Crazy, Mixed-Up Confusion

Sept. 19, 2019

Last week we had a huge rain storm. You know the type — one of those made-for-the movies-thunder-crashing-lightning-bolting-water-thrashing deluges. The kind that makes you glad – very glad – that you’re not camping in the great outdoors.

It rained so much, and so hard, that in the morning, a good 10 hours after the last mighty drop had pelted our little house, there was still moisture clinging to our windows. Marvelling at this, I exclaimed to my partner Richard, “Just look at the condescension on that glass!”

“Condescension?” he asked, all knowing and professorial (and, frankly, a wee bit condescendingly).

Of course, it then hit me that I had meant to say condensation (for my purposes, a noun meaning water which collects as droplets on a cold surface when humid air is in contact with it) and not condescension (also a noun but with a very different meaning: an attitude of patronizing, superiority, disdain).

Little slips like that happen, and in the privacy of our own homes, eating granola with our loved ones, they’re forgivable. But you don’t want to be doing this in public.

You certainly don’t want to be like the CBC reporter who claimed that the Bahamian island of Abaco had been ravished by Hurricane Dorian. (He meant ravaged.) Or the Globe and Mail staffer who recently wrote that students are drowsing off at their desks due to a lack of sleep. While drowsing off does have a rather poetic ring to it, the phrase doesn’t belong in a news story on the front page of our national newspaper. (The writer meant to say doze off which of course can happen when you are drowsy. And by the way, where have all the copy editors gone?)

Here are a few more mixed-up words I’ve seen lately:

1. Appraise/Apprise
Both are verbs. However, appraise means to assess the value or quality of something, and apprise means to inform or tell someone of something. Think “a” for “assess” (appraise) versus “i” for “inform” (apprise). Isn’t it amazing what one teeny letter can do for you?

2. Cite/Sight/Site
Cite has a few definitions, but two of the most common are to quote (a person or passage of text) or to mention something as an example. Sight also has a few definitions but let’s go with these two: the faculty or power of seeing and the action or fact of seeing.

Neither of these should be confused with site which is a noun meaning an area of ground. Site is also short for building site and website. And, just to make matters more complicated, all lawyers know that a site (i.e. website) is where you might share your insight about the law and even cite a few important cases.

3. Cue/Queue
Cue has six definitions as a noun and a further three as a verb. My, my, isn’t the English language fun? But just know this: if you want to refer to a line or sequence of people or vehicles awaiting their turn to be attended to (particularly if you happen to be in the UK), then you’ll want to steer clear of cue and instead use queue. It’s the longer of the two – the way lines usually are.

4. Lead/Led
As a verb, lead has five main definitions and several sub-definitions; as a noun, it has seven and several sub-definitions again. Fear not. The confusion arises only with led which is simply the past of lead. Today I will lead you by the hand; yesterday I led you by the nose.

5. Militate/Mitigate
These are verbs, and while both are about altering the state of things, militate means to prevent or counteraffect, and mitigate, to alleviate (such as pain or suffering). So, spraying on DEET will militate against mosquito bites, but should you be so unlucky as to be bitten, then calamine lotion will mitigate your suffering. Do not – I repeat – do not say mitigate against.
6. Prescribe/Proscribe
Again, both are verbs. In the (mostly) medical sense, prescribe means authorize a drug or treatment or recommend something as beneficial. It can also mean to state authoritatively that something should be done as in, experienced chefs prescribe that you add salt to your pasta water. Proscribe, on the other hand, is more of a legal term meaning to forbid, denounce, condemn, or outlaw.

You can distinguish them by remembering that proscribe has an “o” and “o” is for “outlaw”, whereas prescribe has an “e” and “e” is for “enjoin” (i.e. instruct or urge someone to do something). If this is starting to feel like unwrapping an onion, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just trying to help.  

Remember this:
We all mix up our words from time to time. To militate against these gaffes, keep a list of commonly confused words nearby when you are writing – and don’t forget to check it!