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?