Spelling, Vocabulary, and Confusing Words

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Many words in English sound or look alike, causing confusion and not a few headaches. This section lists some of these words, and other troublemakers.


BACKWARD, BACKWARDS

Both forms are acceptable, although the Associated Press Stylebook instructs journalists to always use backward.


BACTERIA

Staphylococcus is a virulent form of bacteria. No problem there. But in a sentence like It's a virulent bacteria, well, now we have a problem. Bacteria is a plural noun; the singular is bacterium. So don't write The bacteria in the cut was infecting it, because the bacteria were infecting it.


BAIL, BALE

Both words do double duty as noun and verb. As a noun, bail commonly refers to money deposited to gain a prisoner's freedom, or bail that prisoner out.

A bale is a large, bound or wrapped package of unprocessed material. To bale is to make into a bale.


BAITED BREATH, BATED BREATH

Don't write "baited breath." The word bated, a variant of abated, means "lessened in intensity," "restrained."


BALL, BAWL

Ball: a round object; a gala event.

Bawl: to cry; howl.


BARE, BEAR

Bare as an adjective means "unconcealed": bare arms. As a verb it means "expose": to bare one's feelings.

Bear as a noun refers to a wild animal. As a verb it has many meanings, from "carry" (bear arms) to "tolerate" (I can't bear it) to "steer" (bear right at the corner).


BASICALLY

This word, especially when it starts a sentence, is probably unnecessary.


BEACH, BEECH

The beech tree was close to the windy beach.


BEAT, BEET

You can't beat my recipe for beets.


BECAUSE, SINCE

Because and since can be used just about interchangeably to explain the reason for something. But since can also refer to a time in the past: I have waited since yesterday.


BELL, BELLE

Bell: a chime or alarm.

Belle: a lovely woman.


BENIGHTED

He was a benighted soul in an enlightened time. Many people associate it with knighted and think benighted is a good thing to be. Far from it. Note the lack of a k; don't think knight, think night. To be benighted is to be "in a state of moral or intellectual darkness."


BERTH, BIRTH

Berth: a built-in bed on a train or boat; a space for a boat to dock.

Birth: being born; a beginning.


BESIDE, BESIDES

Besides as an adverb means "in addition" or "moreover": It's Albert's birthday, and besides, you promised.

Besides is also a preposition meaning "other than" or "except": Who besides me is hungry?

Compare that with The person beside me is hungry. Beside is a preposition that means "next to," "near," "alongside."

A lot of people say something is "besides the point." They mean beside the point. When a statement is beside the point, it misses the mark and settles nothing.


BETTER, BETTOR

Better: of higher quality.

Bettor: a gambler.


BIANNUAL, BIENNIAL, SEMIANNUAL

These words do not all mean the same thing. Biannual means "twice a year," as does semiannual, whereas biennial means "occurring every two years."


BITE, BYTE

Don't confuse what your teeth do with byte, a computer term for eight bits of information. Adding to the confusion, sound bite—a brief excerpt from a longer work—is sometimes mistakenly written "sound byte."


BLOC, BLOCK

The more familiar word is block, which can refer to many things: a toy, a cube-shaped object, a city street. Not as versatile is bloc: a group united for a particular purpose.


BOAR, BOOR, BORE

Boar: a wild pig.

Boor: a vulgar brute.

Bore: a compulsive chatterbox.


BOARD, BORED

When the board called the roll, he was too bored to speak up.


BOLDER, BOULDER

Bolder: more daring.

Boulder: a large rock.


BORN, BORNE

To be born is to be given birth to, as babies are born. Or it can mean "to be created": ideas are born the moment we think of them. It also means "to arise from": Timmy's stomachache was born of wolfing his food.

Borne is the past tense of bear, in the sense of "carry." To be borne is to be carried: a mosquito-borne disease; or to be endured: Timmy's stomachache had to be borne until it finally went away.


BOY, BUOY

Few if any would write boy instead of buoy, a nautical beacon or marker. Nonetheless, both words are traditionally pronounced the same. In Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, author Bill Bryson says, "Unless you would say 'boo-ee-ant' for buoyant, please return to pronouncing it 'boy.' "


BRAKE, BREAK

Use your brake before you break something.


BRIDAL, BRIDLE

Bridal: relating to brides and weddings.

A bridle is a head harness, usually for a horse. Not surprisingly, the verb bridle means "to control" or "to restrain." But it also means "to pull back the head quickly in anger."


BRING, TAKE

They're not interchangeable. You bring something here; you take something there. The locations of "here" and "there" are from the perspective of the speaker or writer. Your friend asks you to bring her a book, so you take the book to her home.


BROACH, BROOCH

To broach a topic is to bring it up for discussion: Now is the time to broach the subject. As a verb, broach also means "to open or enlarge a hole." The noun broach refers to a pointed tool which performs that operation.

A brooch, a decorative pin or clip, is nothing like a broach. But since they're often pronounced alike, and because ignorance never rests, some dictionaries accept broach as an alternative spelling of brooch.


BUOY

See boy, buoy.


BYTE

See bite, byte.


Misused Words

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