Tricky Words That Trip You Up

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 pencil-dictionarycollage 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.

Last 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.

soup-can-light-1In 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 or it has.

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 a recovering perfectionist.

49 thoughts on “Tricky Words That Trip You Up

  1. It took me a while because I was looking under “I” but I finally found this in my archives. 😀

    Eye halve a spelling chequer, it came with my pea sea.
    It plainly marques four my revue Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
    Eye strike a quay and type a word, and weight four hit two say
    Weather eye am wrong oar write, it shows me strait a weigh.
    As sun as a mist ache is maid it nose bee fore two long,
    And eye can put the error write. Its rare lea ever wrong.
    Eye halve rung this poem threw it, I am shore your pleased two no,
    Hits letter perfect awl the weigh, my chequer tolled me sew.

  2. Yes, yes, and yes! Thank you. This post should be required reading for all writers! Another surprisingly common misuse: your. As in, “Your my favorite writer, Quinn McDonald. I like you alot.” Another is “literally,” as in, “I was literally on fire.” Ouch. Many writers are in error about being loose. They are afraid they will loose this game instead of being worried, as they should be, that they’ll lose the game. Let’s not forget there terrible use of their. I also see and endless number of things “For Sell” in the local want-ads, but that’s just getting too easy. I’ve poured over this post with great interest, and its really had a profound affect on me… Thank you for writing it!

  3. What a lovely topic, I love it!

    Personal pet peeves:
    “should of” when it should be “should HAVE”
    “It should HAVE been an auction.”
    And using “bring” when “take” is the correct word. I hear this often (the ‘t’ is silent in often -another ear grabber for me).
    Someone handing a book to another person, saying “Bring this book to her.”
    I was the 3rd from the top in my class in English, I loved diagramming sentences! Oh, how I’ve fallen…..

    Now let’s see if my post will show up (preposition, eh?)

  4. One might enjoy a timber tambor’s timbre and it’s its if it’s is its but it’s it’s if it is. It’s possible that a lay lie lay on a low loo but did we peek the peak of pique when the mute troupe trooped or was it moot?

  5. Quinn, great blog post. Interesting to read the comment regarding the ending of a sentence with a preposition…a lesson I was taught in English classes – even have notes in one of my notebooks of poems and prose from AP English classes from the late 50’s….I suppose my instructors were following a cultural legend and just included that construct information in their courses. Now to retrain a lesson imprinted over 50 years ago and forge ahead ending sentences with a preposition without angst. And a grammar question coming again from that place of history is about the use of “a” or “an” before a word beginning with an “h”….is there a rule?

    • Oh, I’m so glad you asked the “a” vs. “an” question, Kristin! For instance, “a historic event” or “an historic event”. I hate the sound of the latter but that’s what I hear most of the time in the media.

    • I was taught the preposition rule, too, and I’m still unteaching it.
      The A/ AN rule–A before words that start with a consonant sound (not necessarily a consonant) and AN before words that start with a vowel sound. So A hair, but AN hour.

      • So if this is the case, why wouldn’t it be “a historic event” because you can hear the h sound. Same as “a hair”. I’m so confused!

        And yes, look what you’ve started!

          • The one which bugs me is this (and, I know I’m being super picky here): when a friend calls me on the ‘phone and asks, “Susannah, is that you?” And I respond, “Yes, it’s I.” Nine times out of ten, they’ll correct me. Now, if they say, “It’s me.” I don’t correct them, I bite my tongue. It’s one of MY pet peeves, but, like “funner”, it seems to be on its way to becoming “proper” English. But when you get right down to it, any language–any spoken language–is a living concept, which is constantly evolving and changing. I don’t have to like it, and I do think that there is a place for proper English, but, I guess I need to accept the changes or wind up being hopelessly out of touch.

  6. *Sigh*… I could have written this IF it was about my own language… in English, I make the mistakes you talk about (aarghhh.. I always have to look up the of-off thing – I just keep on forgetting the rule!) and I probably make a lot more. I keep on going though, I am a real ‘trouoper’ (ha, which one is it?)

  7. A very timely comment, here Ms., Quinn!! my English teacher back in Jamaica would be turning in her grave if she ever read some articles and newspapers (especially the Cheyenne one!)… we were very strictly tutored in English usage and grammar and warned never to speak the Jamaican dialect (patois!!) were actually given order/demerit marks if teachers heard us talking that way. like Professor Higgins said in My Fair Lady, there even are places where English completely disappears… in America, they haven’t spoken it for years!

  8. I have several different thoughts about this topic.

    I was pretty bad at grammar and spelling in school, but somehow I’ve developed the ability to see grammatical and spelling errors. Even when I don’t want to. So on the one hand, they bother me.

    On the other hand, English is a hideously complicated language because it not only picks up words from other tongues, it picks up rules too. Rules that apply inconsistently, so you not only need to learn the rules but the rules about the rules, and that even those aren’t consistent. The rules aren’t even consistent from one place to another; whether a company “is” or a company “are” depends on where you happen to be standing at the moment.

    English spelling isn’t phonetic; this is unusual and adds more complexity. And to top it off, you have to know that when “color” or “behavior” are spelled with a “u” (e.g. “colour”) it’s wrong but not as wrong as *wrong* because there are places where it’s right.

    Then of course there are changes over time; English also lacks any central authority that issues a specification for the language (I’ve read that there’s such a thing for French, at least) so it kind of changes by itself. Sometimes when I see something that looks like an error I wonder if it’s just evidence of change, which is probably accelerating because people interact more, and more widely.

    Another factor is technology; sometimes U need 2 B very brief, and sometimes I use systems that change what I write to be “correct” — and sometimes that actually is not what I mean, but I miss it and don’t correct the correction.

    So I dunno. <–is that a word now? I used it for vernacular effect, but it might just be wrong. And what about that typographical "arrow" I just employed? So many rule, so few time. ("many" already pluralizes "rule", so in keeping with an ongoing [change?] there's no need to redundantly pluralize the word. If "time" is a quantity that's generally treated as uncountable so it's modified by "less", but come on, all we do with time is count it, so "few" is more correct. Ain't it?) <–"Ain't" is actually an old word that's been both accepted and not over the past 500 years or so.

    Up there above my other typographical arrow-indicator is an example of another technology-influenced trend; metadata. There's a project called the Semantic Web exploring how it would work if computers could do a better job handling the meaning in web pages. One way to do that is to provide a lot of explicit context in the form of metadata. This is having quite an effect already because various technologies are automatically inserting metadata into everything, from color copiers (every page they copy carries identification of that particular copier) to cameras (each digital photo carries info about when, where, and with what camera) to web browsing (its complicated).

    Anyway I'm not sure what I think about [this stuff] [these things] [related topics]. <–and look, this is a formulation from computer programming but it's immediately clear to you, isn't it? 🙂

    • Much of what you say is absolutely correct–English is tricky. It’s a mashup (to use the word the kids use nowadays, grump, grump) of many languages, rules, and change. And English changes fairly quickly. It’s easy to learn English fast, because there are few rules, and hard to learn it well because there are so many exceptions to the rules. But the language does have a governing body. It’s the Modern Language Association, and they watch dictionaries, writers and other sources to keep the language changing gradually, but not too recklessly.

      • The MLA may claim it engages in that activity, but I think the Académie Française is a different case because it has explicit authority (although no enforcement power, I believe). That is, the MLA tries to be descriptive of English, while the Académie tries to be prescriptive of French.

        Bt thse r fne pnts; t s amzng wht cn b undrstd rgrdlss.

        • OK, you forced me into finding and pasting this one:

          fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too. Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

          i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghi t pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs forwrad it.

  9. Correct grammar and word use is often deemed a form of snobbery or pedantry, so it’s a delight to read a post like this. These nuances aren’t tricks to trip people up or provide intellectual superiority, they are simply different words used in the correct context!

    • I’m accused of snobbery a lot, generally with the phrase, “Who cares anyway?” Well, lots of people. But it is a context issue, and most people, because they are scared of making mistakes, find it easier to be angry at others who know.

      • Quinn – I can’t imagine you being accused of grammar snobbery (or any kind of snobbery, for that matter). I love learning these tidbits from you, such as disinterested and peruse. I even looked up the definitions because I was so shocked to learn that I was wrong in my use of the words. So many people are using the words incorrectly that they have started changing the definitions to coincide (a commenter called it an autoantonym). That’s craziness, in my opinion.

        • Welllllll, dictionaries actually report HOW the words are being used, although if you read carefully, you will see the first meaning is usually the “correct” meaning, or there is a comment about slang. Much like Google, which is not an encyclopedia, but a popularity engine, dictionaries now try to embrace how words are used rather than try to correct everyone.

  10. I always learn so much from you, things I never knew were wrong to begin with (hmmm, should I end the sentence with with?). Oh, I’m so confused! The one thing I have remembered, thanks to you, is lay vs. lie. I definitely need to write down all of these other things, so I have the hand-to-mind connection. I always received great grades in grammar, writing, spelling, etc. but through the years, I’ve developed a mental block out or have just plain forgotten.

    Thanks for all the great lessons!

    • You are my star pupil with lay and lie! And it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition (like ‘with’ or ‘of’)–it was never a grammar rule at all, just one of those popular culture legends that people grabbed onto. When we hear a lot of grammatical errors they begin to sound right. I have to catch myself all the time, too. But then again, I teach grammar, and I’m supposed to know!

      • Wow, I’m so glad to know about ending a sentence with a preposition. It’s funny, I question myself all the time when I’m writing blog responses or even posting on FB but I guess it’s better to question than not.

        • Better to question, but let yourself off the hook. As Winston Churchill is reported to have said about the rule, “That is something up with which I will not put!” to avoid ending the sentence with a preposition.

          • I’ve heard that Churchill quotation. I always had the impression he was being sarcastic. But when I looked it up, it turns out there’s a controversy (CONtroversy in the US, conTROVersy in the UK) about whether he even said it at all, as well as about what the thing not up with to be put was. Some possibilities are: rule, arrant pedantry, nonsense, bloody nonsense, and insubordination.

            I’m not sure this is as big or amusing an issue as Shakespeare’s real identity, but it’s close! (And as every truly informed person knows, nobody wrote those plays. A set of “Shakespeare’s complete works” printed in the 20th century was accidentally left by a time traveler where Shakespeare himself found it and copied everything out.)

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