And since I'm apparently being Writing Curmudgeon Guy lately, I think it's time for another installment of "words easily confused." (To see previous editions, search my journal for the phrase "words easily" (no quotes)—that'll show the whole series.)
As usual, an asterisk indicates an incorrect-usage example. I made up all the examples; they're not quotes from anyone in particular.
- I keep seeing writers use descendant when they mean ancestor, and vice versa.
- Another one I've seen a lot lately: imminently for eminently. (* "She was imminently qualified," * "Their doom was eminent.")
- honing in on for homing in on.
- atop of, sort of combining atop with on top of. I'd probably be fine with atop of in dialect or some kinds of dialogue, but probably not in semiformal prose.
- Common misspelling: shinny for shiny.
- Another one: jist for gist.
- Very common misspelling: fair for fare. (* "How fairs the night?")
- Here's one that annoys me all out of proportion to its severity: sirrah is not a synonym for sir. In fact, it's almost an antonym: sirrah is a term of disrespect, implying that the person being addressed is inferior to the speaker. Perhaps it annoys me so much 'cause I too assumed that they must be synonyms all through my youth; I suspect I just leapt to conclusions, but it's possible that I encountered a misuse of it in a fantasy novel at an early age.
- Here's one that the dictionary says isn't wrong, but that annoys me nonetheless: use of grizzly for grisly. "It was a grizzly sight" makes me think of bears.
- viscous for vicious. (* "It's a viscous circle.")
- To toe the line is to put your toe on an imaginary line; it means to obey the rules. (Brewer's says it comes from runners in a race having to line up, all with their toes on the same line.) It's not tow the line.
- I hear that people are starting to write shoe-in for shoo-in. In case any of y'all are confused, a shoo-in is a sure winner. (I assume it's the same shoo as "shoo, fly, don't bother me"; has nothing to do with (for example) getting one's shoe in the door.) I've read that shoo-in was introduced to the general public by Damon Runyon; I don't know for sure that that's true, but it seems plausible, given that its first-citation date in MW11 is 1937.
- This one is one of those old "spelling demons," but it's been popping up everywhere lately, even (iIrc) in news stories: principle to refer to the most important thing or person. Should, of course, be principal. I think maybe people know that principal refers to the head of a school ("the principal is your pal"), and so they think that must be the only valid use of the word. (* "The food was the principle reason I stuck around.")
- Several times lately, I've seen authors use the phrase dry heaves to refer to vomiting. The term specifically refers to retching that doesn't bring anything up; that's what the "dry" part means.
- unwieldly for unwieldy.
- whet for wet and vice versa. (* "Wet your appetite," * "Whet your whistle.")
- want for wont. (* "He had eggs for breakfast, as was his want.")
- site for sight. (* "He looked through the gun's site," * "Let's stop by the construction sight.")
The following items are so common they're probably not even errors; I suspect many educated people consider them perfectly reasonable. But they sure look wrong to me.
- stepped foot on instead of set foot on. Google gives about 178K search results for the former, and about 2.15M search results for the latter. Possibly a regional dialect thing? Not sure.
- The construction both A as well as B. I can say "both A and B," and I can say "A as well as B," but the combined form really sets my teeth on edge. But at least one writer who I like and respect a great deal uses this construction and sees nothing wrong with it, so I can't quite say it's wrong per se.