Some common errors

I have been noticing some errors occurring recently with the spelling of homonyms. Here are three examples:

Writing eek when they mean eke

Writing discrete when they mean discreet

Writing complementary when they mean complimentary

I am sure there must be others that can be added to the list.

For some reason, the errors rarely go in the opposite direction, maybe because words like eek, discrete, and complementary are less likely to come up naturally.


  1. seachange says

    Maybe the for some reason is that spell checkers always presume you mean the most common word? I am sufficiently weird, that I have mine turned off.

  2. nifty says

    Reading student lab reports: vial/vile. Though for some results, it is clear they have a vile vial.

  3. Mano Singham says

    TGAP Dad @#4,

    The error ‘racked with pain’ makes sort of sense since it can be associated with the torture rack.

  4. Some Old Programmer says

    People who “flaunt” the law always get a pained reaction from me; I don’t recall seeing “flout” misused.

  5. John Morales says

    There are copious examples; one I saw all the time at the office was ‘stationery’ vs ‘stationary’. Oh yeah, and they stored things in their ‘draws’.

    I see such malapropisms all the time, even in otherwise well-regarded, professional media.

    … and ‘phase’ instead of ‘faze’.

  6. says

    I turn off all spell checkers (*) not out of ego about my own spelling but my annoyance. I use Canadian and British spellings, so US spellings are no “corrections”, they’re annoyances. (* Some spell checkers can’t be turned off, like the one on my cell phone. That’s even more annoying.) It’s easier to work and then fix it later.

    Mano Singham (#6) --

    When I describe trumpkins at the rank and vile, it’s not a typo.

  7. robert79 says

    Yeah, auto-correct can really play havoc, especially with scientific/technical/domain-specific language. A mistake I see my students make a lot is dimension vs dementia (in Dutch : “dimensie” vs “dementie”, and they’re pronounced nearly the same) which results in some very demented (high dimensional) maths papers.

  8. kestrel says

    Since I raise livestock and read ads for same, I come across many that are special for that application. “Purebread” is one (instead of purebred); another is the dog called a “blue healer” (instead of blue heeler). Sometimes it’s really a challenge to figure out what in the Wide World of Sports they have for sale.

  9. jenorafeuer says

    Considering that ‘sport’ can have an entirely different meaning in breeding, as well… as in, some new mutation causing the descendent to look other than what its ancestry should suggest. Granted, I think that usage is more common when dealing with plants than with animals.

  10. Steve Cameron says

    One where I get it, but I hate it when I see it is in chats when people spell “yeah” as “ya.” I’m sorry, but when someone says “yeah” you can hear the “e” and the “h.” “Ya” is, if it’s a word at all, an informal version of “you” for god’s sake, as in “see ya.”

    I am, however, a big fan of people who write about “towing the line.” You’re wrong, but I get it — it’s not the same metaphor, but it evokes a similar idea of compliance.

    And to all the people who turn off their spell checkers… I could never be so brave. Turn off auto-correct? Sure. But spell-checker? Why take the risk? I get that it’s not going to catch everything, but I’m happy to have at least a rudimentary proof-reader as I blihtley — blithly — er, blithely type away.

  11. Richard Simons says

    Not homonyms, but I’ve noticed that ‘insure’ is almost always used when people mean ‘ensure’, and sometimes when they mean ‘assure’. They mean quite different things.
    I agree that spell checkers can be very irritating as some seem to have a remarkably small vocabulary.

  12. mediagoras says

    I’ve heard a few people say “jive” when what they mean is “jibe” (i.e., to be in accord).

  13. EigenSprocketUK says

    mediagoras, that jibes with my (UK) usage of jibe, which i always understood to be the exact opposite usage. Only early this year did I learn that it has two accepted and opposite uses. Funny old word (world).

  14. sonofrojblake says

    Flammable when you mean inflammable.
    Enquire when you mean inquire.

    Oh… hang on…

    “Vicious cycle” bugs me. It’s “circle”, shurely…? (inclusion of h intentional)
    Then again… I’m conscious that my ire at incorrect usage is a form not only of pedantry, but actually snobbery. See post 8:

    Uneducated people have no idea about the origins of words they commonly use.

    And that’s their fault because…?

    I think I’m justified in being irked only when I hear/read such a thing from someone like Alexander Johnson -- someone I know knows better, and who is cynically trying to come across as less clever than they are so as to appeal to the people they’d doubtless consider plebs. That really gets my ghost.

  15. flex says

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

    Humpty Dumpty aside, language is a fluid thing. The important aspect of language isn’t the form used, but the ideas communicated. It is not uncommon, and it shouldn’t be unexpected, that the meaning of words change over time. Words, and language, have fashions and styles. As a purist, who loves the idiosyncrasies of English and how it evolved, I can distinguish between homonyms and I’ll admit that to me incorrect usage can be jarring.

    But being a purist ignores how the English language evolves. When Johnson pinned the spelling and definition of each word, like butterflies on a card, he continued an ongoing process to separate the ‘educated’ from the ‘illiterate’. Subsequent dictionaries continued this trend until the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961. When the editors decided that rather than trying to proscribe the usage of words to specific meanings, it would be of more use to describe the usage of English as she is spoken.

    Yes, as a student of English, it is a minor irritant to read ‘free-reign’ as opposed to ‘free-rein’, but the meaning is still clear. In fact, the meaning may be enhanced because while ‘free-rein’ comes from the practice of letting a horse decide the route rather then the rider; the idea of an un-restricted, absolute, monarch who has ‘free-reign’ does create a more powerful simile. Historical usage notwithstanding.

    Nor is education a panacea for this type of error. It can correct some of the more blatant problems, as in the OP or those John Morales (and others) specify above, where the problem is simply a miss-spelling of two words which are close in spelling if very divergent in meaning. But some of the examples could well evolve into accepted usage in the next score or more years.

    I see no reason why ‘eke’, typically defined as stretching resources to barely meet a requirement, couldn’t be spelled as ‘eek’ which is an expression of alarm or surprise. Having to eke out sustenance would could easily result in an eek, an expression of alarm.

    Similarly, ‘wrack and ruin’, could easily change to ‘rack and ruin’ as more people are familiar with the torture instrument than the destructive beaching of a sailing ship, destroyed by the force of the waves. Also spelled wrak, and wracke, in Robert Hunter’s 1894 Encyclopaedic Dictionary.

    As someone who loves words, and the history of them, I recognize that my prejudices on usage may not reflect current trends. If, over time, the word ‘too’, meaning also, becomes entangled with the word ‘to’, which already has a half-dozen other meanings, I will have to accept it. So long as the meaning is clear, the spelling can adjust. That’s what language does.

    With that said, this comment is in the pickwickian sense, it’s not from a gradgrind. Some may say I’m gaga, but to me this response is a merry-andrew and a josh, it’s time to enjoy a pot of twanky before bed.

  16. Silentbob says

    “Tow the line” is a perennial favourite.
    I wrote “slight of hand” once and then slapped myself.

  17. mynax says

    I see tenant/tenet too much.
    Or words that almost-sorta sound the same, and can mean almost-sorta the same thing sometimes: hone and home, parameter and perimeter.

  18. Katydid says

    Wonder when they mean wander.

    Beg when they mean bag.

    Physical year when they mean fiscal year.

    To and too.

    Apostrophes: they must be like magnets--how do they work? They are not a warning sign that the letter s is approaching!

    Plurals and possessives; babies vs. baby’s, countries vs. country’s.

  19. ChrisUK says

    The examples that get my hackles up are:

    affect when they mean effect, or vice versa

    your instead of you’re, or vice versa

    There, got it off my chest.

  20. Malcolm says

    My pet hate on this is “towing the line” when it should be “toeing the line”. You can doi this your self at Olympia where the original is still marked.

  21. says

    Their, there and they’re. Also, it’s vs. its (somewhat understandable as it breaks the rules).

    As a I teach engineering, my favorites tend to be misspelling and other errors that spell check doesn’t find. Pretty much whenever I teach AC circuits I get a lab report referring to “phase angels” instead of phase angles. I just try to imagine what they are, what they do, and if we should start a religion around them.

    But when it comes to a mondegreen, my favorite is “Our father who art in Heaven, Howard be they name…”
    Well, I also have a soft spot for the alaphabet song (“Now I’ve said my ABCs…”) where nearly everyone mashes together the middle part into one word: “LMNO”, which to me sounds like some hero out of Mexican literature: “The Adventures of El Ameno”

  22. blf says

    Amusingly (or at least I’ve always thought it amusing), inflammable — capable of burning — is the original, from the French (who got it from Latin). The modern term flammable is a deliberate back-formation invented because of concerns people would misinterpret “inflammable” as “doesn’t burn”; this is why many safety / hazard signs use “flammable”. (I have no idea if anyone ever has misunderstood “inflammable” in that manner, but the expert’s concerns seem plausible with a simple solution.)

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