Sunday, July 16, 2023

A Zoë Sharp Classic on The Words that Confuse Us the Most

[Whenever I think of word use mavens on the order of Strunk & White from "The Elements of Style" fame, Zoë always comes to mind.  Her post on the differences between English-English and American-English is particularly relevant to me now that I'm honored to have my Greece-based Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series published by UK-based Severn House.  Or perhaps I should write "honoured." -- Jeff]


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!

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