The Critical Importance of Look Alike Words

A word from Conan the Grammarian:

Concerning the Critical Importance of look-alike words, or similar or commonly mistaken words. Learn the diffs! As Conan has often admonished writers, this is not advanced rocketry or even higher mathematics.

In no particular order, these words often appeared incorrectly in this year’s contest manuscripts.

Stanch & staunch

The first means to stop up or prevent from bleeding; the second means stout-hearted, loyal.

Of course a character would never stand stanch at the hero’s side, so please don’t go staunching any wounds!

Discreet & discrete

The first means circumspect or tactful; the second means separate, distinct: individual.

Conan finds that scientists and engineers often write about characters who act discrete, because apparently they don’t know there is another word (the same way lawyers often have characters waive instead of wave).

Rack & wrack

The first means to torture (as in the eponymous medieval device); the second is debris from a storm.

Characters who wrack their brains not only commit cliché, but they perform a very odd non-action, too. On the other hand, characters may go to wrack and ruin, but never to rack and ruin (though that’s a cliché, too).

Lead & led

The first is a soft, toxic metal or the present tense of the verb to lead; the second is the past tense of that verb. Memorize this!

Pour & pore

The first is a verb meaning to decant liquids (or rain); the second is a noun meaning a teeny tiny hole or a verb meaning to scrutinize.

One ought never pour over a document, unless one spills something by accident.

Grill & grille

The first is a type of cooking device or the act of cooking on that device; the second is a grating or lattice.

One could, Conan supposes, grill burgers on a makeshift grille, but Joe’s Bar and Grille is trying to be fancy and ends up looking ignorant and pretentious.

Rain & reign & rein

Rain falls from the sky; emperors, queens, and terrors reign; riding horses and some metaphors require reins.

It rained for ten days after King Mutt’s reign ended, causing his people to rein in the celebrations.

Council & counsel

The first is a noun meaning committee or board; the second is verb meaning to give advice. A counselor is a lawyer or other professional advice-giver.

May & might

For the verb indicating possibility, may is present tense; might is past tense – past tense as in the tense most storytellers use most of the time.

Alright & all right.

The first is not a word (yet) in accepted English; the second is how it should be spelled.

Conan admits that languages change over time, but alright remains nonstandard, and Conan will fight it to the death. All right has nothing to do with already, so the attempt to “normalize” one into t’other is as foolish as the egregiously erroneous rules that one must never split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions.

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3 thoughts on “The Critical Importance of Look Alike Words

  1. The ones I see in the newspapers blow my mind — one would think journalists would have a grip on grammar and word meanings. For instance, a driver breaks his car to avoid a crash. Well, maybe…

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