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.


SATIRE

See parody, satire.


SAVER, SAVOR

Saver: someone or something that saves or conserves.

Savor: to appreciate.


SCENT, SENT

Scent: an aroma; a fragrance.

Sent: taken; moved.


SECONDLY, THIRDLY, FOURTHLY

As noted earlier, few people say "firstly," and fewer yet say "fifthly," "sixthly," "seventeenthly," etc. Many adverbs do not end in -ly. It makes more sense to use second, third, and fourth rather than secondly, thirdly, and fourthly.


SEMIANNUAL

See biannual, biennial, semiannual.


SENSUAL, SENSUOUS

Sensual: relating to sexual pleasure.

Sensuous: relating to or affecting the physical senses.


SERF, SURF

Serf: a slave.

Surf: waves.


SERIAL

See cereal, serial.


SET, SIT

Set: to place something somewhere.

Sit: to take a seat.


SEW, SO, SOW

Sew: to stitch.

So: as a result; in the manner indicated.

Sow: to scatter or plant seed.


SHEAR, SHEER

Shear: to cut; to clip.

Sheer: pure; steep; translucent.


[sic]

This is found only in a direct quotation (note the brackets). An editor inserts [sic] directly after a word or sentence to notify readers that something is off or incorrect, but is being reproduced exactly as it originally appeared.


SIGHT

See cite, sight, site.


SIMPLISTIC

It's not the same as simple. It means "oversimplified," as in Your simplistic argument leaves out too many facts.

At a memorial service, a well-meaning soul remembered a renowned artist as "a simplistic man." Some occasions are too solemn for foolish language lapses. Trying to express something commendable, the speaker instead said the dear departed had been a simpleton.


SINCE

See because, since.


SITE

See cite, sight, site.


SLASH

Despite its popularity, the slash (/), technically known as a virgule, is frowned on by purists. Other than to indicate dates (9/11/2001) or separate lines of poetry ("Celery, raw / Develops the jaw"), it has few defensible uses in formal writing.

Usually a hyphen, or in some cases the word or, will suffice. Instead of writing the novelist/poet Eve Jones, make it the novelist-poet Eve Jones. Rather than available to any man/woman who is qualified, make it any man or woman.

"The virgule is a mark that doesn't appear much in first-rate writing," says Bryan A. Garner in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. "Use it as a last resort."


SLEIGHT, SLIGHT

Sleight: dexterity; skill.

Slight: slender; of little substance.


SNUCK

Many think snuck is the past tense of sneak, but it's not, at least not yet. The past tense of sneak is sneaked.


SO

See sew, so, sow.


SOAR, SORE

Soar: to fly high.

Sore: painful; in pain.


SOLE, SOUL

Sole: the bottom of a foot; a type of fish (nouns); single; solitary (adjectives).

Soul: essence; the spirit apart from the body.


SOME, SUM

Some: an unspecified number.

Sum: the total from adding numbers.


SON, SUN

Son: male offspring.

Sun: the star that is the central body of our solar system.


SOW

See sew, so, sow.


STAID, STAYED

Staid: solemn; serious.

Stayed: remained; waited.


STAIR, STARE

Stair: a step.

Stare: to gaze intently.


STAKE, STEAK

Stake: a wager; an investment; a pole.

Steak: a cut of meat.


STATIONARY, STATIONERY

Stationary: in one place; inactive.

Stationery: writing paper.


STEAL, STEEL

Steal: to rob.

Steel: an iron alloy (noun); to toughen (verb).


STEP, STEPPE

Step: a stair (noun); to move by lifting the foot (verb).

Steppe: vast grassland.


STOMPING GROUNDS

It started out as stamping grounds, which is still preferred by most dictionaries.


STRAIGHT, STRAIT

Words like straitjacket and strait-laced are frequently misspelled using straight, which is incorrect, but understandable. Wouldn't a "straightjacket" be just the thing to straighten you up and straighten you out? Doesn't "straight-laced" aptly describe a person of refinement (the lace part) who lives the "straight life"? This is why some authorities accept straight-laced as an alternative spelling. But a strait is a narrow channel, and it is that sense of "confinement with little room to maneuver" that generated these terms.


STRATEGY, STRATAGEM

Note the second a in stratagem.

Both words refer to plans of action. But stratagem denotes trickery. It is a scheme to deceive or outwit.


SUM

See some, sum.


SUN

See son, sun.


SUNDAE, SUNDAY

Sundae: ice cream with syrup.

Sunday: a day of the week.


SUPINE

See prone, supine.


SUPPOSE TO

Never "suppose to." Don't drop the d in usages like You're supposed to be here.


SURF

See serf, surf.


SYMPATHY

See empathy, sympathy.


Misused Words

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