Thursday, April 19, 2012

Nine (or eighteen) commonly mistaken words

Is nine the right number to nibble on? I got slapped by one of my more respected followers for being neither comprehensive nor entertaining the last time I did a disambiguation list, so I've been sobbing quietly in a corner, emerging only to impersonate a police officer and insult the entire Scottish nation, 0.000077% of whom felt moved to complain to me in person (it seems Scotland isn't as homophobic as it used to be. Good for them).

So, how many of these common mistakes have you made in the past year? Award yourself a bar of chocolate, a line of powder or a quarter hour of auto-eroticism for each one you never get wrong. 

Lose / Loose
I got a few comments asking why I didn't do this last time. I invented a pretty plausible excuse that I've since forgotten, but trust me, it was a good one and would have totally convinced you. Loosing instead of losing is one of the most common written mistakes (I don't think I've ever heard anyone make the same mistake while speaking) and its capacity to irritate is matched only by sandy condoms or Stacy Solomon's speaking voice.

Loose, meaning slack or unrestrained, rhymes with goose and is almost always an adjective (except in such archaic phrases as "Loose the dogs!"). Lose rhymes with bruise. 

To lose is the present tense of lost, as well as being a town in Southern France famed for sausages and rugby (sorry, that joke only works when you say it aloud – or, as most YouTube commenters would spell it, allowed).

Imply / Infer
Imply, as near as dammit, means suggest. Infer means understand. So, when my blog is graced with the slogan "all opinions will henceforth be your opinions", I am implying that I am always right. You might infer that I'm trying to be funny, or that I'm a pompous ass, or possibly both.

Forgo / Forego
No, they're not alternative spellings (and please don't get me started on alternate versus alternative). Forgo means go without, or give something up. Forego means go before.

Sympathise / Empathise.
Dammit. Already done that one. How about…

Lie / Lay
"Lay down Sally," sang Eric Clapton as he set off on the long journey from rock god to middle-aged mediocrity. What he never explained was who should be laying Sally down. At about the same time, Bob Dylan was imploring: "Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed," again failing to specify what he wanted her to lay across his bed. I'm guessing an extra blanket perhaps, which would make this mid-period classic one of only a small number of pop songs directed at domestic staff. The b-side, "Could You Unblock The Kharzi Before You Go?", gets rather less airplay on the nostalgia stations.

Lie, like stand and sit, doesn't take a direct object (the confusion comes because its past tense is lay). Lay (past form laid) takes a direct object. You can't just lay. You have to lay something. Stop sniggering now. 

Principal / Priniciple
Americans have a head start on this one, on account of a head teacher being called a principal. In business too, an agent works for a principal. But in all other senses, principal is an adjective meaning most important, and is related to prince (principe in Italian). Principles, also from the same root, are fundamental beliefs. 

Breath / Breathe
Again, the rhymes are helpful here. Breath rhymes with death; breathe rhymes with seethe. You breathe the air with every breath.

Pry / Prise
Since there are two distinct words here and two distinct meanings that need to be expressed, it makes sense to keep these words separate. Sadly, the dictionaries of the world don't agree and most will allow you to use either, at least when you're opening a tin of paint or burgling your neighbours. But if you like to keep them separate, remember that prise means to open something with a lever, while pry means to take an unwarranted interest in other people's business.

Fare / Fair
These old German words have a variety of meanings, but only fare is a verb. It's related to the German fahren, meaning to travel, hence bus fare and the valedictory farewell. In English it has morphed into a word meaning something like prosper (in its neutral sense), so if you want to know how life is treating someone, you ask how they're faring. Fairing with a 'i' is an aerodynamic shield round a motorbike. 

Michael Quinion has more at World Wide Words.

Discreet / Discrete
Thanks to all who requested this one. I was in my 20s and just beginning to think I knew it all, when my brother gave me a self-printed t-shirt proclaiming the "discrete continuum probability theory of everything". "You spelled 'discreet' wrong," I oozed smugly. I can't remember his exact reply, but after removing the expletives it was something like, "Do I have to teach you English as well as Physics?" This wasn't as humiliating as when he'd dangled me out of a bedroom window as a child, but he lived in a ground-floor flat and was in a wheelchair by then, so he had to improvise.

I digress. People are discreet when they are careful and tactful. Things are discrete when they are separate and well-defined.

Moral: If you know all of these, you'll look out of place commenting on YouTube.


  1. I like this post, thanks.

    Just felt compelled to comment that you misspelled "Principle" as "Priniciple".

    1. Damn. I was going to run a competition. You might as well claim your prize now (see para 2).

  2. Good post - lose/loose is a particular annoyance for me! Could you possibly explain the difference between "tripled" and "trebled", if there is one? I was asked this recently and didn't know which is correct - "traffic to the site tripled" or "traffic to the site trebled"? Or does it not matter?

  3. there is 'God bless' that I see on many posts/messages, eg 'Happy birthday to you. God bless'

    Is that correct? Shouldn't God be blessing someone or something if at all?

  4. One of my favourites: genteel/gentile.