The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: Frequently Misspelled Words

This subject could be novel-length—or at least long enough for several blog posts—but I’m going to cover just a select few words that I often see misspelled or misused. I encounter these a lot, whether it be the quick Facebook comment where spelling doesn’t matter as much, or the story or blog post by a professional where correct usage does matter.

Alright: This is not actually a word at all. The correct spelling is all right—two words. It is used in place of okay, such as “All right, Joe, we’ll do it your way,” or “What happened to you? Are you all right?”

It’s not related to the word already, which seems to be the popular belief, judging by the common usage of alright. Already and all ready have two different meanings: “Is it time to go already? Wow, time went fast,” versus “Are you all ready to go?”

But all right stands alone, as a two-word phrase.

Then/Than: Both of these are perfectly legitimate words, but I see them mixed up all the time.

Then is most commonly an adverb, and describes time or an order of events. It’s also used in a cause and effect scenario. “I took a shower, and then went to bed,” or “If you drop that bowl, then it will shatter.”

Than is primarily a conjunction, and is used as a comparison word. “I like turkey more than chicken” or “She is older than her brother.”

The most common misuse I see of “than” is it being used in the cause and effect-type of sentence, like “If Stan wants to talk to me, than he will call me.”

And similarly, I see “then” being misused as a comparison word, such as “I like apples more then oranges.”

If you’re not sure how to keep the words straight, then take a moment to analyze the sentence. If the sentence involves time in any way, it’s probably going to use “then.” If it’s a comparison of any sort, “than” is usually a safe bet.

Ya’ll: This is not a word either. The correct spelling is y’all.

First, a quick definition for anyone who doesn’t live in the American south—y’all means “you guys,” as in more than one person. It’s a contraction of “you all.”

The apostrophe indicates that there is a letter taken out—same as in words like don’t (do not) or it’s (it is). In this case, it’s the –ou taken out of you. Spelled ya’ll, it makes no sense.

And also remember, it’s a plural word. Y’all should not be used if one person is talking to one other person, unless the speaker is talking about a group of more than one. If you’re writing a story with a character from the American south, make sure that you don’t use this word if the character is having a one-on-one conversation with someone.

Correct: “Hey, Sammy, are you coming over tonight?” (Sammy alone has been invited)

or,

“Hey, Sammy, are y’all coming over tonight?” (correct only if it has been revealed earlier that Sammy, his wife, and his son have all been invited. In this case, the context indicates that Sammy is representing his whole family)

Incorrect: (romantic moment between guy and gal)—“So, Clara, do y’all love me?” (romantic moment turns disturbing here. Does Clara have someone else living inside her?)

I hope this helps to clear up some confusion about some of those troublesome words!

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Borrowed Words

Every language is influenced by other languages. And every language winds up adopting foreign words over time, sometimes adapting them to unique uses in the new language, and sometimes keeping the form and definition the same.

For this blog entry, I thought I’d highlight a few common words that are used in modern English that actually have their origin in another language far removed. Such words are usually called “borrowed words,” which personally I find to be a strange term. The language and its speakers don’t temporarily borrow a foreign word with the intention of giving it back someday. “Adopted words” would be more accurate, in my opinion; but for now I’ll go with the more well-known linguistic term.

Buffet—a self-serve spread of food, often found in restaurants such as an all-you-can-eat cheap Chinese buffet. This word is French, and it originally referred to the sideboard (or side table) where food was laid out to be served to seated diners at the dining table.

Kayak—a narrow one- or two-person boat steered with a two-ended paddle. It’s an Inuktitut word (often spelled “qajaq” in that language). The Inuit and Eskimos of the Arctic used this boat for centuries for hunting and travel before we adopted it for recreational use.

Piano—a musical instrument constructed of keys which use hammers to strike strings to produce the sound. It’s part of a longer word pianoforte, which is Italian for “soft-loud.” It meant that this musical instrument, unlike many others of centuries ago, could be played both softly and loudly.

Sauna—a hot room, either steamy or dry, used for relaxation, rejuvenation, and all manners of sweating. We get the sweat-room concept, and the word, from Finnish. The Finns love their saunas.

Bazaar—a large shopping venue, with many stores or booths selling a variety of merchandise. Bazaar is a Persian word, and us English speakers liked it so much we now use the word for everything from art shows to farmers’ markets to catalogs.

Geyser—a hot spring that erupts from beneath the ground with explosive force, often at regular intervals. Iceland is a land where many geysers can be found, and that’s where the word comes from. “Geysir” in Icelandic is both the general term for this natural phenomenon, and the name of one of the island’s largest geysers.

So there you have it—who knew that English uses so many words that aren’t English? And I could list many others. Anybody else have other suggestions to add to the “borrowed words” list? How about some words “borrowed” into other languages besides English?