Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Word about Words

Don’t let these commonly misused/misspelled words and phrases trip you up
By Mark Terence Chapman

Here are some more words and phrases that are commonly misused or misspelled. A conscientious writer should use these correctly. More importantly, using these words/phrases correctly will reduce the odds of your writing being rejected by an editor due to excessive errors (Editors don’t want to waste time on pieces that require an inordinate amount of their time to clean up.).

Even if you write only business reports and emails, you still wouldn’t want people chuckling over your misuse of the English language, would you? Just as importantly, using the correct word can better convey the nuance you desire. As Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Forego vs. Forgo

Wrong: I decided to forego meat for Lent.
Right: I decided to forgo meat for Lent.

To forgo something is to abstain from, renounce, or do without. Forego means to precede (literally, to go before).

Afterward vs. Afterword

Wrong: He ended his book with an Afterward.
Right: He ended his book with an Afterword.

Afterward means at a later time, or subsequently, while an afterword is a concluding section of a book or treatise, or a closing statement.

Vane vs. Vain vs. Vein

Right: They accidentally uncovered a rich vein of coal.
Right: The rocket engine uses control vanes for steering.
Right: You’re so vain I don’t know how you get that big head of yours through the barn door.

These words are all too often confused. A vane is a blade or plate affixed to a rotating cylinder or drum, as in a pump, turbine, or weather vane. A vein is one part of the system of branching blood vessels in the body, or a defined stratum of ore in a mine, streaks running through wood or marble, and so on. And of course, someone who is overly concerned with his or her appearance may be referred to as vain. It can also mean ineffective, as in “Her efforts were in vain,” or irreverent: “She took God’s name in vain.”


Wrong: This computer comes with standard DVD.
Right: This computer comes standard with DVD.
Right: This computer comes with DVD standard.

This is another case where the position of the word within the sentence can alter the meaning of the sentence. In the first example, it is unclear whether the use of standard is meant to distinguish it from an enhanced form of DVD drive (such as DVD-RW), or if it merely means that a DVD drive is built into the computer. The other two examples are clearer (although specifying DVD-ROM vs. DVD-RW, DVD+RW, or DVD-RAM would be clearer yet).

Tow the line vs. Toe the line

Wrong: You’d better tow the line, mister, if you know what’s good for you!
Right: You’d better toe the line, mister, if you know what’s good for you!

To toe the line is to follow the rules precisely, without deviation, as in putting one foot ahead of the other, along a painted stripe. The expression can also be used similarly to putting one’s nose to the grindstone or shoulder to the wheel, meaning to take responsibility and work hard. Tow the line is simply a misspelling of this expression.

Dual vs. Duel

Wrong: Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a dual.
Right: Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Dual means consisting of two, or having a twofold nature. (A dual overhead cam engine.) A duel is a ritualized form of combat, often to the death, fought according to an agreed-upon code of conduct. More generally, it can also refer to any contest between two individuals.

Wont vs. Want

Wrong: I took an afternoon stroll, as I’m want to do.
Right: I took an afternoon stroll, as I’m wont to do.

If you want something, it’s a desire, need, or craving. On the other hand, wont (used as a noun or a verb) means something you are accustomed to doing, a habit or practice. You may occasionally want to take an afternoon stroll, but if you do it on a regular basis, then it’s a wont. (Don’t confuse wont with won’t, a contraction of will not. Wont is pronounced the same as want, hence the confusion.)

Friend(ed) vs. Befriend(ed)

Wrong: She was the new girl in school, so I friended her.
Right: She was the new girl in school, so I befriended her.

To befriend (verb) someone is to become his or her friend (noun) or act as a friend to someone. Unfortunately, social networking websites, such as MySpace and Facebook, have popularized the phrases “Friend me” and “I friended him/her,” such that these expressions are being used in everyday conversation as well. My dictionary does list one definition of friend as a verb, meaning to befriend, but describes this use as “rare.” Thus, it’s best to use befriend as the verb in a sentence and save friend for the noun.

Duffle vs. Duffel

Right: I threw my camping gear in a duffle bag.
Right: I threw my camping gear in a duffel bag.

The duffel bag, a cylindrical bag made of a thick-napped cloth or canvas, is named for the town of Duffel in Belgium, where the cloth was first made. However, today both spellings of the word are considered correct. So spell it however you prefer, but be consistent in which spelling you use. Don’t mix-and-match.

Drier vs. Dryer

Right: After the storm, I was drier than you were.
Right: I threw my damp clothes in the dryer.
Right: I threw my damp clothes in the drier.

Drier means more dry. Dryer most often refers to a machine used to dry clothing. But both spellings are interchangeable. So feel free to spell the machine whichever way you prefer.

If you’ve ever been confused about any of these words or phrases, tack this column to the wall by your desk. It’ll help you avoid similar errors in the future.

Mark Terence Chapman writes in various genres: He’s a poet, short story writer, novelist, humorist, and even a nonfiction writer tackling computer topics and nanotechnology. To find out more about Mr. Chapman, please visit his Web site at: or his blog at:

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1 comment:

stfrisco said...

In my work as an economics editor, I often have to correct writers who think it's important to reign in spending, instead of reining it in.