Thursday, April 16, 2009

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?

Icebox vs. Refrigerator

Wrong: Let me get a cold one out of the ice box.
Right: Let me get a cold one out of the refrigerator.
Once upon a time, food was kept cold by storing in cabinets chilled by blocks of ice. These iceboxes were gradually replaced by electric refrigerators, but some people still cling to the old, now obsolete, term.

Tinfoil vs. Aluminum foil

Wrong: Timmy, please cover the casserole with tinfoil.
Right: Timmy, please cover the casserole with aluminum foil.
Tinfoil was once used to wrap food, but imparted a tinny taste to it. This unfortunate side effect, along with the higher cost, caused it to be replaced for that use not long after the first aluminum foil plant opened in 1910 in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland. Tin foil still has other uses in industry, but not as a food wrapper.

Dial the phone

Wrong: Hold on while I dial the phone.
Right: Hold on while I call her.
Back in the days of mechanical, rotary phones, we used to turn a dial to call someone. Now, with electronic touchtone phones it’s a matter of pushing buttons (or even using our voices) to call someone. If we use a Dial these days, it’s probably a bar of soap.

Where are you at?

Wrong: Where are you at?
Wrong: Where you at?
Right: Where are you?
Although there is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition, in this case “at” is unnecessary, adding nothing to the sentence (except an urban slang feel). If you’re worried the other party might respond “in my car” rather than “at the intersection of Pine and 10th” you might instead phrase the question, “What’s your location?” (Or, if you’re into CB/cop lingo, you can ask, “What’s your 20?”)

Assassinated vs. Murdered

Wrong: My mail carrier was assassinated by a crazed junkie.
Right: My mail carrier was murdered by a crazed junkie.
Assassination generally refers to a politically motivated murder. So, unless your mail carrier is also a politician, assassinated isn’t the best choice of verb.

Sometime vs. Some time vs. Sometimes

Wrong: I need sometime to myself.
Right: I need some time to myself.
As an adverb, sometime refers to an indeterminate point in time. (“She was here sometime yesterday.”) As an adjective, it can mean on-and-off, as in a “sometime boyfriend.” The two-word phrase some time means an unspecified interval or period of time. (“You need to take some time and consider your options.”) Sometimes means occasionally. (“Sometimes I just want to scream.”) Sometimes it pays to take some time off.

Capital vs. Capitol

Wrong: Raleigh is the state capitol of North Carolina.
Right: Raleigh is the state capital of North Carolina.
The city that contains the seat of political power for a state, province, or country is the capital. The Capitol building in Washington, D.C., houses the U.S. Congress.

Awhile vs. A while

Wrong: I need to rest for awhile.
Wrong: I need to rest a while.
Right: I need to rest for a while.
Right: I need to rest awhile.
Awhile refers to a short period of time. (“Can you stay awhile?”) The noun phrase a while has the same meaning, but is normally preceded by a preposition like for or after, as in “Can you stay for a while?” or “After a while it became obvious.”

Past experience

Wrong: If past experience tells us anything, it’s don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.
Right: If experience tells us anything, it’s don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.
Unless you have access to a time machine so that you can learn from future events, the only way you can learn from experience is via events that have already occurred. As a result, the phrase past experience is redundant.

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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