Wednesday 13 January 2016

Confusing Words - Part 1

The words in purple saying The Purple Pen - about editing writing

Do you ever look at a word and wonder if you’re using it correctly? Do you have the right spelling, right tense, or have you missed it completely when reading through because you brain automatically read the correct word for you?

In editing it is always worth double checking … and then checking again.

There are times when we are not sure which words to use or we misspell words as they look or sound the same. On occasion they mean entirely different things too. With the Internet at our finger tips it takes only a moment to check, but this is where a second set of eyes on your writing in the form of a betareader or an editor can also come in handy. 

If you want the technical word: words that sound the same are called Homophones

Here are a few examples of what I am talking about:

Let’s take ‘Breathe’ and ‘Breath’ 

That one ‘e’ makes the difference between the general inhaling and exhaling we do to remain alive – ‘just breathe, you’ll be fine’ – and reacting to an event – ‘he took a sharp intake of breath.’ They relate to the same thing, but they have defined yet subtle differences.

Same with ‘Faint’ and ‘Feint’ 

The difference between the ‘a’ and the ‘e’, is the difference between feeling like or actually passing out, or hearing something in the distance – ‘there was a faint noise coming from the shed’ – and pretending you are going to go one way, when you are actually going to go another – ‘Tommy’s feint to the left worked and his opponent kicked right’.

Feint is used less and is in fact a derivative of the verb ‘to feign’, meaning to pretend.

But there are also words that are confusing because their tenses change their spelling and they can read the same.

Let’s take ‘Meet’ and ‘Met’.

The double ‘e’ is the present or future tense – ‘He’s going to meet me’ ‘We decided to meet’. Whereas the single ‘e’ means it already happened – ‘We met up last weekend’, ‘The two of you have already met, haven’t you?’ 

And also ‘Choose’ and ‘Chose’. 

The double ‘o’ is again present or future tense – ‘Go on, choose one’ ‘Which one will you choose?’ Whereas the single ‘o’ means it has been done. ‘I chose the best one.’ ‘I chose that one last time.’ 

There are also other derivatives in tenses of this word, like Choice, and Chosen, but the double ‘o’ version tends to throw more people off.

Then we have similar sounding words, with different meaning: 

Affect and Effect 

We get mixed up because affected can also mean to take on a way of being – ‘he affected a simple demeanour’  – which can also be understood as a result or something happening; ‘he had quite an effect on her’.

Affect is a verb – action, something that influences

Effect is a noun – something that happens, a result of an influence. 

Peek and Peak 

Peek is to look in a secret way.

Peak is the top or reaching the top. 

Allude and Elude 

Allude is to suggest.

Elude is to escape. 

Elicit and Illicit 

Elicit to bring out or evoke.

Illicit is illegal. 

Emit and Omit 

Emit is to give out.

Omit is to take out.

Those are just a few. There are plenty more. 

So the lesson here is to check, and check again, even though you think you do know, don’t assume – be sure, look it up. Sometimes you might be surprised at the meaning of a word that you thought meant something else, I know I have been. 

What words do you get confused over? What do you trip up on again and again? 

Find more editing tip posts HERE.

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  1. I like it. Good, useful information. Several of these I actually have problems with.

  2. Choose and chose are my nemesis. We do not get along. I try to remember one rhymes with shoes, but then I muck up which one does and end up spending an hour google searching grammar sites. From here on out, I'll just come to this lovely site. =)

    1. At some point all of these have given me trouble. There will be Part 2 tomorrow, with the ones I have far more difficulty with and need more thinking about!

  3. I still mangle affect/effect sometimes, but mostly because they aren't simply one-a-noun, one-a-verb. Affect also has a totally different meaning that is a noun (a person with a flat affect), and effect can be a verb that means "to bring about," as in "to effect a change." You can effect a solution (make it happen) or affect a solution (have a role in it, change it).

    So I get tangled when I want their more common meanings, too.

    Great post! I'm going to go read the next one now.

    1. Thanks for clarifying those different uses too.

      In trying to keep it simple I have focused on what I come across the most in the fiction I edit, so have not gone in depth on other possible meanings. I have also gone with the most common usages. But thanks for this, it's much appreciated.