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Choosing the Right Word

Some phrases are similar but different. Here are a few commonly confused phrases. Seeing the difference between these phrases shows the power of the preposition. In all of these cases, the only variation is the preposition, yet the impact on the meaning is significant.
Most of these definitions come from the Gregg Reference Manual; many examples are mine.

agree on/upon, agree to, agree with
Agree on/upon means to reach an understanding.
We cannot agree on the price.

Agree to means to accept another person's plan.
Will you agree to the terms?

Agree with means to concur with a person or an idea.
I agree with your objectives.

angry at/about, angry with
Angry at/about something.
He was angry about the total disorder at the office.

Angry with someone.
You have every right to be angry with me.

compared to/compared with
Use compared to when you intend to assert that two or more items are similar.
They tried to compare the drill-rig disaster to the Exxon Valdez, but the current crisis is much worse.
Use compared with when putting two or more items side by side to illustrate similarities or differences.
Compared with New York, Los Angeles is not densely populated.

consists in/consists of
Consists in means exists in.
Happiness largely consists in wanting what you have, not in having what you want.

Consists of means is made up of.
Their new formula for a wage settlement consists of the same old terms expressed in       different language.

contrasted to/contrasted with
Use contrasted to to claim that two items have opposite characteristics.

They contrasted the current water shortage to the abundance of recent years.

Use contrasted with to compare two or more items and show similarities or differences.
He contrasted the liberal platform with the conservative one.

differ about/ differ from/ differ with
Differ about something: We differed about means but not about objectives.

Differ from something else: This job differs very little from the one that I had before.

Differ with someone: I differ with you over the consequences of our plan.

different from/different than
Different from illustrates a comparison. This is the generally preferred form of phrase.
This product is different from the one I normally use.

Different than is sometimes acceptable, especially when it removes the necessity of       repeating words.
I view the matter in a different way than you do. (i.e., not in a different way from the way   in which you do)

independent of/ independent from
Independent of means not depending on something or someone.
He wants to be independent of his family's money.

Independent from is a mistaken usage. Do not use this phrase.

on behalf of/in behalf of
On behalf of means acting as the agent of.
On behalf of the firm, I want to thank you for your patronage.
In behalf of means for the benefit of.
The fund raiser was established in behalf of the victims of the hurricane.

speak to/speak with
Speak to means to tell something to someone.
You must speak to them about their absences.

Speak with means to have a discussion with someone.
It was good to speak with you yesterday.

wait for/wait on
Wait for someone or something to arrive or occur.
I waited for you at the airport. In fact, I waited for hours.

Wait on means to serve people.
When customers sit down, I expect you to wait on them promptly.

Some of these distinctions may seem slight, but they matter. As Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."

©2012 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

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