Columns > Published on March 15th, 2013

10 More Words You Literally Didn't Know You Were Getting Wrong

Original header image by Andrea Piacquadio

Last October, I gave you 10 Words You Literally Didn't Know You Were Getting Wrong, and it generated a lot of discussion about common usage, which is often incorrect or imprecise usage; and good usage, which is usually the best way to use a word. I have ten more words for you, but first a brief discussion on common versus good usage and why we should care.

Common Usage versus Good Usage

As a Word Nerd, I often come across words used in a way that is acceptable to most readers or listeners but that is technically not correct or not a good use for the word. For some, this is an opportunity to show one’s language prowess and correct that person, while others recognize that, to a certain extent, all language is guided and molded by those who use it. Therefore, that word might do a fine job of expressing the speaker’s intention, especially if the listener knows what that person is talking about. If I use the word “irregardless” to mean “regardless” and you know what I mean, then have I really used it incorrectly? While we know-it-alls love to flex our big brains when we say, “Uh, that’s not even a word,” the laws of word-usage physics tell us that if a word is used often enough in a given context, it may, eventually, come to have meaning in that context. In many cases, that word becomes legitimate and useful in everyday communication.

Having worked in many places where word-snobbery is frowned upon, I find myself able to sympathize with both sides of the argument. When I worked at a shipyard, I was once kindly advised not to rewrite the work orders using grammatically correct prose because the workers would not be able to quickly interpret and follow through on the task. What seemed semi-incoherent to me was really a functional jargon that made sense to the people that needed to make sense of it.

I try to remember this when I’m teaching or when I’m in an environment where function and expediency take precedence over perfect grammar and usage. That said, there is a difference between good usage and common usage. Even dictionaries sometimes publish a word’s common usage, so style guides can be helpful in determining the best use for a word. When I published my list of 10 Words You Literally Didn't Know You Were Getting Wrong last October, I got plenty of argument about some of the words I picked (especially about the figurative use of the word literally). In some cases, debate is acceptable and people who think hard about the words they use can be allowed to veer from the best usage if they are using a word with intention. But, many, many, many people are not being so careful, and I can’t excuse laziness disguised as conviction.

Without further ado, here’s a list of ten more words that often get mistaken for each other.

1) Then versus Than

I rarely see than confused for then, but I frequently see then confused for than. Consider this incorrect usage:

I am prettier then you.

I think this happens because, spoken aloud and quickly as most native speakers speak, then and than sound very, very similar. They can sound interchangeable, but they are not. Then should only be used as an adverb to convey time and sequence of events.

We went to the store, then we had dinner.

Here, the use of the word then tells the reader that dinner occurred after the trip to the store.

Than, on the other hand, is a conjunction and should be used for comparison.

Your house is farther from the store than my house is.

The than here indicates that the distance from the store to the two houses (yours and mine) is being compared.

Be aware, though, that many people use than imprecisely which can be confusing. Sometimes writers omit words that a reader would need to truly understand what it being compared. Consider this example:

Sarah likes Frank better than Ted.

Does Sarah like Frank better than she likes Ted? Or does Sarah like Frank better than Ted likes Frank? Make sure to include words that specify which comparison is being made.

2) Lay versus Lie

I admit that I confuse these often, so I am as guilty of misusing them as anyone else. Let’s all learn which is which once and for all now, ok?

The verb to lay means to put or to place something. It is a transitive verb which means it must have a direct object. That means you cannot just lay, you must lay something.

Taylor lays the baby on the changing table.

The verb to lie means to recline. It is an intransitive verb which means it does not take an object.

The baby lies on the changing table.

 The confusion, I surmise, is because the past tense of to lie is lay.

Consider the past tense version of these two sentences:

Taylor laid the baby on the changing table.
The baby lay on the changing table.

Now, just for shits & giggles, consider the present perfect version which uses the past participle of each:

Taylor has laid the baby on the changing table.
The baby has lain on the changing table.

Frankly, I have no fancy trick for remembering these, so memorize them!

3) Sight versus Site versus Cite

Two of these are nouns, and all three of them are verbs. Confused?

  • Sight (noun) = a view or the ability to see. Here are examples of each meaning:
    • The mountain through the upper floor windows was a majestic sight.
    • They call me Mole because my sense of sight is very poor.
  • To sight (verb) = to perceive or to observe. Here is an example:
    • Scientist sight new asteroids every day, but only a few will ever get close to Earth.
       
  • Site (noun) = a place or a location. Here is an example:
    • The site of the new mall is just across the highway from the old mall.
  • To site (verb) = to situate
    • The toddler sited the pillow fort in the middle of the living room.
       
  • To cite (verb) = to quote or acknowledge. (Just for your information, citation is the noun form of this word.) Here’s an example:
    • If you plan to use a quote from that book, make sure you cite the author in your article.

4) Conscience versus Conscious

I admit, I have confused these two words once or twice, but they are two different parts of speech. Conscience is a noun, and it means an understanding of right and of wrong or the quality of a person’s character. For example:

I returned the stolen money because I didn’t want to have it on my conscience.

Conscious, an adjective, means aware, awake, or involving thought.

I was almost asleep, but then the baby coughed, and I was suddenly conscious.

5) Flaunt vs. Flout

These two verbs are quite different in meaning. The first, to flaunt, means to show off as in:

Maurice flaunted his new LitReactor t-shirt.

Flout, on the other hand, means to defy, reject, or scorn something.

Terry flouted traffic laws, and made a u-turn right in front of a cop.

6) Hanged versus Hung

I used to think this one was as hard to remember as the lay/lie thing, but once I learned that one is used only for a very specific reason, I was able to remember it easily. Both are past tense forms of the verb to hang.

Hanged is only for referring to a person who has been killed by being suspended by the neck.

The murderer was hanged for his crime.
They hanged three men in the town square as a warning.

Hung is for all other uses, including a person suspended (either to kill that person or not) by any other body part.

Jesus was hung from the cross.
The stockings hung from the mantle.
She hung a new calendar on the wall.
 

7) Immigrate versus Emigrate

This one was really confusing to me, especially because I used to hang out at a bar in Seattle called the Irish Emigrant, and I thought, “wait, shouldn’t it be immigrant?” The difference between these two depends (in part) on point of view. To immigrate means to move to a place where you were not born. To emigrate means to leave one country and live in another one. You can think of it as two different movements. To immigrate is to move in, to emigrate is to move out. A person who moves from Ireland to the United States is an immigrant in the US, and an emigrant in Ireland. Now, whoever named that old bar in the University District of Seattle may have been imagining him (or her) -self as an Irish person pondering those who have left the “old country.” Who knows. It was full of drunk college kids anyway.

8) Peak versus Peek versus Pique

I don’t think I’ve seen pique confused for peak or peek, but I have seen both peek and peak confused for pique. Peak is a noun, and it means the apex of something—either physical like the peak of a mountain or figurative like the peak of the holiday shopping season. A peek is quick look at something—usually something forbidden or hidden. The noun version of a pique is an episode of hurt pride. Though, I rarely see people use that word for that purpose, much less confuse either of the other two for that meaning. No, usually the confusion is with the verb: to pique is to annoy, arouse, or stimulate. The connotation of the illicit in the meaning of peek and the concept of arousal in the word pique is where I think people get confused.

A chance to peek at a woman’s (eh em) ‘twin peaks’ piqued the man’s interest, so he walked into the strip club.

C’mon now, that’s what you all were thinking… wasn’t it? Or maybe it’s just me who’s the perv around here.

9) Shall versus Will

Okay, admit it. You use the word shall when you want to be fancy. Did you know that it is not, actually, a highfalutin word for will—at least not in the UK? In fact, if you live in the UK, you would use shall to talk about yourself doing something in the future. If you talk about anyone else doing something in the future, you would use will. So the usage depends on subject. First person subject (I or we) would use shall, and second person (you) and third person (he, she, or they) would use will.

I shall call him tomorrow.
You will call him tomorrow.
They will call him tomorrow.

We Americans think shall sounds weird, so we say will for all subjects.

I/you/they will call him tomorrow.

The British also use shall to express determination to do something in the future either on their own part or for someone else. For example:

They shall know the truth someday.

versus

They will know truth someday.

In this case, shall sounds more forceful. In the US, there are occasions where shall is used in this way also. For example:

We shall overcome.

In America, we think it sounds too Britishy (and you know how we can’t ever seem to get over that Tea Party thing…), so we eschew shall for good ol' American simplicity. Except in legal documents, where we feel perfectly comfortable trying to sound fancy or smart. Shall, in legalese, expresses obligation:

The lessee shall pay rent on or before the 1st day of each month.

I don't know why we use shall in this context because must or will would work perfectly fine.

Okay, and yes, in America, we say shall when we want to convey extra politeness or haughtiness. Ok, so maybe it is a fancy way to say will, but just ‘cause we made it that way.

The Elements of Style puts it this way. It says that shall is to “express the speaker’s belief regarding a future action.” Will “expresses determination or consent.” Here’s the rest of Elements’ explanation:

A swimmer in distress cries, “I shall drown; no one will save me!” A suicide puts it another way: “I will drown; no one shall save me!” In relaxed speech, however, the words shall and will are seldom used precisely; our ear guides us or fails to guide us, as the case may be, and we are quite likely to drown when we want to survive and survive when we want to drown.

Whether you are British or American, if you are drowning, either on accident or on purpose, I really, really doubt you are going to worry about which word you should be using.

10) That versus Which

Many people use these interchangeably, but these two relative pronouns have specific jobs. That is restrictive and should be used to narrow a category or name a specific item.

The sandwich that has bacon on it is a sandwich I want to eat.

The that identifies sandwiches with bacon as the specific types of sandwiches being discussed. It is the only type of sandwich the speaker wants to eat.

Which, on the other hand, is nonrestrictive. That means that whatever detail it introduces is not the detail that identifies the item being discussed. Which introduces extra information into the sentence. That information is usually parenthetical, so phrases that start with which are typically set off by commas, parentheses, or dashes.

The sandwich, which has bacon on it, is a sandwich I want to eat.

Here, the sandwich is desirable in itself, and the bacon is just an added detail. You can remove that section that starts with which, and the sentence will still make sense.

This sandwich is a sandwich I want to eat.

If, however, the which is preceded by a preposition, then it becomes restrictive, and the commas or other separating punctuation would be removed.

The sandwich on which the sandwich artist has layered bacon is the sandwich I want to eat.

Here, as with that, the statement is necessary to identify which sandwich is about to be eaten.

And if all this is too annoying to remember, you can move to the UK, as my Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. notes that speakers of British English rarely distinguish between the two. (But they distinguish between shall and will…go figure.)

Arguments?

It seems there are always a few arguments as to why a word should become acceptable in its common usage, so if you've got one, let us know. Or just let us know what other good vs. common usage words you'd like people to get right once and for all.

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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