I keep a list of writing mistakes that I come across in my own freelance editing business as well as in the modern, “good trash” I like to read for fun. In this post, I’ve chosen 17 frequently misused words and expressions. Learn them, and you’ll jump to the head of the pack.
There will be people who don’t agree with what I am about to present, but that’s okay; I’m sure they’ve been wrong before.
Seriously, though, there is some wiggle room with some of the expressions, and I’ve noted this.
Guys, it’s myriad without the “a” in front and the preposition in back, e.g., “She had myriad boyfriends before she settled down,” and not “She had a myriad of boyfriends before she settled down.”
Although nowadays, using “a myriad of” is lazily accepted, purists like me will never allow ourselves or our clients to use it, and certainly someone who uses myriad correctly shows themselves to be a sophisticated writer.
Similar to myriad, you don’t need any extra words before and after you use whence. It already means “from where,” so just say whence – do not say “from whence.” Here’s an example:
“I sent the perfumed love letter back to the woman whence it came.”
Yeah, I know; it’s not like you want to sound like Shakespeare when writing for Playboy magazine, but it’s important to know this rule in case you want to get fancy in a novel or memoir.
A word of warning: you will find legitimate writers using “from whence,” but be smug: they’re wrong.
Another Shakespearean word, but just in case you take a time machine back to the sixteenth century, you’ll need to know that wherefore means “why.” It doesn’t mean “where.”
Come vs. cum
Come means “come,” like “I come home at three o’clock. Cum is Latin, and means “with” or “together with.” You pronounce it “koom.”
While come is self-explanatory, cum isn’t. Here are two ways it’s used:
- in expressions such as summa cum laude (with highest honors – get it? Laude is like laudatory)
- to describe entities of a dual nature, such as “novelist-cum-soldier of fortune” or “gangster-cum-rap artist” (notice the dashes between words and the use of italics). And by the way, “rap artist” is my favorite oxymoron.
Lead vs. Led
Lead is either a present-tense verb (pronounced “leed”) or what you put in pencils (pronounced “ledd”); led is a verb, the past tense of lead. Here’s an example:
“Please lead me to the lead pencil department, because using wax pencils has led me to tear out my hair in frustration.”
Wet vs. whet
A baby wets his diapers, and when his mother heats up the Gerber strained carrots this whets his appetite.
The word whet, by the way, means to sharpen; thus: “He whet the lead pencil with the blade of his wet Swiss Army knife.”
Might vs. mite
You wouldn’t believe the mistakes you find in Kindle books. I once read, “He was a might too strong for her.” I am not making this up.
In brief: Might either means strength (noun) or is used to express a conditional situation. In grammar parlance it’s called a modal or auxiliary verb (might, may, must, can, could, shall, should, will, would).
Mite means little (which is why you can’t see the dust mites you’re allergic to). It’s a noun (dust mite, mighty mite).
Another way to use mite in a sentence is thus:
“That monkey is a mite too ugly for the zoo brochure.”
I know it doesn’t look like a noun there, but most grammar pundits hold it’s a noun, while some insist it’s an adjective. In keeping with my policy of painless grammar, however, I say: “Who cares? Just use it correctly, for goodness’ sake!” (And notice how goodness needs an apostrophe here.)
Pour vs. pore vs. poor
- You can pour lemonade or pour out your heart.
- Before you subscribed to Bulletproof Writing, you would pore over your grammar textbook while sweating from every pore of your skin (yuck).
- This is because you used to have poor grammar skills.
Desert vs. dessert
The word desert can be that hot place with sand dunes, or it can be a derivative of the word deserve, as in “You got your just deserts,” i.e., just what you deserve.
The emphasis is on the first syllable in desert the sandy place, and it’s on the second syllable in “just deserts.”
Dessert is that decadent chocolate thing the waitress brings you at the end of the meal.
An easy way to remember how to differentiate between desert and dessert is that dessert is sweet, and therefore needs an extra s.
Pain vs. pang
I originally wanted to say that pain is physical while pang is emotional, but that doesn’t completely work.
On the one hand, you have a pain in your jaw when someone hits you with a left hook (physical), and you have pangs of regret when you say No to that decadent chocolate dessert the waitress brought you (emotional).
On the other hand, if you were a hobo during the depression, you might have a lot of painful memories (emotional) of constantly experiencing hunger pangs (physical).
Birth vs. berth
Many husbands want to give their wives a wide berth when the latter are giving birth. Perhaps these men will book a berth on the next cruise to Alaska.
Born vs. borne
Children and goats are born; their mothers have borne them. Usually the human mothers have borne a lot of aggravation while raising their children (but it’s all worth it :).
Precedent vs. precedence
At yesterday’s meeting, you set a precedent for giving precedence to the most senior member of your club.
And by the way, what you did was without precedent in the club’s history.
Incident vs. incidence
When you got home from the meeting, however, you reported a robbery incident that took place at your house. You’re pretty upset about the increasing incidence of crime incidents in your neighborhood.
You’ve got another think/thing coming
If you think that what I’m about to say is wrong, you have another think coming.
DO NOT think that you can use the expression “another thing coming.” It is wrong.
I don’t care if Prof. Google says it’s okay. He also says you can say alright instead of all right and alot instead of a lot. No, no, no.
Remember: the word think can be a noun sometimes, as in “I’ll have to give your marriage proposal a think, Caligula.”
And if Caligula thinks she’ll say Yes, he might just have another think coming.
Worst/worse comes to worst
I have always hated it when people used “worst comes to worst”; how can something come to the same thing?
“Worse comes to worst” makes so much more sense! After all, it’s a progression. Remember the superlative in Mad Libs? Bad, worse, worst. You go from bad to worse, and from worse to worst. Finito.
You apparently are allowed to say “If worst comes to worst.” This is what it means: The worst possible situation in theory comes to the worst possible situation in practice.
Now I can give those who use “worst comes to worst” the benefit of the doubt. Still, personally, I don’t like it. It reminds me of “another thing coming.”
For all intents and purposes
Please don’t tell me you thought it was “For all intensive purposes.”
If you did, however, all is forgiven. You’ve simply used an eggcorn.
If you click on the above link, you will discover that Merriam-Webster uses “for all intensive purposes” as their definition of an eggcorn; we’re twins! Wikipedia and I are, too.
What other embarrassing mistakes have you seen in the books you’ve read? I’d love to compile a list; especially since I’m thinking of giving a course in self-editing.
Interested in the course? Then click here and I’ll put you on the waiting list. I’m offering a beta version at a reduced price to a limited number of people. The beta course will include hands-on stuff with me and interaction with the other students, and you’ll be helping to shape my flagship alpha course.