Spelling: Words that Confound Spell-Check

Blogs have spell check, but when you use a word wrong, spell check won’t help you. I was reading the first chapter of a book on someone’s blog today, and I kept stumbling over words that didn’t mean what the writer meant.

“His voice has a pleasant timber.” Unless he’s spitting toothpicks, she meant timbre. Timber is wood. Timbre is the pitch of a sound.

“Her decollage peaked his interest.” From the context, it wasn’t deconstructing a collage that excited him, it was her decolletage, a low neckline. And it  piqued his interest. Totally different word. It’s from the French and it means to give it a little stab of interest. Peek is to look, peak is a top of a mountain, and pique (pronounced peek, that’s why it’s a problem) means to be interested in.

open dicttionaryLast week, in the newspaper, I read that woman had performed while she was ill. “She was a real trooper.” Only if she was a policeman. In this case, she was a trouper. Because she was in a troupe of actors, dancers, or other performers. And the show must go on.

In today’s newspaper, I saw a grocery store that had a “souper sale.” I thought it was a joke, maybe tomato or chicken noodle soup was on sale. Nope, just a typo. A super big one.

Some other words that give us trouble:

It’s is never the possessive. When its tail comes to rest, the dragon will be sleeping. No apostrophe. That’s hard, but the only meaning of it’s (with an apostrophe) is it is.

Disinterested means fair or impartial. It has nothing to do with not being interested.

Peruse means to read carefully, not to skim.

Lie is to recline, lay is to place. I lie down on the bed, I lay the baby back in bed.

Sheer is see-through, shear means to cut off.

It’s a moot point, not a mute point. Moot means debatable, mute is silent.

One of a kind, shortened is  “one of.” If you have three apples on the shelf and one is taken away, you have two on the shelf and one off. If you are talking about single pieces, it’s “one of” not “one off.

Actionable means subject to being sued. It does not mean to take action.

Using words incorrectly makes your writing look unprofessional. And in a world filled with aspiring- and recovering perfectionists, it’s better to check twice, type once.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2009 All rights reserved. Image: altaread-austin.org

11 thoughts on “Spelling: Words that Confound Spell-Check

  1. Hi Quinn — I love your post on the 1000 Journals Ning, which led me to this. To quibble (if I may) — “trooper” is in my dictionary an informal expression meaning a resilient, hard-working, reliable, or uncomplaining person. My dictionary is the Oxford Canadian. Up here in the north, it is considered the authority.
    – Lil

    • So one of my posts got Ning’d, huh? That’s good. Back to the Oxford Canadian dictionary. The descriptor that the dictionary itself uses is “The source for information on how language is used in Canada.” A good dictionary keeps up with slang and puts variations, informal uses, and even scatalogical ones in its pages. Just because it’s in the dictionary doesn’t make it acceptable usage, just permissible for Scrabble points. I’ll bet “ain’t” is in there, and you wouldn’t use it. “Trouper” –the person in a traveling show, is the original derivation of the expression, and the correct usage. As my Dad used to say, “Don’t believe everything you read. Don’t believe everything you think, either.”

  2. Hope there will be more posts like this one. English is nog my native language and I love to keep learning and to improve 😉


  3. “Actionable means subject to being sued. It does not mean to take action.” Oy, can you get our Marketing Department to understand that one? It’s my job to review the stuff they write before it goes out into the real world, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to argue about that.

    • I will be happy to tell your Marketing Department that. Or maybe your legal department could help. I’ve worked in a number of marketing departments, so I’m free to say that using buzz words makes you look important only until the first potential customer sees it and thinks you are a droning, boring, inarticulate sales-stooge and clicks away from your ad. That realization makes most smart marketers switch to simple, lean, concise English pretty quickly.

  4. I love this post, and I could almost feel superior to all those word abusers, except for those darn words lay/lie. Egad, how my brain refuses to put those words in their proper places. I know the rules and I still get flustered when I use one of those words.

    As for my pet peeve of words: orient/orientate. I refuse to get orientated to your new schedule.

    For a great bit of writing on words that have suffered a bad case of back-formation (words that have somehow formed from nouns ending in ‘ation’) see http://www.niquette.com/books/101words/orient.htm

  5. Nice column, Q. I think I am an aspiring recovering perfectionist, but I may need to verify that! Also, I’m glad I perused this – you taught me the meaning of that often misused word.

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