GrammarPhile Blog

Often-Confused Words

Posted by Phil Jamieson   Mar 12, 2014 6:00:00 AM

licoriceDoes word confusion rein supreme in your marketing office? Do you and your staff pour over documents for hours only to discover five or ten subtle errors when the 5000 copies come back from the printer? [Hold your e-mails. We know those words are wrong!] Check these oft-confused words and see if you can avoid some typical errors that people make all the time.

libel, slander. Libel may result from injurious remarks that are circulated in writing, slander from those that are spoken. But note that because words spoken over the radio or on television are likely to be recorded, what would normally be slander is treated as libel. In this connection it is useful to remember that, legally, publishing means making public and does not strictly imply printing. In a college or elsewhere, a lecturer who has large audiences but who never writes books could classically claim that he published regularly.

licorice, liquorice. The first spelling is standard in the United States; the second prevails in Great Britain. Both are distortions of the Greek glykyrrhiza (sweet root). Modern French réglisse is a further distortion by metathesis. Americans are often startled when, on the wrappers of toffee from England, they encounter liquorice. It is in fact the result of folk etymology--a spelling arrived at, one might guess, under the influence of liquor. If spelling were made either good or bad by any consideration but the custom of the country, one would have to say that the American spelling of this particular word, being closer to the Greek root, is the better one.

momently, momentarily. The difference between what lasts only for a little while (I forgot momentarily / I was dizzy but momentarily) and what may happen at any moment (He is expected momently) is worth making clear by keeping apart the uses of these two words. The merit of this is evident if, bearing in mind the short while meaning, we use the longer form in such a sentence as He will die momentarily. Note that in the Merriam-Webster Fifth Collegiate Dictionary, the word momentarily has no definition attached as at any moment. As English has grown, however, we now find the modern dictionary (Merriam-Webster Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary) including at any moment as a definition following momentarily. Is this a result of misuse and the dictionary's acquiescence? Would you fight this movement by using momently at your next opportunity? "Yes, Boss, I will join you and the clients in the conference room momently." Go ahead, be provocative!

pore, pour. You pour water. Our editors pore over your white paper searching for errors. These words are confusing, sure. They're derived from the same word pouren even though they are spelled differently in modern English. But look smart. Use them correctly in your writing. [The word pore for those things in your skin comes from an altogether different word poros, meaning passage.]

rein, reign. Even in the best agencies, confusion sometimes reigns, as does the queen. If your sales force is selling features your products will never have, you need to rein those salespeople in, as if you're a stagecoach driver and they're wild horses.

I hope this post helps you to overcome word confusion. What words do you find that are commonly confused? Add your comments.


Topics: misused words

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