Words easily confused #16

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.

21 Responses to “Words easily confused #16”

  1. Cheryl

    I got a review request today from someone with a book coming out from PublishAmerica. She’d managed to confuse “antagonist” with “protagonist”, and “heroin” with “heroine”.

  2. David Moles

    Writing’s a lot harder than it apparently looks to a lot of people.

  3. Michael

    Writings alot harder then it aparently looks two alot of peepel.

  4. Tom

    Recently I reviewed a resume that listed one previously held position as “Principle Writer”. On the other hand, it was their first position after a stint at Microsoft, so it might have been Freudian. 🙂

  5. Simon

    One that I see both ways: “to wit”, or “to whit” (in the sense of “that is to say”). Which is correct?

  6. Kathleen

    All these have been great and I have been taking notes. Are you familiar with the Common Errors in English website?

    It’s a fabulous resource; I use it all the time, and refer my library users there.

  7. Jed

    Cheryl and Tom: Yikes!

    Simon: It’s “to wit,” from (sez MW11) a Middle English phrase meaning “to know.” The only correct use of whit that I’m familiar with is as a noun meaning “small bit,” as in “He cared not a whit what anyone thought.”

    Kathleen: Yup, a cool site; I’ve known about it for a while, but I almost never think to look there, so thanks for the link!

    Another extremely useful site for this sort of thing is the alt.usage.english FAQ.

  8. Cheryl

    Michael obviously gets asked to review the same self-published books that I do. He’s got the writing style off pat.

  9. Hannah

    >and “heroin” with “heroine”.

    I saw that one in a workshop story, once, and found it utterly, utterly charming. I _love_ the idea of a ‘heroine addict.’

  10. irilyth

    If “shoo-in” comes from “sure winner”, it might just be a sounds-like thing. (In which case, I’m not sure what the “shoo” in “shoo, fly” comes from… http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=shoo says that it’s from the German “schu”, and agrees with your assessment that shoo-in derives from it. But I’m struck by how much “shoo-in” sounds like “sure win”.)

  11. Jed

    Cheryl and Hannah: I just remembered that “heroine” is actually a valid alternative spelling for “heroin,” according to MW3 (unabridged). But I would probably recommend avoiding that spelling to reduce confusion. And “heroin” is not a valid alternative spelling for “heroine.”

    Irility: Interesting notion; you could be right. (Though I don’t know that the phrase actually derives from “sure winner”; they may just be synonyms, and (all together now) etymology by sound is not sound etymology.) I always had an image of a horse being shooed across the finish line, but I probably just made that up; I don’t think I have any basis for it.

  12. Hono

    I’m not so sure you’re clearly in the right about “home in on” and “hone in on”. See the linguists discuss it here and here, among others.

  13. David D. Levine

    One of my pet peeves, seen often even from educated people: “parent’s” for “parents'” (expecially “at my parent’s house”) when I know for sure that the person in question has two living parents.

  14. SarahP

    Here’s what the OED has for shoo, Jed (the fourth entry gives a ‘shoo’ earlier than Runyon), and note the Italian origin of the word. (How I love the OED).

    f. SHOO int.1 Cf. It. scioiare (Florio)

    1. trans. a. To scare or drive away (fowls, etc.) by calling out ‘shoo’ or by means of movement or gestures. Also with away, from, off, out (of). Also transf.
    1622 BRETON Strange News (Grosart) 12/2 With that the Cock-master came in..and shought away the Hen. c1798 T. BROWN Awd Daisy 40 Ah waved my hat an’ shoo’d ’em all away. 1819 W. TENNANT Papistry Storm’d iii. (1827) 106 Think alswa How to rebut and schue awa Thir damnit faes. 1872 ‘SUSAN COOLIDGE’ What Katy did viii, ‘Shue’~ing away the other children. 1912 CHESTERTON Manalive 161 ‘Get inside! get inside!’ cried Moon hilariously, with the air of one shooing a company of cats. 1919 CONRAD Arrow of Gold I. i. 9 Shells were falling all round till a tiny French gunboat..shooed the Numancia away out of territorial waters. 1938 W. DE LA MARE Memory 14 She shoo’d it away with her gloves. 1959 D. BEATY Cone of Silence ii. 25 Then she shooed cups and plate away from her. 1959 Listener 15 Jan. 113/2 He shakes or nods his head to shoo the flies away. 1973 ‘H. CARMICHAEL’ Too Late for Tears viii. 108 Hope you won’t mind if I shoo you out now. I’ve got work to do. 1977 Time 22 Aug. 10/1 Israeli artillery regularly fires into south Lebanon to shoo away Palestinian guerrillas from Lebanese Christian enclaves in the border area.

    b. To drive or urge (a person, animal, etc.) in a desired direction.
    1903 N.Y. Sun 17 Nov. 12 The police shoo everybody to the south side of the loops. 1923 ‘B. M. BOWER’ Parowan Bonanza xiii. 151 You’re supposed to shoo a lady gently before you down the aisle. 1946 M. DICKENS Happy Prisoner xi. 267 The first pony had already been shooed into the ring. 1973 M. AMIS Rachel Papers 150, I do not churlishly flatten her on to the sofa nor shoo her downstairs.

    2. intr. To cry out ‘shoo’ in order to frighten or drive away fowls, etc. Const. at.
    c1746 J. COLLIER (Tim Bobbin) View Lanc. Dial. (1806) 22 Still they kept shuing. 1881 M. L. MOLESWORTH Adv. Herr Baby 120 It was very funny to see the way the little footman went ‘shoo-ing’ at the poor cat.

    3. To hasten away, as after being ‘shooed at’.
    1851 STERNBERG Northampt. Gloss. 95 Lady lock, lady lock! shoo all the way home. a1869 C. SPENCE Fr. Braes of Carse (1898) 192 The fairies..beat the beldames blank and hollow, And sent them sheughing down the Ballo’. 1882 P. ROBINSON Under the Sun III. v. 213 If the domestic says shoo to her [the cat] she shoos at once.

    4. trans. With in, to allow a racehorse to win easily. U.S. slang. Cf. SHOO-IN.
    1908 G. E. SMITH Racing Maxims & Methods of ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ ix. 123 There were many times presumably that ‘Tod’ would win through such manipulations, being ‘shooed in’, as it were. 1935 D. RUNYON Money from Home 128 They are going to shoo in Never Despair. 1976 New Yorker 22 Mar. 85/2 To be sure, Shoemaker’s confreres could have shooed him in long before this, but jockeys never, never do such things.

  15. David Moles

    So what sort of character would a “methadon” be?

  16. SarahP

    A crack addict mammoth?

  17. Ted

    I was thinking it’d be a drug-addicted kingpin of a Mafia family.

  18. Meromaine

    I just did a search on the web to clarify my memory of when, if ever, it is appropriate to use “to whit,” which brought me here. (Thanks for the reality check, Jed.) May I just say I love you all? Having just had an extended and bitter argument with my boss about the correct usage of the apostrophe when the subject is plural (he idiotically insists that apostrophe “s” is appropriate with some plural subjects, such as “attorney’s” as the possessive form for multiple attorneys, though he cannot articulate his rule), I feel that I have found my spiritual home.

  19. Jed

    Welcome, Meromaine! Glad to be of use, and I’m sorry to hear about your boss’s insistence on “attorney’s” as a plural possessive. Very odd.

    ‘sfunny, I was thinking about this entry earlier today when I was reminded that Heroin was originally a trademark. What I don’t think I previously knew was the origin of the term: Wikipedia says that Bayer (the trademark owner) meant it to mean “‘heroic treatment’ from the German word heroisch.” So if Wikipedia is right (which it may not be, and I’m too lazy to check other sources right now), then the words “heroin” and “heroine” are pretty closely related.

    While I’m here, I’ll belatedly add some responses to other comments:

    SarahP: Thanks for the “shoo” definitions, and especially for the 1908 horse-race citation that predates Runyon; fascinating.

    David M, SarahP, and Ted: I adore the definitions of “methadon”; thank you.

  20. Anonymous

    “unwieldly” is the correct British equivalent of US “unwieldy”

  21. Jed

    Fascinating. I don’t think it’s true that “unwieldly” is “the correct British equivalent” per se, but that comment led me to check some dictionaries, and I found that MW3 (unabridged) does in fact list “unwieldly” as a variant acceptable spelling, without a usage note and without saying “chiefly British.”

    In the etymology section, it notes that the “-ly” spelling derives from alteration of “unwieldy.” So I guess what it comes down to is that MW3 is willing to consider that altered spelling valid. Most other dictionaries online don’t do that; even MW11 (abridged) doesn’t include the word (and it does include every British spelling I’ve looked up). OneLook Dictionary Search says “Sorry, no dictionaries indexed in the selected category contain the word unwieldly.” Also, there are bunches of pages all over the web that explicitly say that’s a misspelling.

    So I stand corrected, and will henceforth consider “unwieldly” to be an acceptable variant spelling (per MW3), but if I come across it while editing, I’ll still query it, because I suspect that most educated people (even in the UK, though I could be wrong) will consider it a typo. At any rate, I see no evidence that “unwieldy” is wrong in the UK.

    …While looking this up, I came across another unwieldy word: “unwieldily.” Which of course puts me in mind of the self-referential term “awkwardnessfully.”

    Anyway, thanks much for the comment! (I honestly mean that–not being sarcastic. I’d always rather know this stuff than not know it.)


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