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.


MAIL, MALE

Mail: correspondence.

Male: masculine.


MAIZE, MAZE

Maize: corn.

Maze: a labyrinth.


MANNER, MANOR

Manner: a method; a behavior.

Manor: a palatial residence.


MARQUEE, MARQUIS

Marquee: a projection over a theater entrance.

Marquis: an aristocrat; a nobleman.


MARRY, MERRY

Marry: to wed.

Merry: cheerful.


MARSHAL, MARTIAL

Marshal: a law officer (noun). To assemble (verb). Note the spelling: one l.

Martial: warlike.


MASTERFUL, MASTERLY

Another pair of words whose distinct meanings have been blurred by carelessness. The problem centers on masterful, in such phrases as a masterful artist or a masterful performance. Make it masterly, which means "highly accomplished," "inspired," "demonstrating mastery."

Masterful has darker shadings. It's about being the alpha dog: dominant, supreme—almost ruthlessly so. A masterful performance should refer to a boxer or a victorious football team rather than a cello concert.


MATERIAL, MATERIEL

Material: whatever something is made from.

Materiel: military equipment and supplies.


MAY

See can, may.


MEDAL, MEDDLE, METAL, METTLE

Medal: a decoration; a badge.

Meddle: to interfere.

Metal: an earth element.

Mettle: boldness; grit.


MEDIA

Among the language's most abused words is media, a plural noun; medium is the singular. A medium is a system of mass communication: The medium of television is a prominent component of the mass media.

Every day we hear and read statements like "The media is irresponsible," "The media has a hidden agenda." In those sentences, "media" should be followed by "are" and "have."

There are some who prefer and defend "the media is" and "the media has." To them, the various means of mass communication—newspapers, radio, TV, magazines, blogs, etc.—make up one "media."

The United States is where I live is correct, even though "States" is plural, so why not "the media is," even though media is plural? Nice try, but no sale.

Writers should insist on the media are. It's important that people think of the media as many voices, opinions, and perspectives rather than one monolithic entity.


MERETRICIOUS

A veteran newsman said, "His career is meretricious." He probably meant meritorious. Instead, the sentence as it stands is an insult.

When you hear it, the first two syllables echo merit, but the similarity to meritorious ends there. Meretricious means "flashy," "cheap," "tawdry": The candidate made a meretricious display of piety.


METAL, METTLE

See medal, meddle, metal, mettle.


MIC

Mic is a bogus and clueless abbreviation of microphone. For too many decades to count, the word was mike. "Ike is good on a mike" went a line from a popular early-1950s song about presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A bicycle is a bike, not a "bic." So how is a microphone a "mic"?


MINER, MINOR

Miner: one who works in a mine.

Minor: someone under the legal age of adulthood (noun); of less importance (adjective).


MINUSCULE

Be sure to note that first u. A lot of writers think the word is "miniscule." And it makes sense that a word for "tiny" would have a mini in it. Don't think mini, think minus.


MISNOMER

A misnomer is a mistake, but not all mistakes are misnomers. The word is wrongly used in this sentence: It's a misnomer that elephants are afraid of mice. A misnomer is not the same as a misconception. The nome in the middle is from the Latin nomen, meaning "name." A misnomer is a mistake in labeling: for instance, calling aluminum foil "tinfoil" or calling a koala a "bear" (it's a marsupial).

If "Lucky" Brown loses his fortune in the stock market and "Speedy" Green blows out his ankle, their respective nicknames become misnomers.


MORAL, MORALE

Moral: a lesson (noun); ethical (adjective).

Morale: spirit; level of enthusiasm.


MORE IMPORTANTLY, MOST IMPORTANTLY

Traditionalists do not accept importantly in sentences like Most importantly, Churchill was a statesman. Drop the -ly and save yourself a superfluous syllable. More important, you'll be using good English.


MORNING, MOURNING

Morning: the start of the day, between night and afternoon.

Mourning: sorrow over a tragedy.


MUSCLE, MUSSEL

Muscle: fibrous tissue; strength.

Mussel: an edible marine bivalve.


Misused Words

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