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Words easily confused #17

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Been a while since I've done one of these. For previous installments, see my Words easily confused category.

(Wrote most of this last week, I think, but didn't manage to finish and post it 'til now.)

As usual, an asterisk indicates an incorrect-usage example. I made up all the examples; they’re not quotes from anyone in particular.

  • "all but X" doesn't mean the same thing as "nothing but X." I've seen constructions like * "The water had slowed to all but a trickle"; that should be "nothing but a trickle." "All but X" means (basically) "almost X" ("He was all but exhausted"); "nothing but X" means "only X."
  • I see this a lot these days: "all of the sudden" (or sometimes "all the sudden") in place of the more traditional phrase "all of a sudden." In fact, "all of the sudden" is so common lately that I suspect it'll be widely accepted by ten years from now. But for now, I'd still consider it an error.
  • A common typo: "attach" for "attack" (and vice versa).
  • I'm surprised I haven't mentioned this before, but perhaps that's because the dictionary says it's not an error: the traditional past tense of "bid" is "bade," as in "She bade me adieu." I fairly often see people use "bid" as the past tense of "bid," which sounds wrong to me, but MW11 lists "bid" as a perfectly valid past tense. Also, "bade" traditionally rhymes with "had," not with "made," but MW11 lists the rhymes-with-"made" pronunciation as an acceptable alternate, so this is yet another case where the language has moved on and left me behind, alas.
  • Another one I'm surprised I haven't mentioned before: "born" doesn't mean the same thing as "borne." The distinction here is a subtle one: "Use born only in passive constructions referring to birth[...]. For all other uses, including active constructions referring to birth, use borne." (American Heritage Book of English Usage, 1996) See also the slightly more complicated but perhaps more enlightening discussion in Columbia Guide to Standard American English, 1993. Note that the birth may be metaphorical rather than literal; for example, you can say that a war was "born of ancient enmity" but not that it was * "borne of ancient enmity." (Amusing aside: for some reason, the Tiscali reference page with the heading born or borne merely says "The phrase is pronounced [boner-fie-dee]." It took me a while to figure out that that description was meant for the "bona fide" page; "boner-fie-dee" would be totally wrong in US pronunciation, but is presumably fine in UK pronunciation.)
  • I fairly often see "comradery" in place of "camaraderie." It turns out that this isn't actually a mistake; "comradery" dates back to 1879. Still, in my experience "camaraderie" is a much more common spelling, and I think it's usually what people are aiming for when they write "comradery."
  • The word "decry" is not a fancy or archaic way of saying "cry." To "decry" is to speak against something, to criticize.
  • Another common typo: "exited" for "excited."
  • Very common: "explicative" for "expletive." An explicative is a phrase that explicates, or explains, something. An expletive is (basically) a swear word.
  • I'm not certain of this, but I think some writers think that "faux" is pronounced the same as "fox," and/or that the two words are related in some way. "Faux" is pronounced like "foe," and means "false"; it has nothing to do with foxes.
  • I occasionally see writers insert a space into "himself" to get "him self."
  • I see "illicit" and "elicit" confused with each other fairly often.
  • For years, I saw "imply" and "infer" on lists of words that people commonly confused with each other, but that always surprised me, because the meanings seem so clear and distinct to me and because I never saw/heard anyone mix them up. But in the past year or two, I've seen or heard quite a few people say things like * "Your statement inferred that I was wrong."
  • A couple of times lately I've seen people write "in an instance" when they meant "in an instant."
  • "Lath" is a building material. A "lathe" is a machine tool. The former generally rhymes with "bath," the latter with "bathe."
  • David M. mentioned, in comments on one of my previous words-easily-confused entries, that "led" is the past tense of "lead"; I mention it now 'cause I've been seeing a fair bit lately of people writing things like * "He lead them into battle."
  • Everyone knows what "liberation" is, but some people don't seem to be clear on the fact that a "libration point" (derived ultimately from Latin libra, meaning "scales") is not a * "liberation point," or on how either of those terms differs from a "libation."
  • One of the most common typos I see is inserting a space or a hyphen in "makeup." Lipstick and eye shadow and such are "makeup," not "make up" or "make-up."
  • "Pixilated" (also "pixillated") is an old slang term for "drunk." "Pixelated" refers to dots ("pixels") being visible on a computer or television screen. (More specifically, it sometimes refers to a computerized blurring effect, used to disguise faces or other body parts, also known as "pixelization.") To confuse matters further, Wikipedia says that "pixilation" is a stop-motion animation technique.
  • Several times recently I've seen people write things like * "He was lying prostate" when they mean "prostrate." (And remember that "prostrate" (like "prone") is, technically, lying on your front, while "supine" is lying on your back. But I imagine most people don't really care about that distinction any more.)
  • "Renown" is a noun; "renowned" is an adjective. * "He was a renown warrior" is incorrect. If you're writing high fantasy, the phrase you want is "a warrior of renown"; otherwise, it's probably "a renowned warrior."
  • Quite common: writing "rogue" in place of "rouge," or vice versa. * "He had rogued cheeks"; * "She had the smile of a rouge."
  • Finally, if someone puts themselves down, that's "self-deprecating," not "self-depreciating." However (this is really confusing, and I didn't know it 'til just now), "self-depreciation" is a valid spelling for the noun form (as is "self-deprecation"). Wacky.

6 Comments

OMG, I loved that. You must indulge in a lot of ibuprofen (or whatever your over-the-counter pain reliever med of choice is.)

And yes, some of us still care about the difference between supine and prostrate. :)


I refused to believe that "self-depreciation" means the same thing as "self-deprecation". They come from different roots all the way back to *PIE.


Hmm...yeah, I think bid/bade has moved on; "bade" sounds archaic to me. "He bid me adieu" sounds much better than "He bade me adieu." And don't get me started on "What did you bid?" "I bade four no-trump."


David: the funny thing is that MW3 (unabridged, but older) doesn't list "self-deprecation" at all, and defines "self-deprecating" as "given to self-depreciation." MW11 (abridged, but newer) does list "self-deprecation," but only in the long list of "self-" words, so doesn't give any info on date of first use etc. So that sounds to me like "self-deprecation" is a relatively new coinage, perhaps a back-formation. But I still haven't gotten around to signing up for the OED, so I'm not sure. Anyone know more?

J7y: Wow--"He bid me adieu" sounds totally wrong to me. Amazing how different native speakers' intuitions can be. ...Good point about "bid" in the sense of card games (also auctions); really, all the options for past tense in those contexts sound wrong to me. "She bid $20, then he bid $30, and the bidding war was on." Marginally better than "bade" in that context (to my ear, I mean), but not much. Huh. I don't think I've heard "bade" in those senses, but I can't swear I've heard "bid" in those senses either.


The worst is being an allegedly educated guy (me) and butchering the pronunciation of some of these words. Cases in point: After prevailing at a hearing a few years ago, I was on the courthouse steps with our atty, congratulating him for his mastery of "self-depreciation." Too polite to correct me directly, he mentioned "self-deprecation" in his next sentence.

Next--and this is really awful--on the day I graduated from business school, I said to my father that someone was the epitome of something, but I said "eppy-TOME" (as in big book), not "eh-pit-a-me." Peter corrected me, but wow, how embarrassing, how did that slip out...I knew better.

And finally, a pet peeve: dictionary usage panels are gravely headed in the wrong direction on "unique." Increasingly, usage panels are saying that constructions like "very unique" or "highly unique" are acceptable, whereas it was formerly almost universally considered redundant to use such constructions. The pell-mell bastardization of the English language!


Just saw an interesting "words confused" typo: instead of wanting a concept to "sink in" (i.e. into someone's head), wanting it to "sync in". And it makes a certain sense -- getting your brain in synch with the concept, you know. I saw it in a blog note from a Microsoft manager about writing performance reviews for his employees.


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