Journal Words That Trip You Up

images1Writing in a journal, especially when you write by hand, leaves you open to making mistakes. One word sounds a lot like another. And before you know it, you’ve said the wrong thing. Here is a list of words I’ve seen misused frequently (not just in journals, but in newspapers, on TV, and spoken by people who should know better.)

Simplistic. Doesn’t mean easy or simple. It means oversimplifying by leaving out important factors. Use “simple” instead.

Podium. A riser. You have to step up on it. Comes from the Greek for ‘feet,’ as Podium_of_2009WAGC_Beamdoes podiatrist. The tall piece of furniture you stand behind to deliver a speech is a lectern.

Pacific. Means peaceful. The ocean on the West side of the U.S. is called the Pacific. If you want to talk about precise or exact, that’s specific.

Disinterested. Fair or impartial. Does not mean “used to be interested but not any more.” That word is uninterested.

Towards: No S. It’s toward.

Actionable. Not an action item on a list. Much worse. Something that will get you sued. “Patting the tushy of my boss not only is actionable, it got me fired.”

One off.  Short for “one of a kind,” not “turn this one off,” or even “off the last ‘f’ in this word.” So it’s “one of.”

For all intensive purposes. Words that got squished together by sound. It is For all intents and purposes.

Chomping at the bit. Nope. The sound is not a big bite (chomp) it is a noisy grinding (champ). So the phraseimages is Champing at the bit.

Rain, reign, rein. The first is water, the second is the rule of a king or queen, the third is how you control a horse. So you give someone free rein, so they can go wherever they want, not become a dictator, which happens with free reign.

Sherbert. No R for the ice-cream like treat. It’s sherbet.

Restauranteur. If the person owns a restaurant, it has no ‘n’ in it–it’s restaurateur.

—Quinn McDonald loves the English language and occasionally fears for it.



33 thoughts on “Journal Words That Trip You Up

  1. Thank you for this! My husband and I (who are not linguists by any stretch) cannot believe the errors made by newscasters and the general public. One we hear all the time is seen instead of saw. Oh! Nails on a chalkboard! Another is conversate, as in “we were just conversating”. What?!! I hear this more and more. Then the term “buck naked” is now more often than not said “butt naked”. I even saw it on the cover of some mainstream magazine! I am certain we could all add many more examples. Perhaps some people could benefit from checking out some books on grammar from the “libary”. 😉

    • We’ve lost the entire past participle, too. It’s been replaced by the simple past. Shame, as the past participle shows that something was begun in the past and continues now. Useful. And Conversate? No. Just no.

  2. I fain the way english adapts to the way he’s used instead of t’other way ’round. English grammar rules — which I wist inly but fie! can nary clepe — are descriptive, not prescriptive. I think this is why human languages that developed spontaneously as people learned to communicate are so much more expressive than, say, computer languages that were designed, starting with rules.

    Also I find that context matters, almost a bit disturbingly (in the sense that it sometimes shows me my own prejudices). A new usage in corporate settings is “ask”, as in “…the ask from Marketing is more customization…”. I found myself initially despising this, but thinking about it…it’s immediately clear what it means, it’s simple and easy, and it just works. My resistance was based on the setting, not the usage. If it had first appeared in a wonderful Maya Angelou poem “The Ask”, well, who knows?

  3. My pet peeve used to be the use of the word controversial about people. There was no question these people existed, so they couldn’t be controversial at all, but now the dictionary says that it is a proper definition for someone with controversial views or actions. Ugh.

    • Watch out for the dictionary. It’s not an arbiter of language, it tells you what is happening in a language. If a lot of people use “ain’t” you will see it in a dictionary, but it doesn’t make it right. Trust the Gregg Reference Manual for that.

  4. Oh, I don’t know–if you give a person in office free rein, you might end up with someone running the country as if they have a free reign! Hee hee.

  5. How about the way the word “student” is pronounced on television? The d is suppose to be silent. They are now saying “The stu-dents.” But my all-time biggest gripe is the absence of hyphens!!

    • I checked several pronunciation dictionaries, and the “d” in student is still there. Stoo-dent or stew-dent, but with a d. I’ve actually never heard it without a d. But I am regionally influenced. Hyphens are a necessary part of the language, but they do vary by style sheet.

  6. Aaaarrrggghhhh! Anyone who says ‘that someone was given a ‘short shift’ ahould be given a short shrift! I just heard this on the radio by someone who should know better. Yes, perform and preform amuse me with a visual but the shift/shrift mix-up just plain irritates me! NOT that I’m perfect . . .

  7. one of my very very disliked things is the phrase “very unique.” There is no very unique. You are unique. Or not. Great post. I don’t think I’ve done the things you mentioned except for one thing – I’m from Rhode Island and in Rhode Island we do add R’s where they don’t belong and remove them from where they do.

  8. Hi Quinn,
    Thanks for these precisions. My mother tongue is french so I really appreciate this blog. I was using “towards” also, not knowing any better. But we have the same problem with french. Even the teachers are making unacceptable mistakes with verb tenses. I guess we live with the “easy generation”!

    • English is hard to learn. I didn’t speak it first, either, but I did learn it early, which helps. The problem with English is that it has very few rules and many, many exceptions to the rules. I don’t know how anyone learns how to speak it idiomatically if they learn it late in life. The “towards/toward” is very common, because the third person singular (regular) verbs take an S in English –I run, you run, he runs. Once that singular takes an S, we want to start tacking it on other words in the sentence.

      • Hmm. According to the Oxford dictionary both ‘toward’ and ‘towards’ are right. First is chiefly North American spelling and the second British English. Apparently both versions have their roots in Old English, toweard and toweardes. Interesting. And according to the Oxford again all champing, chomping and chafing the bit are correct though the last two are offered as variants. To a horseperson the difference between champing and chomping is, well, semantics. 😉 Some horses champ the bit and some chomp it, some grind it so loudly it’s painful to listen to, but from the rider’s perspective is all the same.

        Anyway, like you said, learning English is tricky and it doesn’t help that there is three kinds of it in use. Your Use the right word -lists are really thought-provoking and fun.

      • A dictionary is a useful device–it shows how the language is changing and what words are in use. But just because a word is in the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s “right,” it just defines how it is used. If you want the syntax shown correctly, the Gregg Manual is probably the definitive work on grammar and syntax.

  9. Heehee, now I know why I like reading your blog – excellent choices 😉
    You’ve certainly ‘whetted’ my appetite to see what else I can spot today.

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