When a pair is not a couple

In particular German native speakers seem to have trouble correctly using the words pair and couple when referring to two people (married, or otherwise romantically involved), most likely because both words translate to the German Paar. In fact, the difference between pair and couple is quite subtle. From the Oxford English Dictionary, we have

pair: two people who are doing something together or who have a particular relationship (for example, a pair of students working on a project together)

couple: two people who are seen together, especially if they are married or in a romantic or sexual relationship

While both words can refer to two people who have something to do with each other, only couple is commonly used to describe a romantic relationship. Hence, in the following examples, couple is to be preferred over pair:

The two have been a pair couple since high school.

Married pairs couples fight more frequently.

We only have pairs couples among our friends.

We have been going to pair’s couple‘s therapy for quite some time.


discreet vs. discrete

The adjectives discreet and discrete can easily be confused in writing, for various reasons. First, when typing quickly, the second e may just slip in before the t. Because both words exist, this mistake will not be detected by the spell checker. However, in addition, the pronunciation of discreet and discrete is identical, see here and here, so many people may just be unaware of the very different meanings. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary provides the following explanations:

discreet: careful in what you say or do, in order to keep something secret or to avoid causing embarrassment or difficulty for somebody

discrete: independent of other things of the same type

An example for the use of discreet is given by the sentence

“I discreetly glanced at my watch during the meeting”,

meaning that I looked at my watch in a way so as to hide my action from people around me. Similarly, you can be discreet about a love affair, or a bill.

On the other hand, the use of discrete can be illustrated by the sentence

“Cats and dogs are discrete species”.

In mathematics, discrete is the opposite of continuous. For example, the set of integer numbers is discrete (there are no numbers between 1 and 2), whereas the set of real numbers is continuous.



Previous vs. last

The words previous and last can in many cases be used interchangeably. For example, I can refer to week before the current week as ‘last week’, but I can also say ‘in the previous week’. However, the word last also has a different meaning, namely that of final or ultimate. For example, if I were to change jobs, I could say ‘this is my last week’. It is important to keep that in mind when using the word last, because it can lead to confusion and ambiguity.

A good example, often encountered in scientific writing, is the following. When you refer to the previous chapter in a text or book, the expression

In the last chapter, …

is misleading because it can also be interpreted as referring to the final chapter of the book. Therefore, you should either write

In the previous chapter, …

or, even better,

In chapter x,

where x is the number of the chapter you are referring to.

Note that the same problem also exists in German, where the phrase

Im letzten Kapitel…

can either mean ‘in the previous chapter’ or ‘in the final chapter’. Both cases can be translated as ‘in the last chapter’, but the expression is ambiguous.

briefly vs. shortly

This is a tricky one, and as is often the case with languages, there are people who argue that the two words can indeed be used as synonyms. However, according to the majority of sources I consulted, and in line with my gut feeling of the English language, briefly and shortly are not interchangeable, and indeed can have a very different meaning.  Let us first consider the adjectives brief and short, which state that whatever they are describing lasts only for a short period of time. For example,

He will pay us a short visit.

is equivalent to

He will pay us a brief visit.

However, the adverbs briefly and shortly have a rather different meaning. The sentence

He will come over briefly.

means that he will come over and stay for a short time, whereas the sentence

He will come over shortly.

implies that he will come over very soon and stay for an unspecified amount of time.

As you can see, using the wrong word can completely change the meaning. Depending on the context, that may have dramatic consequences. The warning

We will briefly switch off the internet.

sounds rather harmless, whereas

We will shortly switch off the internet

will make people much more nervous!