. Get familiar with the part of speech; read the etymology (word origins)
2. Pay attention to how each word is used in sentences, lots of sentences. If you are hearing the word for the first time, try to figure out what it means from the context in which the speaker is using the word.
3. Practice using them in speaking and writing. Create your own sentences.
4. Use a memorisation strategy– mnemonics, frequent visual exposures, flash cards, anything that works for you– to help you retain the distinctions  you have learnt.
5. Bonus Fix: A bonus fix I haven’t discussed in the post is one that may be useful for those who learn visually. Use a Visual Thesaurus. I found one at http://www.visualthesaurus.com. It is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus with over 150,000 words and 120,000 meanings that allows you to discover the connections between words in a visual way. It comes with a subscription, but you can check out its 14-day trial version.
There may be some free ones out there so search and see what other sites have to offer.
Now that we have some word attack tools, go forth and fight for your write (pun intended).  Tell yourself you will not be defeated. Conquer the Conundrum.
Want to know whether my battle strategies were effective. I’ll do a follow post when next I have to use any of these words and tell you who won: the words or me. If these conundrums I’ve shared are yours also, I hope these fixes will help you too become a better writer.
Is there another Problem word pair you’d like me to look at? Share it in the Comment box below.



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