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The wrong word

I have written before about my irritation with damage to the English language. Before I rant some more, I want to be clear: I am not against change – a language is a living thing and its nature is to evolve; what I have a problem with is lazy use of the language that results in changes which limit our ability to express ideas clearly.

I have observed a number or pairs of words where there is common confusion between them, usually because they sound similar …

The first pair is “accept” and “except”. Accepting something means receiving it willingly – like “I accept your gift”. To except something means to isolate something from other items – like “I like all green vegetables except spinach.”

How often have you heard someone say something like: “I pacifically told you not to do that”? Ironically this might be said in a raised voice, even though “pacifically” means in a peaceful manner. The word they really want is “specifically.” I look forward to hearing a reference to the Specific Ocean.

A confusing pair is “effect” and “affect”. Normally these are simply a noun and a verb that go together. So, if you affect someone, you have an effect upon them. For example: “The lack of money affects a person’s standard of living. Poverty is an effect of low wages.” Confusion occurs when “effect” is used as a verb, when it means to bring something about [or put something into effect]. For example: “He effected the changes to the blog that were requested.”

Some years ago, I heard a colleague, who had a slight foreign accent, talk about “early adapters”. What he really meant was “early adopters”. The word “adopt” means to take on board [something new]. “Adapt” means change or adjust something or someone to suit specific conditions.

My last example is a pair of words that I am seeing misused with increasing frequency. Typically, someone will write “loose” when they really mean “lose”. “Loose” is an adjective which is the opposite of “tight”. To “lose” something means to mislay or dispense with it. I can see how this confusion comes about by looking at the sounds of these words – there are two “traps”. First the vowel sound. Both words have an “oo” sound, which in English is normally written with “oo”. Following normal pronunciation rules, “lose” should be pronounced with an “oh” sound and rhyme with “doze”. The second trap is the “s” at the end. In “lose”, it is pronounced hard, like “z”; in “loose” is it soft, like “ss”. English is full of random hard and soft “s” sounds, which we are quite used to. I learned some years ago that many people, for whom English is not their first language, find it impossible to distinguish between these two sounds, which explains this confusion. It is unfortunate, as there is a verb “loose”, which means to set free or release [or let loose] and is often used metaphorically. For example, “He loosed his ideas on the world via his blog.” There is no other compact way to say this, so it would be a shame to lose it from the language.

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About Colin Walls Follow on Twitter

Colin WallsI have over twenty-five years experience in the electronics industry, largely dedicated to embedded software. A frequent presenter at conferences and seminars and author of numerous technical articles and two books on embedded software, I am a member of the marketing team of the Mentor Graphics Embedded Systems Division, and am based in the UK. Away from work, I have a wide range of interests including photography and trying to point my two daughters in the right direction in life. Learn more about Colin, including his go-to karaoke song and the best parts of being British: http://go.mentor.com/3_acv Visit The Colin Walls Blog

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Another common mistake is when people write "lead" as the past tense of "lead" -- "Yesterday I lead [sic] them to the start." This is probably because the metal called "lead" is a homonym for the past participle "led". Interesting timing... just today Lifehacker posted a list of commonly-misused expressions: http://lifehacker.com/5635042/commonly-misheard-expressions-to-avoid-in-your-writing

Dan
9:42 PM Sep 10, 2010

I almost hate to say it, but I think there's an implied invitation. Besides, my intentions are purely constructive! Immediately before reading this post, I read one called "The one line RTOS." In it you say you don't usually council people to do something. I think the word you want is counsel. I know, it's easy for me to get aggravated when the spell checker appears to replace proofreading; I don't have the kind of deadlines you have!

Dave
1:40 PM Oct 25, 2010

Dave You are, of course, completely right [or should I say correct?]. It's one of the stupid words that interchange "C" and "S" and mess with vowels between between the verb and noun. Sometimes this is different in English and American [like "license"], so I am easily confused. Well caught!

Colin Walls
2:41 PM Oct 25, 2010

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