I can guess what you mean, but it’s not what you said
The text in our picture says it all: a word is a sound or combination of sounds forming a meaningful element of speech – but don’t they get mashed, mangled and misused with monotonous regularity? Cut through the confusion, and make your meanings clearer, with our handy guide to some of the most abused.
Misuse of language devalues it, leaving people having to guess at what was meant. Often there are no real consequences, but there could be, and they could be life-changing. For instance, what if someone suffering from hypertension was treated with drugs for hypotension? The words sound alike, but mean the opposite.*
Let’s look at a few others that might be causing confusion in your workplace:
1. Affect/effect. Affect means ‘make a difference to’; effect is ‘a result’, like this: “The size of brush you use won’t affect the finish, but keep adding coats of paint until you get the effect you want.”
2. Averse/adverse. Averse means that you have a dislike, and will usually be followed by ‘to’, such as ‘Teenagers are averse to mornings’; adverse defines something as being harmful or unfavourable.
3. Imply/infer. Best understood with an example. Without actually saying so, I might hint (or imply) that someone is pregnant, and you might guess (or infer) that she was from what I’d said.
4. Principal/principle. The ‘al’ ending means ‘main’ or first in order of importance, which is why colleges have Principals. The ‘le’ ending refers to a basic rule about how something works. Therefore, a college Principal will no doubt understand the principle of how students learn.
5. Acute/chronic. Both can mean ‘bad’, but that doesn’t give them their full value. Acute means sudden or severe; chronic means ongoing or persistent. Therefore, months of chronic poor timekeeping might result in an acute shortage of employees first thing on Monday morning.
6. Accept/except. Potentially sounding very similar, this pair of words could be seen to mean the opposite of each other. Think of membership of an organisation; it might accept a new member, meaning they’d be included, or could include everyone except one particular individual.
7. Complement/compliment. These two are homophones (words that sound the same, but have different spellings and meanings). The first, spelled with an ‘e’ in the middle, is applied to something that enhances something else, just as peppercorn sauce might enhance a fine steak. Spelled the second way, it’s a polite expression of praise or admiration, such as you might send to the chef because of the fine peppercorn sauce he has created for you.
8. Continual/continuous. Subtly different, these two are often confused, but have discrete definitions (more of ‘discrete’ in a moment). The same action, frequently repeated, is said to be continual, such as the movement of parts of a clock that cause the familiar tick-tock sound. However, if the same repeated movement causes the hands of the clock to turn without stopping, then their motion is said to be continuous. (On the other hand, if you’ll pardon the pun, movement of the hands is jerky, that that’s continual too).
9. Discreet/discrete. A person who is careful and prudent in words and actions is said to be discreet. A colleague who shares rumours with others in a series of separate and distinct whispered conversations is being indiscreet, but because the conversations are separate and distinct from each other, they are discrete.
10. Who’s/whose. Ah, the dreaded apostrophe. In who’s, the apostrophe is a clue that a letter, in this case the ‘i’ has been missed out. It’s the written version of verbal shorthand. Whose, on the other hand, indicates ‘belonging to, or associated with a person or thing’. Therefore, we’d say: “Who’s going to the bar for the next round?” but “Whose round is it?”
11. Its/it’s. See above. It’s is short for it is; ‘its’ indicates belonging to, such as ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’. Your smartphone don’t help here, proving that it’s not so smart when its software insists on changing its to it’s at every opportunity, no matter if it’s correct or not.
Used and abused
1. “There are three alternatives.” Well, maybe. There might be three options or choices, but if there are alternatives, there should really only ever be two. However, long-standing misuse of the word has allowed it to cover more than two.
2. “It’s almost unique”. This is clearer. Something either is unique or it isn’t, because there can be no degrees of uniqueness, just as a woman can’t be slightly pregnant. Either she is or isn’t.
3. Have or of? Here’s the most painful homophone of the lot, and it is creeping into written English from the spoken version. Phrases like ‘should have’ or ‘would have’ are verbally compressed to ‘should’ve’ or ‘would’ve’, and then transformed, like some bizarre written version of Chinese whispers, to ‘should of’ and ‘would of’.
Just how confusing the English language can be is no better illustrated than with the six-letter word ‘cleave’. With one spelling and one pronunciation, it has two completely opposite meanings: to split or cut apart, or to unite or combine.
*Hypertension is abnormally high blood pressure; hypotension is abnormally low blood pressure.