Grammar Moses: I hope this column amuses, but does not bemuse, you

We all know there is a vast difference between "genital" and "congenital." Though the words are derived from the same concept, you can get into a real pickle if you misuse them in conversation.

But what of "genial" and "congenial"?

I apologize for the clickbait, but I had to lure you into this topic somehow.

I'm convinced that almost no one knows the difference between the two words.

Using Google's Ngram Viewer, I learned that "congenial" in 1835 was 67 percent more popular than "genial." But in 1850, "genial" suddenly exploded in popularity, becoming 70 percent more common than "congenial" by 1869. Both words have declined in use since then, though by 2000 "congenial" was back on top, being used almost twice as often as "genial."

That is a great big nothingburger, as politicians love to say, but I'll bet the short-lived dominance of "genial" had a lot to do with a couple of popular authors of that time.

So, Moses, what is the difference between "genial" and "congenial"?

Both words describe an agreeability and pleasantness, but "genial" describes a single person, while "congenial" describes a shared agreeability between people.

In short, your waiter might be "genial," while you and your spouse are "congenial" - if you're lucky.


If you're still reading, how about a show of hands for those who know the difference between "instantly" and "instantaneously"?

Lest you think I'm trying to trick you, they are not necessarily interchangeable.

"Instantly" means at once.

"When the pizza man rang the door bell, I appeared before him instantly - before the first peal had subsided."

"Instantaneously" has a specific meaning in science but a few non-science applications:

• Lasting just a moment.

• When two or more things happen simultaneously and are over quickly.

• Instantly.

So, something that happens at once can occur both "instantly" and "instantaneously," but the converse doesn't always hold true.


Consider interment and internment. These two words look quite similar and in everyday speech sound quite a bit alike; one normally breezes past the second N in "internment" to avoid a sprained tongue.

"Interment" means burial. You see it often in obituaries.

"Internment" is the state of being confined as a prisoner. Think of the internment camps of World War II.

At the risk of offending everyone, if you were buried alive you would be both interred and interned.

For your amusement

While I'm on the topic of words that are similar, what is the difference between "amuse" and "bemuse"?

Unlike, "instantly" and "instantaneously," the two words are altogether different species.

To amuse is to entertain. To bemuse is to bewilder.

Here's a quick way to remember the difference: Comedians amuse. Lawyers bemuse.

And magicians do both.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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