The English Language
Least Favorite Common Confusions
(pardon my pedantry)


+ The serial comma

The "serial comma" is the comma that separates items in a series of three or more items; especially the comma that separates the last two items, the ones that are usually also separated by a conjunction. Common examples are: "Coffee, tea, or milk?" and "The vowels are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y." At some point it became fashionable in newspapers to omit the final serial comma under the logic that it would save millions in ink expense and that the final comma was redundant anyway since the conjunction did the same job. While it's possible that some newspaper tycoon saved a few dollars on the ink not used by final serial commas, the belief that the conjunction does the same job is clearly in error. As in many other languages, the devil is in the details in English, and changing the punctuation changes the meaning. Examples abound, but my favorite short quote in which the lack of a serial comma produces a comical unintended result is this one:
"This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."
-- anonymous mortal (but only semi-literate) author

+ Apostrophes

Apostrophes are used to form contractions,
e.g. it's is a contraction of it is as in: It's a lovely day.

Apostrophes are also used to form possessives,
e.g. Joe's is the possessive of Joe as in: Joe's day will come.

But many possessives end in s and don't require an additional apostrophe,
e.g. his as in: His day will come. or its as in: Its day will come.

And plurals do not require an apostrophe I'll give you two tens for a twenty.
Not even if they're numbers: She got 100s on all her tests.
Or abbreviations: Each line ends with an LF; two LFs make a blank line.
Or numbers abbreviated with an apostrophe: He loves the swing music of the '30s.

"It's is not, it isn't ain't, and it's it's, not its, if you mean it is.
If you don't, it's its. Then too, it's hers. It isn't her's.
It isn't our's either. It's ours, and likewise yours and theirs."
-- Oxford University Press, Edpress News


+ Champing at the bit

If someone is eager or anxious to do something, they are said to be champing at the bit, (not chomping at the bit. nor chomping on the bit). champing at the bit is literally something horses do.
CHAMPING: Repetitious, strong opening and closing action of the mouth which
produces sounds when the teeth hit together. Champing in swine may be a
threat signal, but also is performed by boars during courtship and
mating. Definition from Hurnik et al., 1995.
- The Encyclopedia of Farm Animal Behavior

   v. tr. - To bite or chew upon noisily.
   v. intr. - To work the jaws and teeth vigorously.
   Idiom: -  champ at the bit
     To show impatience at being held back or delayed.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
Note that some dictionaries define chomp as being derived from champ. One especially lazy on-line dictionary simply links chomp to the definition for champ, thereby implying that they're identical. The Merriam-Webster entry for champ at <> points out that while the verb chomp is a transitive verb, the verb champ can be either transitive or intransitive. In particular, the verb in the expression champing at the bit is intransitive, so it would be ungrammatical to say chomping at the bit (since chomp, being a transitive verb, needs an object); you could say chomping the bit instead, but that really lacks the impact of champing at the bit.

+ Heart-rending

If something causes anguish or deep distress it is said to be heart-rending, (not heart-wrenching or heart-rendering).

Many people seem to confuse the term gut-wrenching (extremely distressing or unpleasant - twisting the stomach) with the term heart-rending (arousing deep sympathy - tearing the heart) to get heart-wrenching, and even possibly gut-rending. Heart-rendering, on the other hand, would logically be the process of melting the fat off the heart by heating -- not the same at all!

+ High dudgeon

If someone is extremely angry, they are said to be in high dudgeon, (not in high dungeon).
   NOUN: A sullen, angry, or indignant humor: "Slamming the door in Meg's
    face, Aunt March drove off in high dudgeon" (Louisa May Alcott).
   ETYMOLOGY: Origin unknown.

+ Redress the balance

To restore a state of equity one is said to redress the balance, (not redress the imbalance).

This phrase derives from the phrase "dress the balance" which means to adjust the weights on the empty balance scale to show a weight of zero (i.e. tare weight). Thus the "balance" referred to in "redress the balance" is an object (the balance scale), not a state (being balanced).

+ Par for the course

When a situation is normal or no better than expected it is said to be par for the course, (not part for/of the course).

This expression has its origins in the game of golf. The number of strokes it should take an expert golfer to complete a particular hole or the entire golf course is called its "par." Thus "making par" is considered a good thing, but "par for the course" is used in a less positive, more sardonic sense. For example: "The big corporations used the bail-out funds to finance executive bonuses -- that's just par for the course." Or: "When I got to the bookstore they had just sold the last copy -- par for the course, I guess."

Other terms using the word "par" derive their meaning from the latin word "par" meaning equal or that which is equal (from which golfing surely got the term). Thus, while an above par score in golf is worse than a par score, being above par in every other instance is better and it's desirable to be at least up to par, or on a par with others.

+ Sat foot in / set foot on

When someone says "I long to set foot on my native land" they are using a poetic phrase that uses the image of a foot being set on the ground of the native land to mean they long to visit. Saying "I long to step foot on my native land" takes away any poetic image, is redundant (what else would you step with?), and bad grammar to boot (ouch! sorry). It's that transitive/intransitive distinction again. "Set" is a transitive verb and requires an object ("foot" for example) while "step" is primarily an intransitive verb.

+ Take a different (or another) tack

To try a different approach one is said to take a different tack, (not take a different tact).

This metaphor relates to sailing, where tacking involves moving indirectly in the direction you wish to go (e.g. into the wind) by taking a sequence of tacks, each one moving obliquely towards the goal. So it means to try a different approach but it also implies overcoming resistance in the process. This colloquialism has nothing to do with manners or tact.

tack(1) n.
   3. Nautical.
    a. The position of a vessel relative to the trim of its sails.
    b. The act of changing from one position or direction to another.
    c. The distance or leg sailed between changes of position or direction.
   4.  a. A course of action meant to minimize opposition to the attainment of a goal.
    b. An approach, especially one of a series of changing approaches.
- The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

+ Whet your appetite

If something makes you more hungry it is said to whet your appetite, (not wet your appetite).
whet   tr.v.
   1. To sharpen (a knife, for example); hone.
   2. To make more keen; stimulate:
     The frying bacon whetted my appetite.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

+ Without further ado

When someone says: without further ado it means they are not delaying, but are moving on to the anticipated event. Some people may try to make this expression sound more exotic by saying: without further adieu. Don't be tempted!
ado   n.
   Fuss, trouble, bother.
adieus or adieux   n. pl.
   A farewell.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition Copyright 2022 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Confused Word Pairs

+ Less vs. Fewer

"Less" and "fewer" are both used in many roles (determiner, pronoun, adjective, etc.) but when used as determiners ("less money" or "fewer dogs") "less" is used with mass nouns that appear as singular and "fewer" is used with plurals.
less   determiner
   In standard English, less should be used only with uncountable things (less money; less time).
   With countable things, it is incorrect to use less: thus, less people and less words should
   be corrected to fewer people and fewer words.
- New Oxford American Dictionary
Copyright © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

+ Amount vs. Number

"Amount" is used to refer to a quantity of something, where the something is a mass noun or an uncountable thing, as in: "the amount of money" or "an amount of email."
"Amount" acts as a singular noun when paired with a verb: "The amount of money is irrelevant." or "An amount of time is needed."

"Number" is used to refer to a quantity of things, as in "the number of coins" or "a number of messages" and acts as a singular noun when preceded by the definite article "the" as in "The number of coins is unknown." but acts as a plural noun when preceded by the indefinite article "a" as in "A number of minutes are needed."

Notice that it sounds awkward to refer to a plural with "amount" as in "an amount of messages" or to refer to a singular noun with "number" as in "the number of email." Nonetheless, some references claim that it's not wrong to use "amount" with plural nouns, although all their examples avoid using "amount" with plural probably because it sounds wrong.

+ Lie vs. Lay

Confusion of these two verbs is ever-increasing. In some contexts (e.g. country music) it appears to be a required anti-elitism signal to say "I'm gonna lay down" when the intended meaning is clearly "I'm gona lie down"
Once again, the observation that "lie" is an intransitive verb (does not take an object) while "lay" is a transitive verb and does require an object, should make it clear which verb is appropriate, Further, while the two verbs have some overlap in their forms (e.g. "lay" is the past tense of "lie) the fact that the words mean quite different things ought to be a clue. . .

Here's what the Oxford American Dictionary says about the confusion:
lie   verb
   The verb lie ('assume a horizontal or resting position') is often confused with
   the verb lay ('put something down'), giving rise to incorrect uses such as he is
   laying on the bed (correct use is he is lying on the bed) or why don't you lie the
   suitcase on the bed? (correct use is why don't you lay the suitcase on the bed?).
   The confusion is only heightened by the fact that lay is not only the base form
   of to lay, but is also the past tense of to lie, so while he is laying on the bed
   is incorrect, he lay on the bed yesterday is quite correct.
- New Oxford American Dictionary
Copyright © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

+ Predominant vs. Predominate

   1. Having greatest ascendancy, importance, influence, authority, or force.
      See Synonyms at dominant.
   2. Most common or conspicuous; main or prevalent: the predominant color
      in a design.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
Some people may confuse the adjective predominant with the verb predominate (because they sound a little alike) and come up with syntactic nonsense like: "the predominate mood among policy-makers is optimism." And because of such confusions some weak-willed reference works have started allowing the verb predominate to be used as an adjective (presumably changing the pronounciation of the last syllable to be the more adjectival-sounding "-nit" as opposed to the verb ending "-nate". Don't be fooled!

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