usage

Lexical Vexations

disburse 1. v. to pay out (esp. from a fund), to pay (e.g., a bill).

disperse 1. v. to break up, to spread something over an area, to make something evaporate.

Words in the Wild: When the bank refused to disburse their life savings to the townsfolk, George had to call the police to disperse the angry mob.

I came across this lexical vexation in a recent edit: a crowd that was supposed to be dispersed was instead disbursed. These two words sound incredibly similar, making this an easy mistake to make, especially when you’re on a roll and your hands are typing as fast as you can think. And, as is so often the case, spell checkers won’t help you uncover one of these errors. But if you remember that the -burse in disburse is also found in bursary, that’ll help. (By the way, the -sperse in disperse goes way back to the Latin spargĕre, meaning to sprinkle.)

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Direption

by Heather

Vest-Pocket Vocabulary

Direp’tion, n. the art of plundering.

Word in the Wild: After an unknown co-worker stole his lunch out of the communal fridge for the third day running, Amir posted a snarky note demanding the sneak cease all direption.

I’m in favour of a world with a lot less sacking and pillaging, but I think there may still be room for this obsolete word to make a comeback. I, for one, am not above a little direption if it means I can get the first grilled cheese sandwich out of the pan. I guess I’m just plain direptitious.

You can find a complete listing of the Word Blog’s Vest-Pocket Vocabulary entries and learn more about where they come from here.

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Coarse vs. Course

by Heather

Lexical Vexations

coarse 1. adj. of a thick gauge; 2. adj. rough; 3. adj. unrefined, crude (of a person).

course 1. n. a path or route followed by people or things; 2. n. a series of classes on a topic of study; 3. n. an established procedure or approach to something; 4. n. a part of a meal; 5. v. to follow a path from one point to another.

Words in the Wild: The small terrier with the coarse hair ran along the course of the river in search of the main course of his evening meal. Meanwhile his coarse owner yelled at the man teaching the canine obedience course, demanding to know what course of action she should take to correct her coursing dog.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Lexical Vexations

Palette and Pallet and Palatepalate 1. n . the top or roof of the mouth; 2. n. one’s sense of taste.

palette 1. n. an easily held flat surface on which an artist mixes paints; 2. n. a range of available colours.

pallet 1. n. a straw-filled mattress, a temporary (and often uncomfortable) bed; 2. n. a sturdy, usually wood, surface on which goods can be stored and transported.

Words in the Wild: Felix stood on a stack of pallets to reach the top corner of his canvas. He leaned too far and overbalanced, accidentally flicking paint from his palette onto his palate. Luckily the colour was a tasty lemon yellow.

I see these words sneaking into each others’ places fairly often. Sadly I don’t have any helpful mnemonics for you this time—the only way I know to keep these ones straight is to look them up if you’re not sure. If you have a trick for remembering these words, please let us know in the comments.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Wait vs. Weight

by Heather

Lexical Vexations

This lexical vexation is for Colette, who understands the weighty responsibility of using wait and weight correctly.

wait 1. v . to remain somewhere in anticipation of an event, to employ (varying degrees of) patience in anticipation of an event. 2. n. the duration of time that must elapse before an event takes place.

weight 1. n. a force created by an object’s gravitational attraction to Earth, measured in a variety of standard units such as grams, ounces, pounds. 2. n. an object designed to weigh a specific amount.

Words in the Wild: Ewa was waiting for the bus and could see by the lineup that she had a long wait ahead of her. It was going to feel even longer since she’d nearly doubled her weight by loading her backpack with the free weights she’d bought at the fitness store.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Lexical Vexations

Lee requested this classic lexical vexation, one that trips up the best of us from time to time. Thanks, Lee!

their adj. the possessive form of the pronoun they.

there 1. adv. a word used to designate a location that is at a distance, near or far, from the one using the word. 2. pronoun used to introduce the existence of something (ex. There is truth in what she says).

they’re a contraction of the words they and are .

Words in the Wild: They’re going to their cabin in the woods this weekend, and they’re hoping their nosy neighbours won’t be there.

This trio of homophones is just as vexing as the tricky its vs. it’s. You’ve probably noticed that we don’t need to constantly stop people in conversation to ask which of the above spellings they just spoke. That’s because the rest of their words give us all the clues we need to know which meaning was intended. So when we switch to the written word, it’s easy for a writer to choose the wrong one of these spellings. Even a seasoned grammarian who knows these spellings inside and out will mix these words up from time to time. And that’s okay…catching these sorts of oversights is exactly what proofreading is for, after all.

In writing as in speaking, we don’t really need the correct spelling of these words to make sense of what people have written. It’s only tradition and habit that require these different spellings at all. But now that we’ve grown used to the visual distinction between these words, it can confuse us when it’s gone. When a writer chooses the wrong spelling, it can, at least briefly, send readers down the garden path before they find their way to the intended meaning. Try to quickly read these incorrect uses of their, there, and they’re to see if you notice the extra work they require:

It was their that I found the lost kitten.

There’s is the brown sedan.

There at odds with they’re upstairs neighbours these days.

It makes reading a lot easier on readers when we spell these words correctly (and we lose fewer points on grammar tests, too), so I hope this blog post helps you choose your theres, theirs, and they’res wisely.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Its vs. It’s

by Heather

Lexical Vexations

I don’t know how I’ve missed the grandaddy of  lexical vexations for so long, so thank you, Susan, for requesting this post.

its the possessive form of the pronoun it.

it’s a contraction of the words it and is or it and has.

Words in the Wild: It’s my intention to see to it that every one of those toys ends up back in its place.

This vexation is a classic case of mistaken identity, and if you’re prone to mixing these two words up, you’re in fine company. I’d wager that everyone who’s ever written in English has made this mistake at some point, if not often.

There are 3 facts that conspire to confuse us:

  1. these words sound identical,
  2. we seldom if ever need the apostophe to tell us which meaning is intended, and
  3. current grammar rules suggest that both of these words ought to have the apostrophe.

Yes, both words cry out for an apostrophe, but only one gets to have it. English language rules say that you should add an apostrophe to make up for missing letters in a contraction. So by that logic it + is should equal it’s, right?

And the rule for creating possessives says that adding ’s to a word makes it possessive, and by that logic the object belonging to it should be it’s object, right?

But somewhere along the way it was decided that their weren’t enough apostrophes lying around for the both of them. One would have to do without. And the loser was…the possessive its. (Seems kind of odd that the possessive lost possession, doesn’t it?)

If  you’re checking your work or someone else’s, and you want to be sure you’ve got these right, try saying “it is” or “it has” every time you see either one of these words. If “it is” works, toss in that apostrophe; if it doesn’t work, leave it out.

Those of you in academia are in luck—since contractions are frowned upon in scholarly writing, you shouldn’t see any it’ses at all. Except—yes there’s always got to be an exception, right?—when you’re directly quoting someone who has written it’s.

Now that you’ve mastered these pesky words, I’m sure you want to know some more about the apostrophe’s spotted history. For an illuminating article on the apostrophe’s origins and its dubious helpfulness, head on over to Sesquiotica.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Role vs. Roll

by Heather

Lexical Vexations

role 1. n . a part one plays in a dramatic production or in relation to other people in a real-life situation.

roll 1. v. to move around a central axis. 2. n. a small bun served at dinner. 3. n. any number of other items that have been rolled up in their preparation (a roll of parchment, a spring roll, etc.). 4. n. a sound reminiscent of one that might be made by a rolling object (a drum roll, for instance).

Words in the Wild: Mr. French was pleased that he’d found a role in the Thanksgiving pageant for every last one of his students. Aisha played a drum roll as the curtains came up, Cairo and Kenta were the bread rolls, Lily played the part of the gravy boat, Eliana and Matthias were cabbage rolls, and Spot played the lead role of the turkey. The review that came out in the student paper the following week read “I laughed, I cried, I drooled.”

This lexical vexation is for Heidi, who wants to live in a world where roles are parts and parts can roll.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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Wet vs. Whet

by Heather

Lexical Vexations

wet 1. adj. soaked with or coverd by liquid. 2. v. to cause to be soaked with or covered by liquid.

whet v. to sharpen, both literally (as in to whet a knife) and figuratively (as in to whet one’s appetite).

Words in the Wild: Nancy’s curiosity was whetted when she saw the fluffy mogwai at the pet store. And though the clerk said she shouldn’t get it wet, she couldn’t wait to take it home and give it a good bath.

Still vexed? You can find a complete list of the Word Blog’s lexical vexations here.

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