May 16, 2010

English is Difficult

by Marsha Ward

As I was starting work on this blog post, I got diverted by an interesting Nathan Bransford post (
it took me two hours to read the comments) and a plate of cream-cheese-icing brownies. Sorry!

Whether it's your native tongue, or you learn it as a second language, English has its quirks and foibles. Some of them pop up because words are spelled alike and mean distinct things: think of the noun desert and the verb desert. The emphasis is on different syllables, despite the alikeness of the spelling. (We won't even think of "dessert.") Others come about due to words that sound alike although their letters are arranged differently: soul/sole, hawk/hock, pole/poll, and role/roll are good examples.

It's so very important that a writer uses the right word for the context. It can be embarrassing to use a word that seems like it's correct, only to find out later that you entirely fluffed it.

Someone I know and love recently used the word "paramount" when he/she meant "tantamount." The difference between "chief" and "equal" made me cringe and hope the person on the other end of the missive either didn't know the difference, or would edit kindly.

Let's look at hawk/hock. Okay, you're saying to yourself, everybody knows the difference between a bird and a horse or ox's rear leg joint. However, there are at least three meanings of the word hawk: the bird, the street-peddling, and the--ahem--throat-clearing. Hock has another couple of meanings, too: to pawn, and in slang, to be in or out of debt. Make sure you use the right spelling at the right time.

One of my pet peeves is seeing the word pair roll and role misused. "Roll" has at least 22 meanings, depending on if it's used as an intransitive or transitive verb, or as a noun. It could mean the action of moving yourself across the room on your belly and back, a piece of bread, a trilling of the letter "r," or a clap of thunder. "Role," which comes from the French and consequently often carries a caret over the o, means a part an actor plays or a function assumed by someone, such as "an advisory role."

Yes, English is difficult, but it's of paramount importance that a writer takes the time to make sure the word used is the correct one. To do otherwise is tantamount to derailing his or her career.


What are your pet peeves about word misuses?


  1. Although not my only pet peeve, I rank the misuse of their, there or they're at the top of my list.

    "I cannot take they're kids to there ball practice because my ex-husband is their."

    My mind reads the meaning or concept and not the word. It is as if I am required to translate from a foreign language mid-sentence. It rattles my brain.

    Or do I simply read differently from other readers?

  2. Two of my peeves are so commonly misused that they're almost considered acceptable. (Which DRIVES me crazy!)


  3. Annette's post reminded me some lines in the Weird Al song, Close, But No Cigar.

    Except she was always using the word "infer"
    when she obviously meant "imply".
    Some people would put up with that kind of thing,
    but frankly, I can't imagine why.

    One of my big pet peeves is when people combine words that don't go together in an attempt to sound smart. By using the wrong words, they end up sounding anything but eloquent.

    Example: Someone said on Facebook that something was "the eminence of asininity" when the intended word was "epitome". If this were the only example of word misuse by this person, it would be one thing, but it's not.

  4. A great resource for keeping on the straight (or is it strait?) and narrow is a little volume by the editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries, "100 words almost everyone confuses & misuses." I've referred to it many times in teaching writing classes.

    On the other hand, malapropisms can be useful. In my novel "Living it Down," Aunt Sophie brags about her granddaughter who graduated from high school as the "valid Victorian" of her class. Later she reports that while on a cruise she ate Chinese chicken laminated in honey and something "citrius." And she is happy that her niece finally found her glitch in life. Writing is like building sand castles - so much fun and so many possibilities.

    How can I join ANWA? I met some people at Storymakers but didn't get a chance to find out more about it.

  5. Jo Ellen GuthrieMay 16, 2010 at 9:55 PM

    Your and you're. My greatest pet peeves. "Your invited to my party." My what is invited? Just like fingernails on a blackboard.

  6. lose/loose it seems everyone on the net uses loose for lose drives me insane and why I don't know ha.

  7. Along with the host who hate the misuse of their/they're/there, and to/too/two, infer/imply, and oh God help us, nauseate and nauseous (I really hope I'm never nauseating... I hate seeing the people around me vomit!), the misuse of "of" when "have" is needed -- as in "should of known." Doesn't anyone know how to conjugate verbs anymore? Or am I the only one it bothers?

  8. OMG, I did it myself, although I did use nauseating correctly. I meant to say I hope I'm never nauseous, because that would make me very sad (and probabaly just as queasy as all the people around me!) So, that's what I get for commenting on other people's mistakes first thing in the morning!

  9. I hope you will tell me when you notice a mistake in my writing. I find when I write fast to capture the story racing through my mind, it is so easy to mix words up. Actually, it is easy to mis them up at even the best of times given our language of so many broked rules. Thanks for the post! Cindy R. Williams

  10. I can snicker and poke fun at other people when they do this kind of stuff, but when I'm writing a rough draft, I find myself doing it too -- not words like effect vs effect, or infer vs imply, which either shows a lack of vocabulary or maybe that they're just trying too hard (or are half awake) but malapropisms throw me off and I do mix up words such as straight and strait (hopefully I always catch those later when I proof)
    Because it makes me crazy when people mix up their/they're/ there, and to/too/two, and you're/your, I always go back and proof that stuff, looking specifically for those errors. After all, being an author sorta puts more pressure on me to get it right ;-)

  11. I've often thought how glad I am that I don't have to learn English as a second language!

    Good post!


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