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Home » People » Karl Sherlock » Tone Handbook » Usage » Academic Tone » Usage » Common Mix-Ups

Common Mix-Ups







In 1920, Senator Warren G. Harding made the following statement as part of a campaign speech: "America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration." A year later, the campaign slogan, "Return to Normalcy," would lead to his inauguration as 29th U.S. President. President Harding died suddenly, in 1923, making his service one of the shortest of any inaugurated president in U.S. history. However, among his legacies are a collection of sexually charged love letters written during a steamy affair with his neighbor's wife, as well as an enduring debate over the word "normalcy." The usage of "normalcy" is now considered as normal as "normality," a word with usage going back centuries. Many would argue that, had "normalcy" not been popularized by Harding, it would never have achieved the degree of normalcy that it is given today. Others insist the word is an abomination, since it doesn't follow the rules of transformation. Nouns, you see, that end in "-cy" develop from adjectives ending in "-t,"such as "pregnant" and "pregnancy," or "decent" and "decency." On the other hand, we use plenty of other nouns that don't follow that rule: "indignant" and "indignation" (though,the latter is considered an archaic form). I tend to fall on the side of the critics who complain that "normality" is a perfectly good word, and we don't need another linguistically corrupted form of it. Opinions on the matter, however, make little impact on real usage. People are going to use the first form of the word that pops into their heads, regardless.

However, why did "normalcy" have any appeal in the first place, and why do we continue to care about whether we should restore normality and banish the word "normalcy"? Because language does more than convey meaning; it has sound and rhetorical effect,too. In other words, it has poetry and power. If Harding had campaigned about needing "not nostrums but normality," to the ear it just sounds harsher and one syllable too much. It feels out of round. "Normality" brings to mind "business as usual" while "normalcy" implies a restoration of norms. A "Return to Normality" sounds like something an overworked nanny does at the end of her workday, but a "Return to Normalcy" sounds like the end of a quest epic--Gilgamesh returning to Uruk.

It's not news to anyone that politicians would play fast and loose with language to make themselves sound "correct" for the job. However, this tendency can be found just as much in student writing. Good academic writers should choose words for their rhetorical effects, not the least of which should be to sound scholarly and intellectual. However,"sounding correct" and "being correct" are not always the same thing. So many words in the English language already sound so similar that it's hard to know which is correct, and some will even make up words just because they sound "correct for the job." Perhaps this, above all else, is why "normalcy" comes under such fire: its acceptance into common usage tacitly gives us permission not to worry about sound-alike errors in our vocabulary. This section examines two of the most common variety of sound-alike errors: homonyms and malapropisms. (And, by the way, what the heck is a nostrum?!)


Homonyms are words that sound enough alike that they become confused. "Sounding alike" however, is sometimes a matter of regional pronunciation. For instance, years ago when my husband lived in Boston, he was approached by the co-owner of a restaurant with a very heavy Boston accent. After serving him a piece of pie, she asked him, "Do you wanna f**k?" It was the end of a long day for him, and, confused and a tad scandalized at hearing only a schwa between "f" and "k," he kept asking "What?" in disbelief, until the woman's son overheard them and intervened, "My mother would like to know if you require an eating utensil." The poor woman burst into tears of embarrassment, and the restaurant closed two months later. (Put a "fork" in it.) These kinds of issues are not just pronunciation errors, but also pronunciation terrors.

Sometimes, though, the meaning of words that sound alike make distinguishing them more difficult than merely differentiating their spelling (e.g., affect / effect; administer / minister). Here, then, is a list of commonly misused words that sound alike. Because of your regional accent, some of these may not sound all that much alike, in which case they belong more to the realm of Malaprop, the next topic:

accept / except
lead / led
mute point/moot point
once and a while/once in a while
a mature/amateur
born / borne
breach / breech
broach / brooch
callous / callused
canon / cannon
capital / capitol
carat / caret / carrot / karat
censor / censure / sensor / censer / senser
reeking havoc/wreaking havoc
choose / chose / chews
cite / site / sight
close / clothes
right of passage/rite of passage
coarse / course
complement / compliment
road to hoe/row to hoe
complementary / complimentary
core / corps / corpse
council / counsel / consul
slight of hand/sleight of hand
currant / current
desert / dessert
device / devise
disburse / disperse
discussed / disgust
tender hooks/tenterhooks
dyeing / dying
elicit / illicit
email / e-mail
emigrate / immigrate
eminent / imminent / immanent / emanant
ensure / insure
tongue and cheek/tongue in cheek
Escalade / escalate
faze / phase
forcey / foresee
forego / forgo
foul / fowl
gild / guild
hesitance / hesitancy / hesitation
instance / instants
wet your appetite/whet your appetite
isle / aisle
leach / leech
worse comes to worse/worse comes to worst


During the 1960s, the Michigan State Department of Highways recalled highway signs at taxpayer expense because of a careless usage error: "Stay Off the Mediums." Perhaps professional psychics across Michigan breathed a sigh of relief at seeing clients booking appointments again, for medians, not mediums, are the space dividing the traffic lanes of a highway.

"Stay off the medium" is a classic example of malapropism: the confusion of two or more words in the English language similar in some way, perhaps even sharing a part of their derivation and, therefore, sounding alike. Consequently, many malapropisms share the unenviable trait of being homonym errors, too. Also referred to more simply as "malaprop," the term "malapropism" was adapted (not "adopted," though one could argue this usage persuasively) from playwright R.B. Sheridan's character, Mrs. Malaprop (The Rivals, 1775), whose humorous attempts at sophisticated vocabulary always seemed to go famously wrong, especially when she mixed up one word with another or made up a word; this, by definition, is the phenomenon of "malaprop." We can surmise that Sheridan was having some fun with the prefix "mal-" and the word "apropos," suggesting a character who never quite gets the right word for the context.

In most instances of malaprop, the confusion can be subtle, because so many words share a common derivation and have similar definitions: "affect" and "effect" are probably the single most commonly committed malaprop in the English language, followed closely by "farther" and "further." They're tryingly difficult to catch in the editing and proofreading stages because they're real words used in the correct part of speech, rendering a spell- check or grammar-check relatively useless. Don't freak out. Keep a civil tongue, and do your civic duty: look at the words in context. Here's a list of commonly used real words that tend to become malapropisms. (This list is by no means comprehensive.)

adapt / adopt
intense / intensive
administer / minister
interment / internment
admittance / admission
later / latter
aesthetic / ascetic
lay / lie
allude / refer
leave / let
alternate / alternative
lighted [illuminated] / lit [on fire]
ambiguous / ambivalent
luxuriant / luxurious
amongst / among
magic / magical
anecdote / antidote
marital / martial / marshal
anyway / anyways / anywise
masseuse / masseur
appraise / apprise
medium / median
apropos / appropriate
memoriam / memorial
assure / ensure / insure
mescaline / masculine
bad / badly / poorly
mitigate / militate
capture / captivate
oppress / repress
careen / career
orient / orientate
civic / civil
oversee / overlook
classic / classical
parameters / perimeters
collaborate / corroborate
persecute / prosecute
comedic / comic / comical
perspective / prospective
commentate* / comment
practice / practise
comprised of / composed of
precede / proceed
conscientious / conscious
precipitate / precipitous
credible / credulous
prescribe / proscribe
critique / criticize
prostate / prostrate
depreciate / deprecate
quiet / quite
disinterested / uninterested
rare / rarified
dysentery / dissension
ravaging / ravishing / ravenous
distinguished / extinguished
reactionary / reactive
dribble / drivel
rebelling / revolting
egoist / egotist
rebut / refute
elective / electoral
regretfully / regrettably
empathy / sympathy
repel / repulse
enormity / immensity
shelled / unshelled
farther / further
social / societal
flammable / inflammable
specially / especially
flaunt / flout
substantial • substantive
flounder / founder
taunt • taut • tout
formally / formerly
tenant • tenet
fortuitous / fortunate
therefor • therefore
good / well
thusly • thus
historic / historical
thorough • thoroughgoing
hone in / home in
tout • taut
hysterical / hilarious
toward • towards
imply / infer
upmost • utmost
incidences / incidents / instance
usage • use
ingenuous / ingenious
utilize • use
insensible / insensitive
viscous circle • vicious cycle
install / instill
viola • voila
it's / its
warrantee • warranty
wary • weary • leery

Because malaprop is also the result of writers and speakers using vocabulary beyond their know-how, malaprop can be made up on the spot. President George W. Bush's now infamous use of "misunderestimated" is a classic example of this. In fact, malaprop frequently occurs with Gobbledygook, a wordy, convoluted style of prose that not only confuses big words, but pads the prose with complicated sounding words. You can add a Latinate ending (-ation, -ize, -ate) to just about anything to make up a word that sounds big: "sophistimicated" instead of "sophisticated"; "analyzation" instead of "analysis"; "conversate" instead of "converse"; and so on. One of the simplest ways that people create malaprop on a daily basis is by adding the adjectival ending "-like" to everything: "abstract-like"; "political-like"; "concerned-like"; etc. Lately, you've probably noticed an annoying trend in which people add "-y" to the ends of words, to make it seem as if their adjectives are more subtle and complex than they really are: "angsty"; "avant gardy"; "truthy"; and so forth. At least for these sorts of malaprop, a good spell-check should earn its keep. On the other hand, when spelling goes bad, spell-checks sometimes offer choices (or automatically default to choices) that end up being malaprop in the final draft, so you always have to be vigilant about these words, regardless (or, rather, irregardless, one of my favorite malapropisms that conflates "regardless" and "irrespective"). Here are some obvious ones:


adaption / adaptation 
alterior / ulterior 
agreeance / agreement 
analyzation / analysis 
boughten / bought 
confisticate / confiscate 
conversate / converse 
crastic / crass, caustic 
doctorial / doctoral 
dramatical / dramatic 
excape / escape 
femine / feminine 
interpretate / interpret
irregardless / regardless
memorium / memorial
mischievious / mischievous
ostensively / ostensibly 
paralyzation / paralysis 
practicle / practical 
rationalization / rationale 
segway / segue 
sherbert / sherbet 
stigmatism / astigmatism 
supposably; supposingly / supposedly
unconscience / unconscious 
verbage / verbiage 
volumptuous / voluptuous 
wreckless / reckless

It's well to remember, too, that English is a living language, and sometimes, when a malapropism is pervasive enough in the culture, it creeps into standard usage. One example of this is the verb "prioritize," coined during the twentieth century from the noun "priority"; what makes it malaprop is that the verb should have derived from its base phoneme, the adjective "prior," not the noun "priority"; the linguistic rules of transformation should have led to the verb "priorify," not "prioritize." (Consider, for instance, "pure" and "purity," the verb form of which is "purify.") But, that's the way it goes sometimes.

Malaprop should not be confused with coined words, by the way. Plenty of new words are invented in every era. We call these neologisms (the word "neologism," itself, being a neologism). The term "blog," for instance, was coined in your time. The adjective "humongous" is like the more recently coined word, "ginormous," but neither of these is considered worthy of formal usage. Words like "ecotone" or "bridezilla" are the reason new editions of dictionaries continue to be published, but that doesn't always mean these are the sort of words that belong in an academic essay. Again, it depends on the context and whether these words have an element of "jargon" to them that might make them appropriate for special academic audiences.

Last Updated: 03/02/2016
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