August 2008 Archives

Words easily confused #19

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Time for another installment in my Words easily confused series. (For more recent installments, see the errors category of this blog.)

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

This time around, for all the items that are on the Common Errors in English page or in the Eggcorns database, I've just provided links rather than comments.

bellow for below
Just a typo, but a spellchecker won't catch it.
conscience for conscious
Amazed I haven't mentioned this one before; very common error.
envelop for envelope
Common error.
hair-brained for hare-brained
Common error; also eggcorn.
lumpen for lumpy
The definition of "lumpen" is a little complicated, but in essence the term refers to lower-class people. It has nothing to do with being lumpy.
moral for morale
Common error.
nuptual for nuptial
This is one that I often get wrong, embarrassingly. Common error.
palette cleanser for palate cleanser
I saw this twice in an hour, in two different places, back in May. Common error.
Writers often say "she palmed the pill" to mean "she shook the pill out of the bottle and into her palm," not realizing that the verb "palm" has specific connotations of stealth. It's what magicians do, for example: they palm items to make them seem to disappear.
peddle for pedal
Common error; also eggcorn.
queue for cue
As in * "That's my queue to say..." Common error; also eggcorn.
sometimes for sometime
This one's a little tricky. "Sometime" can mean either "former" ("my sometime occupation") or "at some point" ("come see me sometime"). "Sometimes" has a similar meaning to the latter, but not, in my usage, to the former; I can't say * "my sometimes occupation." However, MW11 has an entry for "sometimes" as an adjective meaning "sometime," dating back to the 16th century or so, so apparently I'm wrong about this. Still, I don't recommend this usage.
wail (or wale) for whale
Most commonly in "wail away" or "wail on"; to "whale" or "whale on" something is to strike, hit, or thrash it. "Wail away on the guitar" might be correct in some contexts, but most of the time it's a mistake. Common error; also eggcorn.
wile away for while away
Common error.
wiz kid for whiz kid
Clearly an eggcorn, but not listed yet in the eggcorn database. A whiz kid is someone who is a whiz at something; the word "whiz" may ultimately derive from "wizard" (MW11 is uncertain), but "wiz kid" is incorrect. I imagine part of the confusion here might derive from the line from The Wizard of Oz: "You'll find he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was!"
woebegotten for woebegone? or maybe for misbegotten?
Is this a regionalism of some sort? I've seen it a couple of times now, and I'm always a little mystified.
ya'll for y'all
This is just a misspelling, or maybe I mean mispunctuation. Apostrophes go where letters are missing; in this case, the apostrophe marks the missing "ou". There wouldn't be any reason for the apostrophe to appear after the "a." A remarkable number of well-educated people were never taught that apostrophes denote missing letters (or numbers), and thus ended up with some odd ideas about apostrophe use in certain contexts. (Yes, there are other correct uses for apostrophes too. But there's always a reason for their presence in any given context; they're not just flavoring to be sprinkled over a word.)

that of

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In the past few days, I keep seeing people misuse the phrase "that of" in the same kind of way, apparently for emphasis. Like this:

* My primary concern is that of earthquakes.

Where the speaker meant to say that their primary concern is earthquakes themselves; but that's not what "that of earthquakes" means.

Here's one possible way to test whether you've incorrectly put "that of" in a sentence that has the structure "My A is that of B":

  1. Replace "that of" with "the A of". (* "My primary concern is the concern of earthquakes.") Or replace "that of B" with "the same A as B's". (* "My primary concern is the same concern as earthquakes's.")
  2. If the sentence doesn't read smoothly, then you've probably misused "that of."

The problem with the above test is that there are some borderline-inappropriate uses that pass the test:

* My subject tonight is that of grammar.

* The company's core business is that of computer graphics.

In both cases, you could argue that the sentence is correct, and both cases sort of pass my above test: "My subject tonight is the subject of grammar"; "The company's core business is the business of computer graphics." But in both cases, the "that of" is redundant.

So here's another test, probably better: just cut "that of" from the sentence, and see if the sentence still makes sense; if it does, then you were probably misusing "that of."

I think there's a subject/object confusion at the heart of the misuse; in the standard use of "that of," the B in the phrase "that of B" is a person or organization that owns (or to which can be attributed) the thing named by A.

Here's an example of how to use "that of" correctly:

His premise was that of Newton: that matter and energy are distinct.

In other words, his premise was the same as Newton's premise.

I imagine this is yet another case where my prescriptivist side will have to learn to live with the new phrasing; I suspect it's becoming more widespread over time. But it bugs me.

Of course, for all I know, the usage I'm objecting to has been around longer than I have; I don't currently have any easy way to check on that. If any of you know, let me know.

(Wrote this back in March, but neglected to post it.)

Falling in line

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A CNN article this morning, talking about Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, notes: "Kaine could help Obama fall in the Democrats' column for the first time in 44 years."

Presumably it meant "Virginia" instead of "Obama."

This may be fixed by the time you see this entry, but I was amused enough to post about it anyway.


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Cute typo in New York Times movie page:

Two lifelong plutonic friends, strapped for cash and in debt, decide to make a porno.

--from the page for Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Yes, that's meant to be "platonic." But I sorta like the idea of plutonic friends.

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