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.


LASTLY

If you wouldn't say "firstly," why say "lastly"? Drop the -ly. (See also secondly, thirdly, fourthly.)


LATTER

He offered a trip to New York, Chicago, or Tarzana. She chose the latter. Oh no she didn't. Latter can't be used when there are three (or more) options. It applies only to sentences like He offered a trip to New York or Tarzana, which makes New York the former, Tarzana the latter. When there are more than two people or things mentioned, use last.


LAXADAISICAL

The word doesn't exist, but that doesn't stop people from saying it. The word they're looking for is lackadaisical: "without energy or enthusiasm."


LAY, LIE

These may well be the two most confounding three-letter words in all the language. The use of lay where lie is indicated has been a major problem for generations. Maybe because of the word's negative double meaning, people shy away from saying lie.

All of the following are incorrect: I'm going to lay on the couch. Your wallet is laying on the dresser. He wants to lay down. Make it lie, lying, lie, respectively.

Lie: You lie down today; you lay down yesterday; you have lain down before.

Lay: Please lay the book down now; you laid the book down yesterday; you have laid that book down before.

  • Yesterday I lied/laid/lain/lay on the bed
    Most people would guess laid on the bed, but the correct answer is lay.
  • I have often lied/laid/lain/lay on the bed.
    Again, most people would guess laid, but lain is correct.
  • I have often lied/laid/lain/lay my wallet on the dresser.
    This time, laid is correct.

Lay vs. Lie Chart

  Present Past
To recline lie; is/are lying lay; has/have/had lain
To put or place lay; is/are laying laid; has/have/had laid
To tell a falsehood lie; is/are lying lied; has/have/had lied


Examples in the present tense: I like to lie down for a nap at 2 p.m.
I am lying down for a nap today.
Please lay the book down.
I am laying the book down.
I am tempted to lie about my age.
I am not lying about my age.
Examples in the past tense: I lay down for a nap yesterday at 2 p.m.
I laid the book down yesterday.
He lied on the witness stand.
Examples with a helping verb (has, have): I have lain down for a nap every day this week.
I have laid the book down for the last time.
He has lied each day on the witness stand.

LEAD, LED

Correct: He led the parade. Incorrect: He lead the parade. Budding writers are increasingly using lead instead of led as the past tense of the verb to lead.

There are three reasons for this confusion. First, the past tense of read, the other common
-ead verb, is read. Second, the word lead, when it's a noun denoting a metal, is pronounced led, just like the past tense of the verb to lead. And third, they don't drill spelling in schools the way they used to.


LEAK, LEEK

Leak: an unintended discharge of liquid or gas.

Leek: a type of onion.


LESS

See fewer, less.


LESSEN, LESSON

Lessen: to decrease.

Lesson: something learned or studied.


LET HE WHO IS WITHOUT SIN …

One of the most notorious misquotations in the English language is "Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone." This misuse of the pronoun he has been giving English sticklers nightmares for decades.

How could it be "Let he"? It couldn't. Here is the actual quotation from the Gospel of John: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."


LIABLE, LIBEL, LIKELY

Liable has a negative connotation: He's liable to have an accident if he doesn't slow down.

Libel is a malicious attack on someone's character.

Likely refers to simple probability: She is likely to be on time.


LIE

See lay, lie.


LIGHTENING, LIGHTNING

That flash in an overcast sky is a bolt of lightning, which is sometimes misspelled lightening.

Lightening is the process of making something lighter in color or weight.


LIKE

Do it like she does. Sentences like that one have always been unacceptable to purists. Nowadays, however, such sentences go virtually unchallenged, even by many editors.

Strictly speaking, like can only be a preposition meaning "similar to" or "similarly to." So Do it like her (i.e., similarly to her) would be correct. But because no one would say, "Do it similarly to she does," there is no grammatical justification for Do it like she does.

In the mid-twentieth century, Theodore M. Bernstein said in The Careful Writer: "The usage of like as a conjunction…is not acceptable in better-grade writing."

The American Heritage Dictionary's panel of experts has noted that for more than a century, anyone who said like she does was considered illiterate. Yet today, the panel says, "Like is more acceptably used as a conjunction in informal style."

The traditional view is that if a verb follows the noun or pronoun, as in like she does, it means like is the wrong choice. Instead, use as, as if, as though, or the way.

  • Do it the way she does (not like she does).
  • Say it as if or as though you mean it (not like you mean it).
  • Go when the light is green, as it is now (not like it is now).

LITERALLY

I was so amazed, I literally hit the ceiling. If someone has literally hit the ceiling, he ought to move to a place with higher ceilings.

It was literally like being in Paris. Drop literally. Nothing is "literally like." Anyone who says "literally like" doesn't understand the word.

Literally is supposed to mean "100 percent fact" … period. But not today, when, as in the previous examples, literally is often used figuratively. That way madness lies.

In responsible usage, literally allows no room for poetry, analogy, hyperbole, frivolity, or any other flights of fancy. Any sentence containing literally should mean what it literally says. We are being asked to accept that sentence as fact and not interpret or infer. So if you say you were "literally stunned," we have no choice but to conclude that you were physically incapacitated.

A newspaper item told of a couple whose dreams "literally collapsed" when a fixer-upper they bought came down in a heap as they started working on it. Now, we know what the writer meant, but the house is what literally collapsed, not the dreams. How could a dream, the very essence of all that is beyond materiality, literally collapse?

One simple solution: Say "virtually": I virtually hit the ceiling. Their dreams virtually collapsed.

Virtually allows speakers and writers to enhance and embellish to their hearts' content, options they relinquish when using literally.


LOAN, LONE

Loan: something given temporarily.

Lone: only; solitary.


LOATH, LOATHE

Loath: reluctant.

Loathe: to dislike intensely.

I am loath to work for anyone I loathe.


LOOSE, LOSE

Loose: opposite of tight.

Lose: to misplace; to be defeated.


Misused Words

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