Ten examples of how the English language is trolling usPosted: April 5, 2016
Regular readers of my blog will know that my full-time job is as an editor. You’d think that I’d be fully across all the various, ugly, beautiful permutations of English and its stupid-arse spelling.
You’d be wrong.
What brought this to my attention most recently is that in my latest manuscript I spelled “lightning” wrong. Like, every single time. My finger itches to put an e in there, but noooooooo, that would be the verb meaning to make something lighter. As in, “The lightning is lightening the sky.”
Now, to be fair, since I don’t work for the BOM, I don’t read about lightning in my job very much — so it isn’t something I’ve had trained out of me. But still, I did want to pull my hair out a little bit.
Here are some other examples of the ways that English is trolling us:
Alter / altar. One is the verb meaning “to change”; the other is a sacred table or platform at which religious offerings are made.
Baited / bated. One is describing something with bait (such as worms) attached. The other means “restrained” (with relation to breathing) — so the phrase “with bated breath” means with held breath, not with a mouthful of raw prawns. On behalf of all those romance heroines out there, I think we can say that’s a relief.
Blonde / blond. I gather this one is the fault of French, which has gendered adjectives. There, blonde is feminine and blond is masculine. In English, that’s sorta kinda true, but the application varies; my former publishing house’s convention was that “blond” was the adjective that describes hair colour and “a blonde” is a woman with blond hair.
Compliment / complement. The first is a nice thing someone says about you; the second has a bunch of meanings but generally relates to something that completes a thing or makes it perfect.
Climatic / climactic. One relates to weather; the other is the, er, climax of something. I have seen the wrong one used. Who knew weather could be so exciting?
Discreet / discrete. The first is wise, prudent or judicious; the second is detached or distinct. (I still have to look this one up every time.)
Exercise / exorcise. The first is physical activity and the second is to drive out an evil spirit — possibly in response to having seen me exercise! (Scary stuff.)
Grizzly / grisly. The first is something grey or a type of bear (but not a type of bare!). The second is something gruesome.
A sanction can be both authoritative permission and a provision of a law that enacts a penalty for disobedience — so two things that are OPPOSITE to one another. And in my dictionary, at least, as a verb it always means to approve or ratify something — so sentences such as “the UN sanctioned X country for breaching Resolution 1234” are actually saying that the UN approved the country’s actions rather than punishing it. Oh, UN, you so crazy.
Storey / story. One is a floor of a building; the other is a tale we tell ourselves. (This one’s not for US readers, who I gather use “story” for both…?)
So, all of that being the case, how do you avoid your writing being full of hilariously climaxing environments and buildings where each floor is a tale (but not a tail) of wonder (but not wander)? The answer is at once deceptively simple and also a lifelong job:
- Read a lot
- Own (and use) a current-edition dictionary of the specific English variant you’re using
- Proofread your work (I noticed an incorrect “it’s” when I proofread this blog post — gah!)
- Proofread it again (I did)
- Have someone else proofread your work — copy editors are worth their weight (not wait) in gold
- Make a list of words you know you get confused, and then double-check their usage whenever you see (not sea) them
What’s your favourite pair of words that are usually mixed up? Are they about meeting the principled principal? Having dessert in the desert? Eliciting illicit activity? I need (not knead) to know now!