Spelling, Vocabulary, and Confusing Words

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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.


CACHE, CASH

As a noun, cache refers to a hidden supply of valuables, such as food, jewels, and cash. But it can also refer to the hiding place where you keep those items. The verb cache means "to hide treasure in a secret place": He cached all his cash in a cache.


CAN, MAY

I can go means I have the ability and freedom to go.

I may go means I have either an option or permission to go.


CANNON, CANON

Cannon: a large, mounted gun.

Canon: a body of writings; a principle or set of principles.


CANNOT

One word; avoid "can not."


CANVAS, CANVASS

Canvas is a durable fabric.

Canvass as a noun or a verb refers to the door-to-door gathering of votes or opinions.


CAPITAL, CAPITOL

Just remember: the o means it's a building. A capitol is a government building where a state legislature meets, and the Capitol is the building where the U.S. Congress meets.

A capital is a city that serves as the seat of government. We got a tour of the capitol when we went to the capital.


CARAT, CARET, KARAT

Most of the confusion is caused by carat and karat because both are associated with jewelry. The purity of gold is measured in karats. Twenty-four-karat gold is 99.9 percent pure, but so soft that it is considered impractical for most jewelry.

A carat is a weight measurement for gemstones: a two-carat diamond set in an eighteen-karat gold ring.

A caret has nothing to do with any of this. It is a mark an editor makes in a document to show where additional material should be inserted.


CAREEN, CAREER

Grammar sticklers are a stubborn lot. They use career the way everyone else uses careen. It is career, not careen, that means "to veer out of control": The car careered wildly across three lanes. Careen means "to lean or tip over," and strictly speaking, it's more suitable for describing boats than cars.


CAST, CASTE

Cast: a group of actors or individuals.

Caste: a social class; a rigid system of social distinctions.


CEMENT, CONCRETE

People constantly refer to "cement" sidewalks, driveways, walls, etc. However, cement is a powder that, when mixed with sand or gravel and water, becomes concrete.


CENSOR, CENSURE

They sound similar, and both words deal with negative criticism. Censor as a verb means "to remove unacceptable material." As a noun, it means "someone who censors."

Censure as a verb means "to disapprove of" or "to criticize strongly." As a noun, it means "disapproval," even "scorn."


CENTER AROUND

The lecture will center around the economy. The center is the middle point. Would you say "point around"? This common, muddleheaded expression results from scrambling center on and revolve around. Because those idioms are roughly synonymous, if you use them both enough, they merge in the mind.


CEREAL, SERIAL

Cereal: a breakfast food.

Serial: a story told in regular installments (noun); ongoing, in a series (adjectives).


CHAISE LOUNGE

This example of cultural dyslexia should be avoided at all costs. The correct term is chaise longue, meaning "long chair" in French.


CHILDISH, CHILDLIKE

Both are comparisons with children. The difference is that childish is unflattering; it's equivalent to infantile and only a small improvement on babyish. Someone is childish when acting unreasonable or bratty.

Not so with childlike, a word that extols youthful virtues, such as sweetness, purity, and innocence.


CHILE, CHILI

If life were fair, Chile with an e would refer only to a country in South America, and chili with a second i would refer to a type of pepper, and also to a spicy stew. These spellings are recommended, but with the caveat that not everyone agrees. In New Mexico, the stew they eat is chile, not chili. The stylebook of the Los Angeles Times says the dish is chili, but the pepper is a chile. And there are even some who spell the pepper or the dish chilli.


CHOMPING AT THE BIT

It started out as champing at the bit, which is still preferred by most dictionaries.


CHORAL, CORAL

Choral: relating to or sung by a choir.

Coral: an underwater organism that makes up reefs; a shade of orange.


CHORALE, CORRAL

A chorale can be both a piece of music and a singing group.

A corral is an enclosure for horses or other livestock.


CHORD, CORD

When two or more musical tones are sounded simultaneously, the result is a chord.

A cord is a rope or strand of flexible material.


CITE, SIGHT, SITE

Cite: to quote; to praise; to mention; to order to appear in court.

Sight: the ability to see; a scene or view.

Site: a location or position.


CLASSIC, CLASSICAL

Classic, adjective or noun, is a term of high praise: "of the finest quality" or "a prime example of": a classic play, a classic pizza.

The adjective classical applies to traditions going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans: The house featured an array of classical influences.

Classical music is marked by formal, sophisticated, extended compositions.


CLICHÉ

It's a noun, not an adjective. Yet more and more you see or hear things like I know it sounds cliché, but...Make it I know it sounds like a cliché.


CLICK, CLIQUE

A click is a brief percussive noise, but some mistakenly write it when they mean clique, a close, exclusive group of people.


CLIMACTIC, CLIMATIC

Climactic—note that middle c—means "exciting" or "decisive." It is often confused with climatic, which means "resulting from or influenced by climate."


CLOSE PROXIMITY

This phrase is a pompous and redundant way of saying "near." Proximity does not mean "distance"; it means "nearness," so close proximity means "close nearness."


COARSE, COURSE

Coarse means "rough, lacking in fineness of texture" or "crude, lacking in sensitivity."

Course is usually a noun and has several meanings, mostly having to do with movement or progress, whether it be a course taken in school or the course of a river.


COHORT

Your friend is a crony, confidant, or collaborator, but not a cohort. In ancient Rome, a cohort was a division of three hundred to six hundred soldiers. So careful speakers and writers avoid cohort when referring to one person. Your cohort is not your comrade, ally, teammate, or assistant. It's a whole group, gang, team, posse: A cohort of laborers went on strike.


COIN A PHRASE

To coin a phrase is to make one up. But many misuse it when citing or quoting familiar expressions: His bright idea was, to coin a phrase, dead on arrival. Since dead on arrival is a well-known idiom, the writer didn't "coin" it; he merely repeated it.


COINCIDENCE

See irony.


COLLECTABLE, COLLECTIBLE

Both are acceptable, but collectible has a slight edge in popularity, especially as a noun.


COLLIDE, CRASH

A collision involves two moving objects. A car does not collide with a lamppost; it crashes into a lamppost.


COMPLEMENT, COMPLIMENT

As both noun and verb, complement refers to an added element that enhances, rounds out, or puts a final touch on something.

Compliment, noun and verb, is about nice words or gestures. Try this perfect complement to your order, with our compliments.


COMPLETE, COMPLETELY

These words are often unnecessary. What is the difference between a complete meltdown and a meltdown? How is completely exhausted different from exhausted?


COMPRISE

Possibly the most abused two-syllable word in English. It means "contain," "consist of," "be composed of." Most problems could be avoided by remembering this mantra: The whole comprises its parts.

Consider this misuse: Vegetables comprise 80 percent of my diet. The correct sentence is Eighty percent of my diet comprises vegetables. My diet consists of vegetables; vegetables do not consist of my diet.

This sentence looks right to most people: Joe, John, and Bob comprise the committee. But it's the other way around: The committee comprises Joe, John, and Bob.

Another common misuse is the phrase comprised of, which is never correct. Most people use comprised of as an elegant-seeming alternative to composed of. An ad for a cleaning service states, "Our team is comprised of skilled housekeepers." Make it "Our team comprises skilled housekeepers," "Our team is composed of skilled housekeepers," or, perhaps the best choice, "Our team consists of skilled housekeepers."

Since comprise already means "composed of," anyone using comprised of is actually saying "composed of of."


CONCERTED

One person cannot make a concerted effort. A concert implies an orchestra. As Paul Brians points out in his Common Errors in English Usage, "To work 'in concert' is to work together with others. One can, however, make a concentrated effort."


CONCRETE

See cement, concrete.


CONFIDANT, CONFIDENT

Confidant: a trusted adviser.

Confident: certain, self-assured.


CONNIVE, CONSPIRE

One who connives pretends not to know while others are collaborating on something sneaky, wrong, or illegal.

To conspire is to work together on a secret scheme.


CONNOTE, DENOTE

Denote is used for descriptions that stick to the facts. The word "dog" denotes a domesticated animal.

Connote reveals additional meanings beyond what is clinical or objective. It is used when expressing what a word implies or reminds us of. The word "dog" connotes loyalty.


CONTINUAL, CONTINUOUS

The difference between continual and continuous is the subtle difference between regular and nonstop. If your car continually breaks down, it also runs some of the time.

A faucet that drips continuously never stops dripping, twenty-four hours a day. If a faucet drips continually, there are interludes when it's not dripping.


CONVINCE, PERSUADE

To many, these two are synonyms, but there are shades of difference. Someone might be persuaded, while at the same time, not convinced: She persuaded me to do it, but I'm still not convinced it was right. When something or someone persuades us to act, it might be by using reason or logic, but it could also be by using force, lies, or guilt.

Convince refers to an unforced change of mind and heart that precedes action. We consider the evidence, and if it is strong enough, it convinces us and changes our perspective.

In formal writing, convince never takes an infinitive, but persuade almost always does. You cannot be convinced to do something; you can only be convinced that something, or be convinced of something.


CORAL

See choral, coral.


CORD

See chord, cord.


CORRAL

See chorale, corral.


COUNCIL, COUNSEL

Council: a group of people meeting for a purpose.

Counsel: advice (noun); an attorney (noun); to give advice or guidance (verb).


COUPLE (OF)

The of stays. These days, even veteran communicators are saying and writing "couple miles from here" or "costs a couple bucks." That used to be the jargon of tough guys in gangster movies.


COURSE

See coarse, course.


CRASH

See collide, crash.


CRAVEN

To many people, a craven scoundrel is a flagrant or shameless rogue, not a spineless one. But craven means "cowardly," "weak."


CRITERIA

Criteria is the plural of criterion, a standard used for judging, deciding, or acting. The sentence Honesty is our chief criteria is ungrammatical; there can't be only one criteria. Make it Honesty is our chief criterion or Honesty is one of our chief criteria. Your criteria are your standards, plural.

Those who know that criteria is plural aren't out of the woods yet either: many believe the singular is "criterium." And there are some who will reveal to you their "criterias."


CURRENTLY

Often unnecessary. What is the difference between I'm currently writing a book and I'm writing a book?


Misused Words

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