All too often, our ears deceive us. We hear a word or phrase, make assumptions about the spelling, and then use it ourselves. Sometimes, that results in the use of words that sound identical but actually have vastly different meanings.
In the era of autocorrect, most of us shrug those misuses off, believing they’re of little consequence. But those mistakes undermine our hard-earned credibility and make us appear to be less intelligent than we really are. Let’s explore some common examples of mangled words:
Bare with us. Some enjoy communal nudity, but companies aren’t issuing an invitation for such when they post a sign or put a message on social media saying, “Please bare with us.” Maybe there has been an outage or some sort of delay, and they want us to be patient with them. The word they’re after is “bear,” as in “I just can’t bear to listen to any more K-Pop.” When people use the word “bare,” they generally mean “naked.” So when your company asks me to “bare” with you, I’m reading it as a hot tub invitation.
Can’t stay a part. This one is increasingly common, and I find it amusing, because the words that get mangled have nearly opposite meanings. The single word “apart” means “separate,” while its homophonic counterpart “a part” refers to a component of a larger assemblage. So when you say the sales manager “is apart of our team,” you’re actually saying they don’t work with you. And when you write “we need to keep those employees a part,” you’re urging they remain together and with you.
Hand over the reigns. A CEO retires and a new CEO is crowned. That royal event often spawns press releases about the “reigns” being handed over. But that type of “reign” is a word referring to the role of royalty, as in “the House of Windsor has reigned over the U.K. and Commonwealth since 1901.” If you’re referring to the means of control, the word you want is “rein,” as in the straps used to command horses.
Pass a levee. A “levee” is an embankment built with the goal of blocking floodwaters. A “levy” is a tax. So if your local town council members have “passed a levee,” they’re probably feeling more than a little discomfort.
Garage sell. My suspicion is this mangle grew out of Appalachian accents. When people from parts of that region say “mail,” “bale,” or “jail,” folks around here hear “mell,” “bell,” and “jell,” entirely different words. So when they reference a “sale,” it’s no surprise it’s heard as “sell.” I’ve noticed others picking up that pronunciation and even see it creeping into advertising and social media. “We’re having a holiday sell this weekend” or “My church is having a rummage sell.” In both cases, you may be doing some selling, but the event (and each transaction) is known as a “sale” (with two syllables).
Are you principled? “Principle” and “principal” are misused so often that it’s only a matter of time before only one spelling survives. As nouns, “principle” is a guiding belief, while “principal” is the head of a school or a key member of a partnership. And “principal” as an adjective means “first” or primary.” So this sentence makes sense: “The principal’s principal principle was to eschew obfuscation.”
Disperse the funds. From the lips of most people, “disperse” and “disburse” sound identical. While they may be similar, there’s a clean line between the two. “Disperse” implies spreading around, as in “I’ll disperse the grass seed over the bare spot.” “Disburse” involves paying someone, as in “Accounts Payable finally disbursed the funds.”
You’re not aloud. Spelled differently and with disparate meanings, “aloud” and “allowed” are often confused in print. To be “aloud” is to be heard by others, as in “Everyone laughed when I read the CEO’s expense report aloud.” It’s a synonym for “out loud.” But to be “allowed” is to be permitted to take advantage of a privilege. “Can you believe the CEO was allowed to claim his treadmill time as business mileage?” And if you’ve been admitted to the Zoom meeting but are muted, you’re not aloud, even though you’re allowed.
I appraised you. Another pair that creates confusion is “appraise” and “apprise.” It’s amazing what that extra “a” accomplishes. “Apprise” means to inform, as in “I apprised the CEO of the coup being planned by the sales team.” “Appraise” means to determine the value of something. “Our CEO’s desk has an appraised value larger than that of my house.”
Making sure you choose the right words is all about accuracy and presenting what you want to say as clearly and correctly as possible. So when I encourage you to “bear with me,” rest assured you can keep your clothes on.
Scott Flood creates effective copy for companies and other organizations. His guide to evaluating freelance creative talent, The Smarter Strategy for Selecting Suppliers, can be downloaded at http://sfwriting.com.