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Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby glorybee » Mon Aug 12, 2013 10:59 am

In my work as an editor and in my previous years of judging the Writing Challenge, I’ve come across more instances than I care to count of people using incorrect words. Many times they have confused words with similar spellings or pronunciations, and other times they’ve chosen words with close (but not identical) meanings. I couldn’t begin to come close to listing all of the commonly misused or confused words, but in this lesson I’ll give you some of the errors that occur most often (or that bother me the most). I’m not going to cover sets of words like there/their/they’re and to/too/two—I’ll assume that writers on this site have mastered those.

Also, I'm having a small contest--details at the end of this post.

1. palate/palette/pallet – The palate is the roof of your mouth. A palette is a board for mixing paints. A pallet is used to stack items in a warehouse.

2. continuous/continual – Things that are continuous are uninterrupted, like the drone of a bagpipe. Things that are continual just keep happening, like your children asking you for a cookie even when you said ‘no.’

3. infamous does not mean ‘extremely famous.’ It means ‘famous for having done something terrible.’ Similarly, notorious has a negative connotation; you wouldn't say Wilma is notorious for her homemade strawberry jam (unless she laces it with cyanide).

4. enormity does not mean ‘large size.’ It means ‘great evil.’ History has long recognized the enormity of Hitler’s actions.

5. pore/pour (verbs) When you’re studying carefully, use pore over, not pour over.

6. surreal does not mean ‘exciting’ or ‘unusual’. It’s far more intense than that; something can be said to be surreal if it is bizarre and dreamlike. Seeing a unicorn on the bus during a blizzard of marshmallows would be surreal. Seeing your newborn for the first time is not.

7. maybe/may be – If you can substitute perhaps, you want maybe (one word). If not, use two words. My granddaughter may be the cutest 4-year-old in the country. Maybe you disagree, but you are mistaken.

8. disinterested/uninterested – The first word means ‘impartial’ or ‘unbiased.’ The second one means ‘bored.’

9. penultimate – I’ve seen writers use this as if the prefix ‘pen-’was some sort of intensifier: Skateboarding is the penultimate extreme sport. This is incorrect. Penultimate simply means ‘next to last.’ Zechariah is the penultimate book of the Old Testament.

10. discreet/discrete – The first one is an adjective meaning something like ‘prudent, self-restrained.’ The second means ‘separate, distinct.’ I trust you to be discreet with my secret; I use two discrete varieties of apple in my homemade applesauce.

11. blond/blonde and fiancé/fiancée – In these pairs of words, use the first spelling if you’re writing about a male, and the second spelling if you’re writing about a female.

12. anxious/eager – both words are used to convey anticipation, but anxious is ‘anticipation with dread’ and eager is ‘anticipation with excitement.’ I’m eager to go to Disney World, but I’m anxious about going on Space Mountain.

13. Bemused – it’s not the same thing as ‘amused.’ It’s more like ‘puzzled, confused.’

14. Decimate – it doesn’t mean ‘to utterly destroy’ or ‘to devastate.’ Its root is the same as ‘decimal’ or ‘decade,’ meaning ‘ten,’ and it means ‘to eliminate one-tenth of.’ So a hurricane might be said to decimate a city if it takes down a tenth of the buildings.

15. Myriad – this word doesn’t need ‘a’ before it, or to be followed by the word ‘of.’ It means ‘a great number of,’ so you might write, The side of the house was covered by myriad butterflies.

That’s probably enough for now. I asked for suggestions of commonly misused words on my Facebook page and I got plenty of ideas, so I’m doing part 2 of this lesson next week with another 15 or so.

Were you surprised by any of these? Are there words that you consistently see misused? Are there any words that confuse you, or that you have questions about?

HOMEWORK:
1. Choose a few of the words above and write them in correct sentences. OR
2. Answer one of the questions in the previous paragraph. OR
3. Give me a suggestion for a topic for a future writing lesson.

I’d love to get more participation in these lessons, so I’m going to offer an incentive: if at least 10 people leave substantial replies to this lesson (either posting their homework for my comments or adding something significant of their own), I’ll pick one responder at random and send them a prize. Not sure yet what it will be, but it’ll be nice.
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby WriterFearNot » Mon Aug 12, 2013 4:10 pm

The correct use of blond and blonde surprised me. I have always been confused with that extra "e" and had, until now, assumed it was an English/British thing. :lol:

It seems that almost every day I'm writing, I run into trouble with figuring out the proper use of words. I have the Dictionary.com app on my phone, and I use it continually (I can't tell you how tempted I was to write "continuously" here), but I still run into trouble. Here are examples of problems I ran into today:

Awhile/a while--Microsoft Word insists that I use "a while" but dictionary.com has no problem with "awhile."

Patronize: I still can't figure out how to use this word correctly. In dictionary.com, two seemingly opposing definitions are listed back to back 1) to behave offensively, and 2) to support. :shock:

Oh, and I always have trouble with "conscious" and "conscience." Deep down, I understand the difference between the two, but whenever I write either one, I have to concentrate to make sure I write the correct one.

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby CatLin » Mon Aug 12, 2013 5:49 pm

I poured a glass of lemonade before opening this post. I eager to pore over Jan's new lesson, but I was anxious about all of mistakes I'm sure I've made in my writing. I'd need something cool and soothing to refresh me.

The majority of these surprised me. I guess my blonde roots are showing (as my daughter is fond of saying.)

Sorry for the brevity - typing on a tablet is the pits. Cat
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Aug 12, 2013 6:45 pm

I probably generally won’t participate in your classes, but anything I can do to drum up interest! (I hope you get to 10.)

What about those pairs where the writer knows the difference perfectly well but the typo is so easy to make (and spellchecker won’t catch it)? The obvious example is angle vs. angel, but also rogue vs. rouge. There are others that involve more than a single letter transposition, like WriterFearNot’s conscious and conscience.

Your same point applies to expressions. For me the most annoying is “beg the question.” How often do you read something like “Sally checked the weather on her app. It said 50% chance of rain. That begged the question, "Should she bring her umbrella?” ARRGGG!!!
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby pheeweed » Mon Aug 12, 2013 7:14 pm

I too was surprised by the extra e on blond and fiance. Now I know I'm a blonde (natural, of course). I also didn't know that decimate only refers to 10%.

I am bemused by your myriad assertions that you have the cutest granddaughter because I am eager to proclaim that my granddaughter is the cutest. I wonder if you are disinterested when you write about her, although I can assure you I am not uninterested in hearing about her.
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby glorybee » Mon Aug 12, 2013 8:54 pm

These are great replies, and I'll respond to them individually tomorrow or the next day. I have the notoriously active Piper with me for another day, and although she's eager to go home, I hate to part with her. Once she's gone, I may need a day to recuperate and to repair my decimated home.

j
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby Shann » Mon Aug 12, 2013 10:09 pm

Actually, I've gone over lists of commonly misused words quite often and do believe I recognized all of these and have even corrected quite a few while editing for different people.

Penultimate is one of my favorite words. (I first learned about it when I read Lemony Snickett with my kids.) Decimate is one of those words that I think very few people use properly. It's hard to tell if the bomb decimated the city unless of course you're a cartographer. :D

I don't think I thought much about myriad and have often seen it with an article before it, though I don't think I ever personally have used the word myself. I will admit that it didn't seem right in the example you used. I would have put the word 'of' in, I think. That was a good one for me.

One word I discovered I used incorrectly recently was foreword/forward. ANOTHER ONE THAT i NEVER EVEN REALIZED WERE TWO WORDS WAS (oops sorry not screaming, just lazy) compliment/complement. A fellow FW pointed it out to me and I have returned the favor many times in the past three years.

My big one is nauseated/nauseous, but I think most people use it incorrectly so it will be one of those words like decimate.

I love that you're doing this lesson. I think it will be a great help to so many people. Maybe next week you can write a paragraph and see if people can spot the incorrect words! :thankssign
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Aug 12, 2013 10:44 pm

I thought of another thing related to this topic; and I’d love your thoughts, Jan, as an editor. Language evolves, and there is a tendency to let incorrect usage become acceptable. I think of an example you gave and an example I gave, plus others. Your wrong definition of enormity is now showing up as the 3rd, 4th, or 5th definition in some dictionaries. Some “authorities” are now giving up on “beg the question” and listing the wrong usage as a proper usage. Even more shocking is when the OED gives up. I have long marked (as a professor, editor, and supervising attorney) the use of “evidence” as a verb as incorrect. The verb is “evince.” But what can you do when the OED has an entry for evidence as a verb?

What is your approach as an editor when you encounter a writer using a formerly incorrect word/phrase/usage in his book that dictionaries and other authorities say are now OK? I understand that should any of us be writing under contract to a royalty-paying publisher, we are stuck with their style manuals. But in other contexts, what do you advise/what corrections do you make?
Steve
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby glorybee » Tue Aug 13, 2013 1:03 am

Well, my little girl is sound asleep, but I'm wide awake, so I'll respond to your posts now (at nearly 1 a.m.).

Theresa--a while and awhile are two different parts of speech. A while is a noun--try substituting something like a minute in the sentence. If it still makes sense, use a while. Awhile is an adverb--try replacing it with another word you know to be an adverb, and if it still makes sense, use awhile.

It took me a while to learn to whistle.
Piper played awhile and I practiced whistling.

Cat--thanks for popping by, and don't be anxious. Most editors don't bite.

Steve--I'll freely admit to having no idea what a correct usage of "begs the question" would be. And I'm sure I've heard expressions used incorrectly before, but at this hour of the night, none spring to mind. I'll cover your other question in a separate response.

Phee--I think the extra 'e' on blonde (female) and fiancee (also female) have to do with their French roots. There may be other words that work in pairs like this, but I'm not aware of them. But there are other 'ee' words that are feminine, like divorcee.

Shann--thanks for mentioning the word pairs that you have come across. I had a discussion with someone not long ago about nauseated/nauseous, and that leads me to the response I'm about to write for Steve, about when to fight for a proper usage and when to throw in the towel. Stay tuned.
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby glorybee » Tue Aug 13, 2013 1:20 am

Steve (and Shann)--

There's no simple answer, as far as I'm concerned, to the question of how to deal with changing language. As you stated, there are some contexts where the absolute precise word is crucial; in other contexts we can afford to be looser in our acceptance of words or phrases that once meant one thing and now mean something else.

I guess, for me, it's just a matter of personal tolerance. I'm fully prepared to cede that although nauseous really means 'causing illness,' most people use it as a synonym for nauseated ('feeling ill'). It just doesn't bother me. But I grind my teeth when I hear someone misuse notorious or anxious.

Another thing that determines whether I decide to be a stickler is my own desire not to be thought of as a pedantic pain-in-the-patootie. Again, context is the key. Although Facebook posts and online chats are notorious in their usage errors (and spelling and grammar errors, too), I almost never correct them. I just don't want to be that person--even though when people know I'll be reading something, they'll frequently say, "Sorry, I'm a terrible [writer, speller, whatever]." That always makes me feel a little bit sad--as if my title is Editor for the Internet. And I'm not sure how I got that reputation; as I said, I don't make it a habit to correct people unless they ask for correction. So if my friend writes, in a casual setting, I'm anxious to go on that Alaskan cruise--it's going to be awesome, I may think 'she means eager,' but I sure as heck won't correct her.

If it's something I'm editing, it still depends on the context. In a character's dialog, I'll correct an error if the character should know better. In an academic piece, you betcha I'll be getting out the red pen.

Hope that answered your question--best I can do at this late hour. I'll re-visit what I've written here tomorrow, after I deliver the young hurricane to her now-rested parents, and catch up on some of the sleep I've missed these past few days...




swfdoc1 wrote:I thought of another thing related to this topic; and I’d love your thoughts, Jan, as an editor. Language evolves, and there is a tendency to let incorrect usage become acceptable. I think of an example you gave and an example I gave, plus others. Your wrong definition of enormity is now showing up as the 3rd, 4th, or 5th definition in some dictionaries. Some “authorities” are now giving up on “beg the question” and listing the wrong usage as a proper usage. Even more shocking is when the OED gives up. I have long marked (as a professor, editor, and supervising attorney) the use of “evidence” as a verb as incorrect. The verb is “evince.” But what can you do when the OED has an entry for evidence as a verb?

What is your approach as an editor when you encounter a writer using a formerly incorrect word/phrase/usage in his book that dictionaries and other authorities say are now OK? I understand that should any of us be writing under contract to a royalty-paying publisher, we are stuck with their style manuals. But in other contexts, what do you advise/what corrections do you make?
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Aug 13, 2013 12:54 pm

Jan,

Begging the question is a logical fallacy in which someone assumes without proving part of what they need to prove for his argument to be valid.

And, yes, you answered my question. Or at least I should say mostly. Part of what I was interested in was sort of a client management question. Do you try to educate the client? How hard do you try if a client digs in? That sort of thing.
Steve
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby glorybee » Tue Aug 13, 2013 3:17 pm

I do occasionally educate my clients when they've misused words. I frequently make comments in the margin on issues with content, consistency, character development -- that sort of thing -- and if I find that it makes sense to do a bit of teaching there, I'll do it. I'm more likely to correct my clients who are quite good writers than the ones whose writing is more challenging to me as an editor. I guess I figure that the good writers are more open to teaching, more interested in words.
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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Aug 13, 2013 3:39 pm

Thanks. Just curious as to your practice. Your approach and mine are very similar vis-a-vis various levels of writing skill.
Steve
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“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby WriterFearNot » Tue Aug 13, 2013 3:43 pm

Jan, thanks for the clarification on "awhile" versus "a while." I've written it down on a Post-it note for future reference.

If there was a Jan App, I would replace my dictionary app with it in a hot second.

Theresa :thankssign

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Re: Jan's New Writing Lessons -- COMMONLY MISUSED WORDS

Postby Colswann1 » Tue Aug 13, 2013 6:10 pm

Jan, we from the UK spell lots of words differently to you in the USA. Quite often we use two consonants where you from the USA use one. I think we have a rule that if a vowel follows a word ending in a consonant then the word-ending consonant doubles up e.g. swimming, parallelled, etc.
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