Know When to Use ‘Principle’ or ‘Principal’ and ‘Few’ or ‘Less’?
The English language is hard to learn and not easy to use, as evidenced by commonplace word misusage, even by professional communicators. Choosing the correct word is an achievement, not an accident.
Homophones – like “their” and “there” that sound the same but spelled differently – are a frequent verbal stumbling block. Polysemous words – like “bank” or “dish” that have multiple meanings and can be nouns or verbs – are a reliable puzzler for people learning English as a first or second language.
But there is a whole other group of linguistic transgressions that bedevil people who write in English – using the wrong word or phrase by mistake – or out of ignorance. We can excuse the misuse by noting English has lots of words from which to choose. Or, we can confess that we get sloppy and don’t doublecheck our word choices.
To underline the point about double-checking, author and blogger Gary Kinder shared some of his embarrassing verbal boo-boos in a recent WordRake blog. Two boo-boos involved employing the wrong word in legal commentaries aimed at Kinder’s target audience.
In his blog titled One Thing Judges Never Read, Kinder wrote, “Jurists in powdered wigs spent much of their time drafting obtuse rules for pleadings and lying in wait”. A friendly member of the US Department of Justice sent Kinder a note suggesting the word he meant to use was abstruse, which means “hard to understand”. Obtuse means “dull” or “stupid”. Oops.
Kinder also was humbled when a senior editor at the United Nations gently suggested his blog titled 6 Sentence Openings That Aggravate Judges was off the mark. Aggravate means “to make something worse” and isn’t a synonym for “annoy” or “irritate”, which was what Kinder meant.
Choosing the correct word is an achievement, not an accident.
With those confessions, here are common word mix-ups that many of us inflict on readers:
Skim or Scan
When you quickly review a document or web post, you skim the content to gain an overall impression or you scan to look for specific details.
Proceed or Precede
These similar words can be confusing, even though they have nearly opposing meanings. Proceed means to continue. Precede means going before.
Due diligence is a legal term referring to doing your homework before, say, signing a contract. “Do diligence” just means you forgot do and due sound alike but aren’t the same.
Rein or Reign
People have lots of trouble deciphering which of these homophones to use. Rein refers to the straps to control a horse or reindeer and is often used as Rein in referring to keeping something or someone in line. Reign refers to ruling a nation or an organization.
Ensure or Insure
A common source of confusion, ensure means to make certain, while insure means obtaining insurance.
Deep-seeded or Deep-seated
A good word editor will automatically change deep-seeded to deep-seated, which means firmly established. If deep-seeded was actually a word, it might refer to being the 64th seed in a 64-team tournament.
Piece of Mind or Peace of Mind
This is a mash-up of two common phrases. When you are angry, you may give someone a piece of your mind. When you are assured nothing is amiss, you achieve peace of mind.
Sneak Peak or Sneak Peek
Another case of homophonic confusion, Sneak peek means a quick look. Peaks are atop mountains and tend to draw long looks.
For all Intensive Purposes
Nope, it’s for all intents and purposes, which means “for all practical purposes”.
Tongue and Cheek
A tongue-twister for tongue-in-cheek, which refers to a sly joke.
Slight and Sleight
A slight is a snub. A sleight is a deceit, as in sleight of hand.
By in Large
Actually, it’s by and large, meaning “on the whole”.
Principle or Principal
This pair may be the most confusing homophones in the English language. A principle is a fundamental truth or proposition. A principal can be a business leader, an investor or head of a school. It also can refer to money, as in capital before interest.
Affect or Effect
Another common stumper is affect, which to exert influence or make a difference, and effect, which can be used as either a noun or verb to mean a change caused by or causing an action.
Less or Fewer
This pair of words stumps a lot of people. Fewer should be used when referring to things that can be counted, such as “10 fewer nights of sleep”. Less is the correct reference to smaller amounts of things such as “less time” or “less space”. [This isn’t a modern accommodation, by the way. The use of “less” as described here dates back to the origins of English as a written language 1,000 years ago.]
Adverse or Averse
Adverse means negative news. Averse means something you don’t want to do, which perhaps might result in negative news.
Appraise or Apprise
You appraise the value of property or art. You apprise someone by informing them of the appraised value of their house or the worthless painting they bought at a garage sale.
Begs the Question
The phrase suffers from evolving use that has blurred its original definition – “assumes what it should be proving.” The phrase now is used, apparently with little literary pushback, to mean “obviously leads to the next question”.
Dichotomy, Discrepancy or Disparity
These three words can confound writers who aren’t careful in selecting the right one. A dichotomy refers to two opposite points of view. A discrepancy refers to two things that should be alike but aren’t. A disparity refers to a gap that can be measured.
However, the award for the most misused (or linguists would say “abused”) English word goes to ironic. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ironic as “happening in the opposite way to what is expected, typically causing wry amusement”. It doesn’t mean, as it’s often used, “unfortunate”, “interesting” or “coincidental”.
The misuse of ironic has an explanation, if not a defense – different dictionaries provide different definitions. Merriam Webster says, perhaps with a tinge of irony, that using “ironic” to connote something coincidental isn’t “wrong, it’s just trailblazing”.
How To Use This Information
There is a lot to take in here. If you already know all this, then the blog was just a friendly refresher. If some of these word miscues are news to you, here’s a suggestion: Flag this post as a reference when you get stumped while writing. If all these examples are revelations, print the blog and post it on your bulletin board or wherever you write.
If you occasionally mess up and use a word incorrectly, take comfort in Mark Twain’s observation: “We fail to say the right words because we choose to say the wrong words! We choose to say the wrong words because we fail to think about the right words! To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement.”
With effort, forethought and AutoCorrect, you can make choosing the right word an everyday achievement.