In this episode of Commonly Confused, I’m going to discuss the commonly confused pairs ascent/assent and descent/decent. Although dissent may have seemed a more likely choice, given its meaning, I find it’s not misused nearly as often as decent is in this situation.
Let’s start at the bottom. From Merriam-Webster, ascent is the act of ascending or rising; a moving or mounting upward. In layman’s terms, an ascent is a climb or an upward motion.
“Fred stared at the mountain knowing his ascent would be slow and arduous.”
“Jillian’s ascent from the mailroom to the boardroom was nothing short of astonishing.”
On the other hand, assent is agreement or acknowledgment of a truth.
“Wrapped up in the conference call, the CFO gave a nod of assent and gestured for his assistant to enter his office.”
On paper, the meanings of these words couldn’t be less similar. But due to the close spelling, it’s understandable how they are often confused. The trick is to remember that ascent is the noun form of ascend, which means to rise. And assent has nothing to do with either of them. So unless you’re talking about climbing or moving in an upward motion, it’s not ascent.
Working our way down, let’s look at the work descent. Without even checking with Webster, I can tell you that a descent is the opposite of an ascent and, therefore, is a downward motion or an act of descending from one level to another.
“The captain came over the loudspeaker and told the passengers they were about to begin the descent into Dallas.”
Unfortunately, very often this word is misspelled as decent, which of course has a completely different meaning. Well, actually, a series of meanings. Paraphrasing from Merriam-Webster, decent is socially acceptable or proper, tasteful and appropriate to circumstance, fairly good but not excellent, adequately clothed, or marked by goodwill—not cruel.
“She made decent time on the drive home, but she would have been here sooner if it hadn’t been for that flat tire.”
“It was the decent thing to do—he couldn’t leave the poor woman stranded on the side of the road, could he?”
In the same way assent and ascent are confused, descent and decent are confused simply because of the similar spellings. So you just need to remember that descent derives from descend, and it needs that S. If something’s socially acceptable or good enough, it’s decent.
What other commonly confused pairs have you stumbled upon? Let us know!