Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mistaken words: couples or just good friends?

Since the last time I posted about mistaken words, people have asked me, "What about…?" It seems that there's a whole legion of partially paired words out there that get treated as an item when in fact they're just good friends. 

I know many people read this blog not to learn, but to affirm what they already know. They can then pass it around so that the word abusers know it's not just their geeky colleague who cringes every time they put the language through the mangle. So here are a few more words we shouldn't confuse:

He / She
It was dark and I was drunk. It could have happened to anyone. But enough about my weekend.

Treble / Triple
If you've got a high voice, it's got to be treble. If you've got three separate things of the same type, such as awards, it's always triple (triple award-winner, triple-cylinder engine). But in the sense of multiplying by three, they essentially mean the same thing. It's like frantic and frenetic: the meaning is largely the same only one of them looks a bit more posh. Imports have trebled; exports have tripled. Or the other way round; it doesn't matter.

If you use treble, people will think you're the sort of person who writes gaol and connexion. Whether you want that reputation is a matter of personal conscience.

Phase / Faze
"Ooh, look! Phase has a ph. That makes it all Greek and sophisticated, while faze has that vulgar z. I think I'll spell it phase every time and look all ejucayted." 

Smart thinking, except it's wrong. It's true that ph almost always denotes a Greek origin, and phase is no exception (this suggests that the Greeks were pronouncing it differently 2,000 years ago, or the Romans would simply have spelt their Greek loanwords with an f).

But faze is a different word altogether with a Germanic root, meaning to alarm or frighten, or possibly to discomfit. If you're unfazed, you're calm. If you're unphased, you're not organised into discrete periods of time. This unlikely to happen to you unless you're a set of traffic lights.

Discomfort / Discomfit
We get discomfort from Old French, and it means what you think it means. Discomfit, also from Old French, used to mean defeat or destroy. The two words have been converging for about five centuries, and there's not a lot of difference between them now. If you exclusively use frenetic, gaol, connexion and treble, you might as well add discomfit to your lexicon as well.

Choose / Chose
This is similar to lose/loose, even down to the '(o)ose' ending. So it's especially irksome for those who like consistency that almost everything else is different. Choose, meaning select, rhymes with lose (and bruise - remember my previous post?), while its past tense chose rhymes with nose, those, hose and hoes. Those last two are synophones, kids. If that's a new word to you, a synophone is like a xylophone, except you play it with your tongue.

Last / Past
Last year was 2011. The past year is the 12 months till now. If someone says "in the last year", ask them, "The last year of what?"

Alternate / Alternative
This probably needs an article of its own, and it will probably get one. Let's just say that alternate is not an alternative form of alternative. You can't alternate between one and the other.

Forbear / Forebear (suggested by )
My late mother is one of my forebears. It was probably bad taste to put her gravestone on a blog post, but I couldn't forbear. As with forgo and forego, fore denotes something that has gone before, like foresight or a foreword, while for suggests a restriction, as in forbid.

Market / Marketplace
This one comes in the category "let's use a longer, similar word to make our argument look cleverer". These words are not synonyms. A market is an abstract concept. A marketplace is a place where trading happens.

If you want to sell your old toys on-line, there's certainly a marketplace for them (such as eBay). But if no-one buys them, there isn't a market.

Cancel / Postpone
Anyone who was reading this blog last summer will remember me stating that – contrary to some poorly worded media reports – Tottenham Hotspur's match against Everton had merely been postponed, not cancelled. So confident was I that I went out on a limb and predicted that the game would certainly be played at some time in the coming months. Lo and behold, Spurs played Everton on 11 January and beat them 2-0. This means that either I'm a clairvoyant or I know that cancelled things never happen (such as Titanic's return voyage from New York to Southampton), while things that are postponed are merely put off to a later date (Latin: post - after, ponere - to put). 

Affect / Effect
Damn that . "If you can give me an EASY way to remember effect/affect, I'll love you forever!" she said on Twitter. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in unconditional love. More to the point, I can't think of an easy way. Usually, affect is the verb and effect the noun, but not always. The best I can come up with, and it's pretty poor, is this:
To Affect is Action; the Effect is the rEsult
Annoyingly, effect is a verb as well, meaning to make something happen. Its most common use is in the phrase 'to effect a change'. 

If you'll let me effect another muddying of the waters, affect also has further meaning: to adopt something unnaturally. If, despite my advice, you affect 19th Century spellings such as gaol and connexion, it might be described as an affectation.

If you can come up with something better, maybe Shannon will love you forever instead of me, damn you!

Opinion / Fact
Sorry, this is the internet. All opinions on the internet are facts.

Moral: Not to be confused with morale.


  1. "Market" and "marketplace" may not be synonymous, but there's surely no context in which the former is wrong?

    Oh, and if I say "in the last year" and you ask "the last year of what" I think I would be justified in smacking you in the mouth. It's completely obvious what it means and I can't convince myself it's even arguably wrong. How do you feel about "in the last 12 months"?

    1. Agreed, you can probably go your whole life without using marketplace.

      "The last" means "the final" or "the most recent". Blurring distinctions isn't advisable, even if people know what you mean this time.

      As for "the last 12 months", do you mean 1 May 2011 to 30 April 2012, 1 April 2011 to 31 March 2012 or 25 April 2011 to 24 April 2012?

  2. I'm very intrigued by affect/effect; usually I tell myself that "to affect" results in "an effect", unless "effect" is used in a verb, which would mean I have to stop and think slowly and carefully...

  3. Each of these is a tweet unto itself - better yet, individual blog posts. I hesitate to call people on mistakes in tweets, but regularly tweet about such errors that I find online. Rant on, Angry Man.

  4. That first one's a bugger, eh? *proud dirty-joke face*

  5. thats very powerfull article,
    waiting for more soon

  6. Affect is also a noun meaning the experience of emotion, so that some alteration in your circumstances (you've won the lottery, your dog died) might effect a change in your affect which would affect the effect you had on other people.

  7. in the last year: better give up, Mr Neylan. If one wanted to be precise, that option is usually available. Maybe you could consider 1. that there is a difference between 'last year' (which conventionally refers to the previous calendar / academic or other context-derived grouping) and 'in the last year', and 2. the usage would typically be 'In the last year we have seen great progress / the fall of Rome and Grimsby /etc.' or 'in the last year of his life' which dates back (is context-derived) from the date of death; but neither is necessarily even restrictive to an exact year.

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