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Two pairs of frequently confused words

March 24, 2016

Today I thought I’d blog about two pairs of frequently confused words. I’ve been meaning to do this for ages but never quite felt strongly enough about it to do so; but now I’m waiting in for a man to come and repair my boiler so this is a good way to while away the time. The first pair of words is partake/participate. They start off in a similar way and their meanings are not completely disconnected so it is not surprising that people mix them up. It’s often thought that partake means take part. It sounds as if it should. But it means share, usually in the context of food; it’s a synonym for have a bit, when other people are having a bit too. “Are you partaking?” you might ask somebody after you’ve cut up a cake, if they look as if they can’t make up their mind whether to have any. Participate, on the other hand, does mean take part, or join in. You participate in an activity rather than a cake. We should also note that they are followed by different prepositions: you partake of, but participate in.

The other pair of words is common and commonplace. People often use the latter instead of the former, in the belief that it’s a more impressive way of saying it: same meaning, extra syllables. But the meaning is not the same. Common means popular or widespread, of course. Commonplace, however, is a more negative term for something that’s hackneyed, trite or over-obvious: a commonplace remark, for instance. It can also be used as a noun, to mean a familiar fact: “It’s a commonplace that the youth of today perceive the world through their smartphones.”

Well, that passed the time. But the boilerman still hasn’t come.

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  1. Matt permalink

    Can one participate in the partaking of cake then?
    It is interesting (and worrying) that an online search suggests partake to be taking part in an awful lot of sites. It may be best not to participate in partaking their information then.

  2. Patricia willis permalink

    Sent from my Samsung device

  3. “It’s often thought that partake means take part.”

    I am confused over this. According to the dictionary:


    1. eat or drink (something).
    “he partook of a well-earned drink”

    2. join in (an activity).
    “visitors can partake in golfing or clay pigeon shooting”

    Therefore to participate in something is to partake in it, they appear to be exact synonyms. So why doesn’t partake mean to take part? Please do explain.

  4. Your comment has left me confused too. “Visitors can partake in golfing” sounds plain wrong to me. But you’ve found a dictionary that gives it. Perhaps this simply reflects common usage now. That’s what people are saying and it is a dictionary’s job to record that. It still does not sound right to me. But perhaps I am out of date!

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