As the heading suggests, English is a complex language. There are many, many instances of exactly the same or similar words meaning very, very different things – after all, writers want readers to get them (in the sense of understanding) but they very rarely want readers to get them (in the sense of being attacked). A blog I recently read on Hubspot about twenty-five common grammatical errors contained a comment from someone calling himself (or herself) BJ that “as long as you don’t do anything egregious you can bend and break the rules as much as you want. The only thing that matters is whether or not the reader understands, accepts and appreciates how you communicate with them.” BJ promptly earned himself (or herself) a grand verbal spanking from everybody else reading the article. In fact, I couldn’t find a single comment supporting that view. Perhaps because anyone who was inclined to read a post on that topic wasn’t likely to understand, accept and appreciate BJ’s views.
The fact is that more people get annoyed by writers bending and breaking the rules than support “creative” but incorrect approaches so it’s generally in your best interests to try to get it right. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a misspelling, a misuse or a typo, the effect is the same – it’s wrong. In fact, you can run the Spelling & Grammar Check as many times as you want but the problem with Microsoft Word is that if a word is spelled correctly, regardless of whether it’s appropriate for the context, it won’t be highlighted as an error by the program. I once accidentally typed “whale dongs” as two of my characters discussed a potential soundtrack for meditation. Of course, I meant “whale songs” but it could have been highly embarrassing if I hadn’t picked it up. And it could be much worse, especially if you confuse your onus with your anus.
There are some obvious homonyms like “here” and “hear” and “none” and “nun” that I hope don’t need explanation but here are a few to be on the lookout for.
Cache and Cachet
A cache is a hidden storage, generally of weapons or valuables that you don’t want to be found, and cachet is a style or quality that people admire.
Confident and Confidant
To be confident is to be self-assured and to be a confidant is to be somebody who is trusted with personal or secret information.
Faint and Feint
Faint means dim, slight or dizzy and a feint is a deceptive action made to disguise another action.
Impatient and Inpatient
You might be thinking, “How could anyone possibly get these two mixed up?” but it’s usually a typo – “n” and “m” are right next to each other on the keyboard – and once the mistake is made, it’s a very slight difference, one that could easily be overlooked. Hopefully, now that I’ve pointed it out, it will be something you’ll look for (although most people don’t write about inpatients all that often so maybe it wasn’t worth the time it took to do it).
Lame and Lamé
A lame horse is one that struggles to walk and a lame excuse is insufficient but lamé is a fabric with metallic threads woven through it.
Lead and Led and Lead
To lead is to go first, to show the way and then you will have led (the past tense of lead) but lead (pronounced “led”) is also a bluish-grey metallic element. This one trips up a lot of people, especially because read (pronounced “reed”) and read (the past tense pronounced “red”) aren’t at all helpful in offering guidance.
Local and Locale
Local is an adjective that describes something in a small geographic area (as opposed to national or global) and in Australia is used to describe your nearest customary drinking place (“Let’s go to the local”), while locale is a noun, another word for a specific place (the locale of Queensland).
Mange and Manage
Mange is an awful itchy condition that you need to manage.
Pray and Prey
We pray in church or at close football games and eagles search for and capture prey, then generally eat it.
Scared and Scarred
One is to be frightened and the other is to be disfigured – you only need to take off the “d” to figure out which gives you a scare.
Sight and Site
Sight refers to vision and site refers to a location. “The sight of his frizzy hair was frightening but the site of his frizzy hair was on top of his head.”
Stronger and Stranger
I hope I don’t have to explain the difference between these two but it’s a common typo and good to be aware of the possibility.
Vane, Vein and Vain
A vane is that thing on the roof with the fake rooster that shows something to do with the wind, a vein is that thing in your body that transports blood around and vain is a description of somebody who thinks a lot of themselves, particularly in relation to their appearance.
Wonder and Wander
We often wonder (consider, think about, ponder) why people with dementia wander (walk in a meandering way without any real purpose) the streets.
Wont and Won’t and Want
A wont is a custom or a habit, won’t is a contraction of will not and to want something is to desire it.
Wrestle and Wrest
Wrestling means you are still struggling but if you wrest something away, then the wrestling is over and that something is yours. So if you are wrestling for control, you might still lose. But if you’ve wrested control, then you’re in charge.
This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, just a few I came up with as I was doing one of my favourite things, which is reading the dictionary (I mixed it up by reading three dictionaries at once: my new loathed dictionary, my old beloved dictionary and my rhyming dictionary). I’ve said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again but if you have any doubts, consult your own dictionary. And if you still have doubts, employ an editor.