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World War II on misused words

A Word, Please

June 02, 2010|By June Casagrande

My husband and I have a disagreement about the dishwasher. He clings to the irrational belief that it's possible to overload it. I, on the other hand, subscribe to the enlightened view that, when it comes to dishes, there's always room for one more — even if you just made room for 20 other "one mores."

So please don't tell him what happened in this column last week. The column was about the mistakes that can slip past even the best writers. I started by compiling a list of easily confused words, and then I started putting them into column form. I wasn't even halfway through my list when I ran out of space.

So, at the risk of him seeing this and forcing me to admit that I may not always know how much a column — or dishwasher — can hold, I'm picking up where I left off last week. Here are some more of the words I consider the most insidious — many of which I've caught in professional writers' work. Be on the lookout for them.

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You don't reek havoc. You wreak it. It's not unlike the choice between "rack" and "wrack." When you rack your brain, you stretch it to its limits. If you were to "wrack" your brain, that would mean to destroy it entirely (which is just so 1980s). So whenever you're struggling to think of something, stick with "rack."

If you're writing about a stage show, you may well be reviewing it, but the show itself was probably a revue. And that sign out front with the show's name? That's not a marquis. It's a marquee.

Here's one I see come up sometimes: Unless you're a blackboard, you probably can't be "chalk full" of something. The correct term is "chock full."

If something piques your curiosity, you may want a sneak peek, but be careful to not carelessly write "peak" in either case.

Lightning is the stuff of thunderstorms. Lightening is what I get done at the hairdresser's.

If you're reading this column, you probably know at least the basics of "affect" and "effect" — that is, "affect" the verb and "effect" the noun. But a lot of writers think that's the end of the story and thus write "to affect change." That's wrong. "Effect" is, at times, a verb that means "to bring about."

Chemicals leach into water, unlike your deadbeat brother-in-law who tries to leech off of you. And here's a pair that, though well known, still perplex a lot of writers. Your primary means of support is your principal means of support. The idea that you should support yourself is a principle.

Something may whet your appetite, but you wet your whistle. That's because "whet" means "to make keen or stimulate."

If you peddle your bike, you won't have it for long. When you put your feet on the pedals to move forward, you're pedaling it. And don't confuse either with those things on flowers, which are spelled "petals."

Medals of honor are usually made out of metal and bestowed on recipients with a certain kind of mettle, which means courage or fortitude.

And a rightly punished person gets his just deserts. It's a nearly archaic word rooted in "deserve" and should not be confused with arid deserts or delicious desserts.

With that, I've managed to fit into just two columns all the items on my original list. I even have a little space left over. I'm tempted to use the space to tell you some of the other stuff my husband's wrong about. But not even I could squeeze all that in.

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