Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Same Word, Different Word

Please welcome our guest, Peggy Herring and have some fun with words.

English is rife with words that can easily be confused with other words. For example:

There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
After a number of Novocain injections, my jaw got number.
Upon seeing the tear in the painting, I shed a tear.
I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
I spent last evening evening out a pile of dirt.

Our melting pot language keeps growing, and readers must become more and more sophisticated to glean meaning from context. Many words have multiple definitions and even pronunciations. We communicate more and more by impersonal means like texting and email, which don’t allow for helpful cues like facial expression, oral pronunciation, or gesture (hence the spread of emoticons). Sentences like the ones above make us pause, figuring out the proper meaning to ascribe to the homophones.

Another oddity of English is developmental eccentricities like “flammable” and “inflammable”, which sound like opposites but mean the same thing: able to be set on fire. Both come from the same Latin root. The dictionary tells us that “inflammable” was first used in the 1500s. In the 1800s, people started using “flammable”, which apparently made more sense, since “in-” usually means “not” (incorrect, inexcusable, etc.). Another example is “ravel” and “unravel”. Lady Macbeth says that sleep “knits up the ravel’d sleeve of care”, but we also say that a hem is “unraveling”. Same process, opposite-sounding words.

Apparently we are going that way with “thaw” and “unthaw”. Many people these days use them interchangeably, saying things like, “I have to wait for the burger to unthaw before I can start supper.” Another one is regardless and irregardless. In each case the latter word is fictional, but try to tell the general population that. I’m not sayin’ it’s right; I’m just sayin’.

Then there are words that are not the same but are often used as if they were: nauseated/nauseous; effect/ affect; farther/further; might/may; bust/burst; all ready/already; and even than/then. Sometimes this is due to their sound. Many cannot hear the difference between “then” and “than”. Other times the words are simply too close in meaning, and people see no point in making the differentiation (“further” = hypothetical distance while “farther” = actual distance).

The best way to deal with word confusion is experience: the more a person reads, the easier it becomes to sort out meaning. When a word might be one thing, might be something else, experienced readers let the brain’s prescribed practice from repetition over time provide the proper meaning. After all, if you are a competent wright of words, you will be right in whatever rite you choose.


Peg Herring writes historical and contemporary mysteries. She loves everything about publishing, even editing (most days). Her latest release is  The Dead Detective Agency, the first book  in The Dead Detective Mysteries, paranormal mystery.Peg’s historical series, The Simon and Elizabeth Mysteries, debuted in 2010 to great reviews. The second in the series will be available in November from Five Star. Find out more about Peg's books on her Web site

Posted by Maryann Miller, who can't wait to find out how a dead detective solves a crime. The detectives in her mystery, Open Season, are very much alive.

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  1. Here are yet more reasons I'm always relieved English is my first language. Thanks for the giggles of gratitude.

  2. I've never heard of "unthaw."

    Very interesting. I'm with Elspeth - I'm glad English is my native language, although I suspect you'll find these types of words in other languages.

  3. I always giggle when people say they are nauseous. I mean... they aren't THAT bad. Maybe a little homely, but... LOL.

    Going back to my bad corner now.

  4. Very well written. I followed all that perfectly ;-) A good reminder, though, to ensure what we write is as clear as possible.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  5. Glad everyone is enjoying the post today. Peg has a piece on my blog - It's Not All Gravy - today, too. More fun with words over there.

    Even though English is my first language, I still find some of this so challenging. Maybe because I'm a little dyslexic.

  6. As a person who loves words and lives to write, I have to say this is a great post. Our language often confuses those unfamiliar with its idiosyncratic nature—which I hear about often when working in the Hispanic community. However, I must admit that I have a bit of trouble with the español, too, for it has its own idiosyncracies. Thank you for sharing, Peggy; I relate so well to this one. And thanks to Maryann for posting. :-)

  7. I've always thought those subtle distinctions separate all right writing from really good writing. I'm old enough and finicky enough to bemoan the corruption of the language. Edgy is for younger writers than I.

  8. This is great! I'm glad I don't have to learn English as a second language!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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