Spelling, Vocabulary, and Confusing Words
Many words in English sound or look alike, causing confusion and not a few headaches. This section lists some of these words, and other troublemakers.
Both forms are acceptable, although the Associated Press Stylebook instructs journalists to always use backward.
Staphylococcus is a virulent form of bacteria. No problem there. But in a sentence like It's a virulent bacteria, well, now we have a problem. Bacteria is a plural noun; the singular is bacterium. So don't write The bacteria in the cut was infecting it, because the bacteria were infecting it.
Both words do double duty as noun and verb. As a noun, bail commonly refers to money deposited to gain a prisoner's freedom, or bail that prisoner out.
A bale is a large, bound or wrapped package of unprocessed material. To bale is to make into a bale.
BAITED BREATH, BATED BREATH
Don't write "baited breath." The word bated, a variant of abated, means "lessened in intensity," "restrained."
Ball: a round object; a gala event.
Bawl: to cry; howl.
Bare as an adjective means "unconcealed": bare arms. As a verb it means "expose": to bare one's feelings.
Bear as a noun refers to a wild animal. As a verb it has many meanings, from "carry" (bear arms) to "tolerate" (I can't bear it) to "steer" (bear right at the corner).
This word, especially when it starts a sentence, is probably unnecessary.
The beech tree was close to the windy beach.
You can't beat my recipe for beets.
Because and since can be used just about interchangeably to explain the reason for something. But since can also refer to a time in the past: I have waited since yesterday.
Bell: a chime or alarm.
Belle: a lovely woman.
He was a benighted soul in an enlightened time. Many people associate it with knighted and think benighted is a good thing to be. Far from it. Note the lack of a k; don't think knight, think night. To be benighted is to be "in a state of moral or intellectual darkness."
Berth: a built-in bed on a train or boat; a space for a boat to dock.
Birth: being born; a beginning.
Besides as an adverb means "in addition" or "moreover": It's Albert's birthday, and besides, you promised.
Besides is also a preposition meaning "other than" or "except": Who besides me is hungry?
Compare that with The person beside me is hungry. Beside is a preposition that means "next to," "near," "alongside."
A lot of people say something is "besides the point." They mean beside the point. When a statement is beside the point, it misses the mark and settles nothing.
Better: of higher quality.
Bettor: a gambler.
BIANNUAL, BIENNIAL, SEMIANNUAL
These words do not all mean the same thing. Biannual means "twice a year," as does semiannual, whereas biennial means "occurring every two years."
Don't confuse what your teeth do with byte, a computer term for eight bits of information. Adding to the confusion, sound bite—a brief excerpt from a longer work—is sometimes mistakenly written "sound byte."
The more familiar word is block, which can refer to many things: a toy, a cube-shaped object, a city street. Not as versatile is bloc: a group united for a particular purpose.
BOAR, BOOR, BORE
Boar: a wild pig.
Boor: a vulgar brute.
Bore: a compulsive chatterbox.
When the board called the roll, he was too bored to speak up.
Bolder: more daring.
Boulder: a large rock.
To be born is to be given birth to, as babies are born. Or it can mean "to be created": ideas are born the moment we think of them. It also means "to arise from": Timmy's stomachache was born of wolfing his food.
Borne is the past tense of bear, in the sense of "carry." To be borne is to be carried: a mosquito-borne disease; or to be endured: Timmy's stomachache had to be borne until it finally went away.
Few if any would write boy instead of buoy, a nautical beacon or marker. Nonetheless, both words are traditionally pronounced the same. In Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, author Bill Bryson says, "Unless you would say 'boo-ee-ant' for buoyant, please return to pronouncing it 'boy.' "
Use your brake before you break something.
Bridal: relating to brides and weddings.
A bridle is a head harness, usually for a horse. Not surprisingly, the verb bridle means "to control" or "to restrain." But it also means "to pull back the head quickly in anger."
They're not interchangeable. You bring something here; you take something there. The locations of "here" and "there" are from the perspective of the speaker or writer. Your friend asks you to bring her a book, so you take the book to her home.
To broach a topic is to bring it up for discussion: Now is the time to broach the subject. As a verb, broach also means "to open or enlarge a hole." The noun broach refers to a pointed tool which performs that operation.
A brooch, a decorative pin or clip, is nothing like a broach. But since they're often pronounced alike, and because ignorance never rests, some dictionaries accept broach as an alternative spelling of brooch.
See boy, buoy.
See bite, byte.