Dissociate/disassociate, preventive/preventative, recur/reoccur and other mischievous/mischievious word pairs

We’ve all been there: You’re about to write or say a word when you realize there are two forms and you don’t know which is correct. One of them is shorter, like dissociate, the other seems more logical, like disassociate.

Maybe you’re struggling to choose between preventive and preventative. Or recur vs. reoccur, dissemble vs. disassemble, mischievous vs. mischievious, flammable vs. inflammable, comment vs. commentate.

Which do you choose? And how do you know?

Sometimes in language there’s a blanket solution, like “The one that sounds best is probably best.” But with these word pairs, there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. The only way to be sure is to look them up.

Here are some word pairs you can only navigate with a dictionary.

Disassociate/dissociate. I’ve never been comfortable with either of these words. They both sound a little wrong to me. So I usually find a workaround, like “avoid” or “not associate with” or “sever ties with.” Now that I’ve finally looked them up, I can see that all my mental gymnastics were unnecessary: dissociate and disassociate are synonyms, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which argues that playing favorites here is silly: “Dissociate is recommended by a number of commentators on the basis that it is shorter, which it is by a grand total of two letters — not the firmest ground for an endorsement. Both words are in current good use, but disassociate is used more often in the U.S.”

Disassemble/dissemble. If English were logical, disassemble/dissemble would work just like dissociate/disassociate. But it’s not, so these words have two completely different meanings. To disassemble means to take something apart — to do the opposite of assembling it. But to dissemble means to lie or otherwise misrepresent something. They’re not interchangeable.

For more, see my recent column here.

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