When I was a kid, my mom used to watch comedian Norm Crosby whose stand-up routine was built on his purposeful confusion of similar-sounding words. He was a regular on the TV’s variety show circuit back in the 1960s and 1970s, a testimony to his popularity. (Want to see him in action? Check out this clip on YouTube.)
But what TV viewers like in a stand-up comedy routine isn’t necessarily what readers like in their fiction. Readers might laugh at the first misused word or the second, but more than that, and they will not be amused. And if you string a few of them together…you might get laughs of the wrong kind.
Sometimes we confuse words that sound exactly the same but mean something different (homonyms).
Other times we might be using a similarly sounding (not identical) word. (If there’s a name for that, I’ve forgotten it and couldn’t find it. <smile>)
- Tact and tack
- Device and devise
If you’re prone to those types of mix-ups, you might want to keep a list of those words in your writing area so you can refer to them on the fly. That’s what I do. For some reason, I cannot keep the differences between disperse and disburse in my head, so I have the definitions written out on a sticky note tacked to the side of my desk.
Want to test yourself on a few common ones? English Language Centers offers this quick test.
Maybe you’re not even aware you’re misusing words? GrammarBook.com has a list of the most “popular” ones here:
What are your favorite easily confused word pairs? We’d love to here hear!
After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as author liaison for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.