Sunday, July 2, 2017

Mistakes What I Have Tried: the words that confuse us the most

Artefact / Artifact
Having recently finished writing a book where archaeological items play a role, the word artefact cropped up occasionally in the text. My US copyeditor corrected this to artifact, which I initially understood to be simply yet another example of the difference between English-English, and American-English. And, indeed, some dictionaries have the same definitions for both words, with only that difference between them. However, others list an artifact as being a physical object possibly of historical significance, while an artefact is for more abstract, intangible use, such as an error in a compressed digital file.

Enquiry / Inquiry
Likewise, when my US copyeditor corrected all my enquiries to inquiries, I thought the same US/UK spelling rules applied. But it appears that enquiry is used more in the nature of a question, instead of ask, where inquiry denotes a more formal investigation.

Reign / Rein
Another one I keep seeing a lot of, particularly in the sense of giving someone a free hand to do something. Although I can see the logic in using reign for this purpose—after all, it does suggest a monarch who can do as they please with their subjects—it’s not correct. It’s a horse-riding term, as in not holding the horse back by having the hand keep a tight hold on the rein.

Callous / Callus
For some reason I’ve been coming across this one quite a bit lately, and usually wrongly used. Callous means cruel or insensitive, whereas a callus is a thickened patch of skin, as on the hands of a manual labourer, or the bony tissue that forms over the site of a fracture.

Imply / Infer
I can imply something from what I say, and you can infer from it, but not the other way around. Imply is to suggest. Infer is to deduce.

Round / Around
The distinction between round and around is one that frequently has me confused, I must admit. Generally, the former is used far more frequently in the UK, and the latter in the US. Round tends to be less formal, too, and is used more in English speech. There are occasions when around would be incorrect, depending on the definition. You wouldn’t play around of golf, for instance, although if you didn’t take it seriously there’s no reason why you couldn’t play around while playing a round of golf.

I’ve also assumed round had a closer proximity than the more general around, although I don’t really have evidence for this. I would normally write that someone wore a scarf round their neck, but that there were candles placed around the room. To my mind, if you look round, you just turn your head. If you look around, you go nosing into all the nooks and crannies.

Pursue / Persue
This is one of my favourite accidental discoveries. Most people know that pursue means to go after; to chase. My Chambers dictionary says it is ‘to follow in order to overtake, capture or kill’ something. In Scots’ law it means to prosecute or sue. But persue comes from Spenser, who seemed to take delight in making up new words. It means a track of blood, from the French percée, to pierce.

Hanged / Hung
This one is wrongly used all the time—especially in period dramas—and it bugs me. Basically, meat or pictures are hung, but people are hanged. Except, of course, if one is not talking about putting a rope round—or indeed around—their neck, but referring to a different part of the body altogether …

OK, I’ll leave that one there, shall I?

Destroyed / Decimated
If you destroy something, you pull it down, demolish it, overturn, kill, ruin, put an end to, or ruin it. If you decimate it, however, you take or destroy only one tenth of it. If defeated in battle, the Roman commanders would punish their troops by killing every tenth man. It has now come to mean to significantly reduce rather than utterly demolish.

Androgenous / Androgynous
Both these words have their roots in the Greek andro- denoting male. One of the male sex hormones is androgen, and the same name is applied to synthetic compounds with similar effect. So, androgenous means to have only male offspring. But when you combine andro- with the Greek gyne, woman, from which comes gynaecology, we get both male and female in one word, or one individual.

Discreet / Discrete
If someone is good at keeping secrets, they are discreet; careful in their actions, prudent, modest. Discrete, on the other hand, means something that has distinct separate parts. It is often used in an abstract context, where it means the opposite of concrete.

Flammable / Inflammable
There isn’t actually a difference between flammable and inflammable; they both mean capable of burning. The original word was inflammable derived from inflame or enflame. The word flammable was coined in the 1920s, apparently by the National Fire Protection Association (why does fire need protecting, I wonder?) because they were concerned that people might confuse the word inflammable with non flammable, meaning it was not capable of burning.

Less / Fewer
Simple rule for this one. If you can count something, use fewer. If you can’t, use less.

Blatant / Flagrant
The easy way to differentiate between these two is to remember that blatant is something that is ‘offensively conspicuous’ while flagrant is something that is ‘conspicuously offensive.’ If that doesn’t help, my trusty Chambers dictionary suggests that blatant is something that is noisy, obtrusive and glaringly obvious, while flagrant is something that is notorious or outrageous. It also means burning or raging. From this we get the phrase to be ‘caught in flagrante delicto’—to be caught in the act. Literally, ‘while the crime is blazing’.

Presumably, therefore, to be ‘caught in blatante delicto’ means they can hear you from all the way down the corridor …

What about you, folks? Any favourites you'd like to share?

And although I didn't know it when I wrote this blog, tomorrow is actually English Grammar Day!


  1. Thanks, Zoe. Interesting and fun. How about specially and especially? Another one that causes lots of discussion is emigrate and immigrate. Thoughts?

    And here's a howler that managed to get past me, Stanley, our editor and our copy editor: 'He wasn't phased by the problem.' Can't believe we did that!

    1. Good questions, Michael! There is a subtle difference between specially and especially. Specially is something outstanding, but especially invites comparison, implying whatever is being described is better than something else. 'A specially trained soldier' or 'the team played especially well in the second half.'

      Emigrate / Immigrate depends on your viewpoint. You would emigrate to another country from your home country, but when you arrived there, you would immigrate into the new country.

      And phased / fazed is another one I've come across a LOT, so don't feel too bad about it slipping through :-)

  2. I once employed a podiatrist who thought Maria Callous was an opera singer...... And I did have a character put his foot on the break....and that got past everybody!

    1. LOL on Maria Callous -- sounds like she did the punk opera versions.

      I could imagine Charlie Fox putting her foot on the break ... but only if she'd caused the bone to break in the first place, and she really wanted information out of the victim quickly ...

  3. Zowie, Zoe, this post peaks/piques/peeks my interest.

    Especially when it comes to less/fewer, you wouldn't believe the number/amount of people who mix them up.

    Whilst/While we're on the subject of Britglish vs Amerglish, I took/brought my laptop to Italy last winter. Finding itself across the pond, it began to harbour a predilection for British spelling. I brought/took it home, but its autocorrect seems to have permanently emigrated/immigrated.

    I infer from the subject raised, but not discussed above, that you meant to imply there are other such pairs/pares/pears we might take up.

    My voice once appeared on National Public Radio in the US. I corrected one their commentators for mixing up "incredible" and "incredulous." This very morning a different commentator made exactly the same mistake. She finds it "incredulous" that the President of the US--dubbed the SCROTUS by our pal Stan--sent his last Tweet volley. The situation is incredible. I remain incredulous, but unphased/unfazed.

    1. Yes, Annamaria, peaks and piques are often misused, as are demure and demur, and affect and effect.

      I remember hearing an Australian comedian who found it highly amusing that the motorway signs in Britain advised: "do not use phone whilst driving".

      Don't know what prompted your laptop to apply for Brit nationality, but next time you're in Word, if you go into the Tools>Languages menu, it will let you re-select US English default spellings.

      I was once asked to sign a partition against something rather than a petition.

      Love the SCROTUS definition. Nice one, Stanley!

  4. In the US, insure is used irregardless of whether it means to make sure or to provide protection. I hardly ever see or hear enquire on this side of the pond. Another favorite: 'Let's go to the tennis court and volley." Volley instead of rally-unless, of course, they were going to hit every ball before it bounced.

    1. Then there is the issue of "irregardless." Regardless of which, I rally my confidence and you remain my go-to guy when it comes to British usage.

    2. Hi Stan. You have to wonder if Beach Rallyball would make it to the Olympics, don't you? And would an Ensurance Company force customers to do something they really didn't want to do ...?

    3. Much like flammable / inflammable, there's no difference between regardless and irregardless, except irregardless is almost a double negative. But, it's been around since the 19th century, and therefore has a habit of sticking.

  5. Great stuff, Zoë. But... shouldn't it be "I can imply something WITH [not FROM] what I say, and you can infer from it"??? One is 'giving' while the other is 'taking', n'est ce pa?

    From an American pov, you would walk around the golf course while playing a round of golf.

    Of course (not golf), many of these are due to the collapsing literacy of (at least) the American public. Or has it always been this way and that's why English is mutating at such a hi/high rate of speed (to be somewhat redundant).

    As for destroyed/decimated, you're absolutely correct on all points. However, modern usage in the States assigns almost identical meaning to both words, alas. In fact, a lot of folks prefer to use decimated to mean completely destroyed, but with special vengeance. Sad.

    You skipped farther/further, cruel/crool, and one that I see constantly is site/sight: people visit a web SITE where they may read its contents with their SIGHT.

  6. And if I have one more patient with issues with his prostrate gland......I suppose a prostrate problem keeps you flat on your back....

  7. My head is spinning. All of this reminds me of Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" section on misused words. But this discussion is much more fun. It leaves me hunging for more.

  8. Very good and funny, too.
    Then there is migrant/immigrant and shone/shined.

    I think in the U.S. some words are used more liberally like "around" which is used constantly: He's hanging around the park or she has a scarf around her neck.

    But never use "pled"; it's always "pleaded." That's taboo in my AP style book.

    People also use who and whom incorrectly. And something that makes my teeth hurt: A lot of people still say "the dog was wearing it's collar," putting in an apostrophe as a possessive, rather than realizing it's an abbreviation for "it is."