Spelling, Vocabulary, and Confusing Words

Letter A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - J - K - L - M - N - O - P - Q - R - S - T - U - V - W - X - Y - Z

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.


PAIL, PALE

Pail: a bucket.

Pale: lacking color.


PAIN, PANE

Pain: physical or emotional suffering.

Pane: a glazed piece or section of a door, window, etc.


PALATE, PALETTE, PALLET

Palate: the roof of the mouth; taste.

Palette: a range of colors; a board to hold and mix paint colors.

Pallet: a low, portable platform.


PARISH, PERISH

Parish: a district with its own church and clergy.

Perish: to stop existing; to die.


PARODY, SATIRE

A parody is a humorous imitation of a book, film, song, poem, etc., meant to poke fun at the original's style or intentions.

A satire uses biting humor, hyperbole, sarcasm, irony, etc., to lay bare the toxic absurdity of civilization.


PASSED, PAST

Passed: gone ahead of; approved.

Past: a former time; beyond.


PAST HISTORY

A curious term for history.


PASTIME, PAST TIME

A pastime is a leisurely pursuit or hobby.

The phrase past time refers to something that should have happened or been done by now.

It's past time that people realized that pastime is one word.


PEACE, PIECE

Peace: tranquility.

Piece: a portion.


PEAK, PEEK, PIQUE

Peak: a summit.

Peek: a glance (noun); to steal a glance (verb).

Pique: ill humor (noun); to arouse or annoy (verb).


PEAL, PEEL

Peal: to ring.

Peel: to strip.


PEDAL, PEDDLE

Pedal: a foot-activated lever (noun); to operate something with pedals, such as a bicycle or organ (verb).

Peddle: to sell or publicize.


PEER, PIER

Peer: a person who is an equal (noun); to look attentively (verb).

Pier: a structure extending out over water.


PENULTIMATE

"He's the penultimate Washington insider," said the glib pundit, blissfully unaware that penultimate means "second to last."


PERCENT

One word.


PERPETRATE, PERPETUATE

Perpetrate: to commit a crime.

Perpetuate: to prolong or sustain.


PERSECUTE, PROSECUTE

To persecute is to go after in an intimidating, bullying manner.

To prosecute is to go after in a legal manner.


PERSUADE

See convince, persuade.


PHASE

See faze, phase.


PHENOMENON

This troublemaker baffles even articulate speakers. And they know it. If you listen closely, you'll notice people trying to save face by fudging the last syllable.

Phenomenon is singular. "Management is a universal phenomenon," declares a business website. It helps to remember the -on on the end, which almost spells one.

The plural form is phenomena. A commentator on national television had it exactly backward. He spoke of "the phenomena of climate change" and later used phenomenon as a plural. Others say "phenomenas" when they mean phenomena.


PIECE

See peace, piece.


PIQUE

See peak, peek, pique.


PISTIL, PISTOL

Pistil: the female organ of a flower.

Pistol: a gun.


PLAIN, PLANE

Plain: a treeless area of land (noun); not fancy; evident (adjectives).

Plane: a flat or level surface; short form of airplane.


PLUM, PLUMB

Plum: a type of fruit.

Plumb: to examine (verb); upright; vertical (adjectives); totally; precisely (adverbs).


p.m.

See a.m., p.m.


POINT IN TIME

At that point in time is an exercise in empty pomposity, made (in)famous by the Watergate hearings of the early 1970s and still going strong. Why not just at that point or at that time?


POLE, POLL

Pole: a long, cylindrical piece of wood or metal.

Poll: a collection of opinions; a survey.


POOR, PORE, POUR

Poor: deprived.

Pore: a small opening (noun). To study carefully (verb).

Pour: to send liquid flowing.

Be careful not to say "pour over" if you mean pore over.


PRAY, PREY

Pray: to speak to a deity.

Prey: a victim (noun); to hunt, to exploit (verbs).


PRECIPITATE, PRECIPITOUS

Media pundits have errantly decided that precipitous means "immediate" or "swift," as when they discuss the advisability of "precipitous troop withdrawal." The correct adjective would be precipitate.

Precipitous means "steep," like a precipice.


PREDOMINATELY

Some mistakenly use it as an alternative to predominantly, as in "chiefly," "primarily." Funny thing about predominately: you might not see it for long stretches, and then, like some verbal swine flu, it crops up everywhere for a few weeks. Although predominately is technically a word, it's not easy to pinpoint what it means.


PREMIER, PREMIERE

Premier is generally an adjective meaning "the best," "of unsurpassed quality, skill, or importance." As a noun, it refers to a head of government.

A premiere is an opening night or first performance.


PRESENTLY

Careful speakers and writers might consider avoiding this word. If you tell hungry guests, "We're serving dinner presently," they might think you mean now. But presently means "in the near future." It's a stuffy word anyway; what's wrong with soon?


PRESUME

See assume, presume.


PRINCIPAL, PRINCIPLE

Principal: a major participant; the head of an institution (nouns); of first importance; chief (adjectives).

Principle: a fundamental belief; a fundamental fact.


PROFIT, PROPHET

Profit: gain.

Prophet: a predictor; a seer.


PRONE, SUPINE

The victim was found lying prone, her eyes gazing sightlessly at a full moon. Sorry, but this is a maneuver only the swivel-headed girl from The Exorcist could pull off, because when you're prone, you're lying on your stomach. Make that supine, which means "lying on one's back."


PROPHECY, PROPHESIZE, PROPHESY

A prophecy is a prediction.

When prophets make prophecies, they prophesy, not "prophesize."

It will be a crowning achievement, prophesized its chief engineer. Lose that z and make it prophesied. It is doubtful you could find any dictionary anywhere that lists "prophesize." Even the nonjudgmental Webster's New World College Dictionary shuns this common (mis)usage.


PROSECUTE

See persecute, prosecute.


PURPOSELY, PURPOSEFULLY

These words share much common ground, and they are sometimes interchangeable, but there are distinct differences. Purposely means "intentionally," but some acts are intentional, yet pointless: Little Jimmy purposely threw Alice's lunch in the mud.

Someone who does something purposefully is on a mission, with an important goal in mind: The rescue team purposefully combed the woods for the missing child.


Misused Words

Letter A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - J - K - L - M - N - O - P - Q - R - S - T - U - V - W - X - Y - Z