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Words easily confused (or misspelled, or not) #14


Time for another installment. (To see previous editions, search my journal for the phrase "words easily" (no quotes)—that'll show the whole series.)

  • defiant and definite are often misspelled as each other.
  • I keep seeing develope for develop (perhaps related to envelope/envelop?) (but MW3 lists develope as an acceptable alternate spelling, even though MW10 doesn't.)
  • In old science fiction books, I used to regularly encounter emphatic where they meant empathic; I'm guessing this one was an overzealous copy editor's fault.
  • exalt and exult are often confused with each other.
  • Another common phonetic typo: here for hear. I'm fascinated by phonetic typos, and by how easy they are to make; the typo must be generated somewhere between the intent (which usually has the right word in mind) and sending the "type these letters" command to the fingers. I suppose this is no different from speech mistakes where the speaker honestly meant to say something different from what came out, but somehow the fact that it's a phonetic mistake appearing in a written medium makes it seem odd to me.
  • Here's one that's not a mistake at all: lense is an acceptable alternate spelling for lens. I started seeing this only in the past few years, and thought at first that it was a typo.
  • Another common mistake: mixing up populace (a noun) and populous (an adjective), usually in phrases like * "The entire populous rose up against the King."
  • I see wretch for retch fairly often, presumably because retching makes one feel wretched.
  • Jay L. mentioned this in passing in a comment a while back: tact for tack (often in phrases like * "Try another tact.")
  • Another common one: vice for vise, as in "He put the wood in a vice." But MW10 says this is an acceptable, though chiefly British, variant spelling, so never mind.

Finally, an item that's been on a lot of people's minds lately: the pronunciation "nucular." I'm not happy with that pronunciation, but MW10 lists it as an acceptable alternate. The usage note adds:

Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in \-ky&-l&r\ have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, U.S. cabinet members, and at least one U.S. president and one vice president. While most common in the U.S., these pronunciations have also been heard from British and Canadian speakers.

So you can certainly complain about the pronunciation, but you may have to resign yourself to it becoming more and more common over time. For those inclined to note that that pronunciation doesn't correspond to how the word is spelled, think about how most people pronounce February in casual conversation.


Although, oddly, there is some evidence that the use of 'nukyular' is associated only with certain phrases, such as nuclear weapons, nuclear threat, nuclear bombs, and nuclear [weapons] program. The same politicians who use the 'lar' ending seem to often use the 'lear' ending in phrases such as nuclear plant, nuclear energy, and nuclear medicine.
This research (which I ought to link to, but I'm squeezed for time) leads me to wonder if in fact they are two separate words, perhaps describing two entirely different subatomic processes...


Seeing "definate" for "definite" does poink at me, but isn't nearly as irritating as seeing or hearing various tenses of "lay" used for "lie". I was laying in bed makes me listen for the object--yes, what were you laying? Likewise "Last night when I laid on the couch" I'm thinking, "Laid what? More exciting a living room life than mine!"

I'm wondering if Lie and Lay are going to go nucular.

So you can certainly complain about the pronunciation, but you may have to resign yourself to it becoming more and more common over time.

It certainly makes life as a linguistics major awkward, but things like "nucular" and "aks" remain just plain wrong to my ear. I may have to resign myself to (mis)pronunciations like these becoming common over time, but I do not accept them as legitimate evolution of language. There's a difference between sound changes and letters becoming silent, on the one hand, and a resequencing of phonemes that is noticably and jarringly different from the proper pronunciation (as indicated by the spelling) on the other.

(For what it's worth, I also pronounce the first "r" in "February" much like "library", though hearing the common "Febuary" pronunciation doesn't have as strong an effect on me as "nucular", because it's just a consonant becoming silent, rather than a resequencing of phonemes. But the less-frequently encountered "Feburary" does grate on me every bit as much as "nucular".)

V.: Fascinating; if you happen to come across the research again, I'd love to see a pointer to it.

Sherwood: I'm embarrassed to confess that I sometimes have to go look up the lie/lay/laid/lain distinction to be sure I've got it right. For anyone who's not entirely clear on it, take a look at this lie vs. lay chart. ...When I was at Clarion, Emma Bull relayed a comment that I think a teacher had given her: "only bad girls and chickens lay."

Will: On the one hand, I agree with you that they sound just plain wrong; on the other hand, I suspect that's always true when language changes. Just think what people must've said about the distortions in mushroom and raccoon when they were first entering English. ...Btw, I would say that "nukyular" isn't so much a resequencing of phonemes as an insertion of a syllable or a sound; it mostly just inserts a hard "y" sound (/j/ in ASCII IPA) between two syllables. It hadn't occurred to me 'til you mentioned it that the common pronunciation of "Febuary" is effectively just removing the /r/; I had been thinking of it as replacing the /r/ with a /j/.

I'm obliquely reminded to mention: did y'all see Shmuel's discussion of the Pretentious Pendant dialect of English in comments to an entry of mine last year? Well worth taking a look at. (Before you take offense at the name of the dialect, note that Shmuel is himself a fluent speaker of it, as am I.)

A really odd confusion that I've heard recently is "inevitably" used where people seem to mean "eventually." (In contexts like, "Well, we tried X and that didn't fix the problem, and then we tried Y, and that didn't fix it either, so inevitably we swapped out the capacitor and we got a signal back.")

I caught myself today trying to decide between "wearwolf" and "wherewolf", before my morning coffee kicked in and my brain coughed up "werewolf". D'oh.

I've caught myself making this one before, but I saw it today somewhere else, and the context made me laugh:

a hoard of people instead of a horde...

I immediately imagined a little leather pouch full of tiny people, buried by some Roman or Celt and uncovered years later by an unsuspecting archaeologist.

Speech recognition systems are only going to add to this. I recently started using one and the errors really bother me. Those sorts of sounds-like errors always strike me as childish and irritating.

I make homophone errors all the time. I also subvocalize when I'm writing--I can hear the words as i type them, so I think that might 'help' me mix up words as well.

So far as Lie vs lay, the house my dad bought was owned by a retired english professor (at one time Philip Roth's english professor), and her caretaker, a college ish girl who kept an eye on her. One day, the girl comes home and the old lady is at the foot of the stairs. The girl is rightly freaked out and says, "Oh my god, just lay there, don't move, I'll call the doctor." And the old lady says, "lie. just lie there."

Lense may be correct, but Lenseman is wrong.

V wonders if nuclear and nucular are two different words, describing different subatomic processes. Indeed. Perhaps nuclear describes fusion, wearas nucular discribes frisson. Fishin. Whatever.


Try this note (and its sequel) on the Language Log, which references this essay by Fresh Air commentator and blogosphere whipping boy Geoff Nunberg. Mr. Nunberg also points out that if you think of 'nuclear' as stemming from the noun 'nuke' rather than from the far less frequently encountered noun 'nucleus', then 'nucular' would be a likelier adjective than 'nuclear', all the same particle/particular.

I should point out, though, that contrary to my recollection, Mr. Nunberg seems to have done no research on the topic beyond one conversation, nor does he reference any research elsewhere. So my above statement that 'there is some evidence that... ' should be corrected to read 'there is almost no evidence that... '.

Surely lense is the verb, no?


There's a verb form of lens(e)?

Anyway, I like the Language Log link. Thanks, V.

I wonder whether some of those "alternates" are typos anyway, e.g. people stick an extra "e" on lens by mistake but it happens to make an alternate spelling.

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