To Air is Humane: And Other Common – and Uncommon- Usage Errors



aardvarkNot a semester goes by that a student defiantly misuses the word already.

Wait – are you sure I didn’t mean, “Not a semester goes by that a student definitely misuses the word all ready”?

Which one is correct? How do you know for sure?

Definitely and defiantly are two of the most misused words in student papers. To clarify, definitely means “for sure,” or “having distinct limits,” while defiantly means “bold, resistant or challenging.”  Why would anyone confuse these two words with such different meanings? Because if a writer misspells definitely, which is not hard to do, most likely a computer’s spell check will think the writer wants to spell defiantly, and change it for you. The two words look so similar that you most likely won’t catch it in a quick read through – assuming you don’t rely on spell check, and read through your final paper before you turn it in.

You don’t rely solely on spell-check, right?

I suppose a person could misuse a word defiantly – or with a bad attitude – but most likely he or she wasn’t doing it out of spite, but just made an honest mistake.

Below you’ll find a few other common usage errors. Which ones have you made?

Already or All ready

Although these two words sound the same, they each have distinctly different meanings.

All ready, two words, means you are prepared, ready to go.

Ex: Dinner was all ready when the guests arrived.

Ex. John is ready. Jane is ready. The kids are ready. Are you all ready?

Hint: If you can substitute “ready” in place of all ready, then it is used correctly.
Ex. Dinner was ready when the guest arrived.

Already, one word with one “L,” is an adverb related to time, meaning “prior to a specified time.”

Ex: The turkey was already burned when the guests arrived.

Ex. The kids were already in bed when I got home.

Desperate or Disparate 

These two words don’t really sound alike, but are commonly confused.

Desperate (the stress on the first syllable) means to have lost hope, or to be anxious or frantic.

Ex. I am desperate to get home for the holidays.

Ex. I’m failing algebra; I’m desperate for help!

Disparate (stress on the second syllable)  means dissimilar, or unequal.

Ex. Those two have very disparate political views.

Ex. However disparate our opinions are, we can still be friends.

Advise or Advice 

One is a noun, and one is a verb. Do you know which is which?

Advice is a noun, meaning a recommendation or suggestion.

Ex. Advice is better to give then to receive.

Ex. My dad always gave me the best advice.

Advise is a verb meaning to give advice, or a recommendation or suggestion (note the “s” is pronounced  as a “z”). Advise can also mean a notification.

Ex. I would advise you not to eat the fire-eating dragon salsa.

Ex. Can you advise me on which stock to invest in?

Foreword or Forward

Forward is an adjective with several different meanings.

One meaning is “in the front”:

Ex. She is sitting forward in the plane.

Another meaning of forward is to be brash:

Ex. Jason! It’s rude to be so forward!

Forward can also mean a movement toward a position:

Ex. The Raiders are moving the ball forward down the field.

Foreword, on the other hand, is a noun, meaning the part of a book where prefatory comments are made. It’s also called the introduction or preface of a book.

Ex. The editor makes some good points in the foreword about the author’s life, so be sure to read it.

Ex. I quoted the foreword of the book on my Works Cited, so I hope I cited it correctly.

Mute or Moot 

I actually heard “mute” misused for “moot” in conversation recently.  The speaker said, “It was a mute point.” However, this usage is incorrect. He should have said, “It was a moot point.”

Mute means unable to speak, or remaining silent.

Ex. She was mute when the teacher asked her a question.

Moot actually has several different meanings, and can be used as a noun, a verb, and an adjective, which is how it is used in the example above (moot point).

Moot used as a noun refers to a deliberative assembly primarily for the administration of justice.

Ex. The verb, moot, derives from the noun, moot, a hypothetical case argued as an exercise by law students.

The verb meaning of moot means to bring up for discussion or to debate.

Ex. The issue of whether a person’s nature or upbringing is more important continues to be mooted by experts and nonprofessionals alike.

Moot used as an adjective means disputed or debatable.

Ex. The court ruled that the issue is now moot because the people involved in the dispute have died.

Ex. I think they were wrong, but the point is moot. Their decision has been made and it can’t be changed now.

Note: the usage and common meaning of “moot” has changed over the centuries, transforming into its most common usage today as an adjective.

Air, Err, or Heir 

These three radically different words all sound alike (called homophones), which is the cause of confusion.

The most common use of the word air refers to the atmosphere, or what we breathe. If you’re a football fan, you may have also heard the word used as a verb.

Ex. The air is a bit muggy today.

Ex. Trailing by 20 points, the team took to the air (noun).

Ex. The quarterback aired it out down the field (verb).

But air can also refer to an outward appearance:

Ex. The home has an air of luxury.

Ex. He has an air of mystery.

Err is a verb, which means to make a mistake:

Ex. I have erred in my calculations.

Ex. To err is human, to forgive divine.

Our third homophone, heir, is a noun, meaning one who inherits property:

Ex. He is the heir of the Wal-Mart fortune.

Ex. The king left no heirs when he died.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, it’s quite easy to confuse these and other similar types of words. The only way to catch the error is to know the definition. Relying on spell check won’t help, as it often corrects misspellings incorrectly, and if you’ve spelled the wrong word right, the computer isn’t smart enough to tell you to fix it. If you’re not sure, check your dictionary or thesaurus, every writer’s best friends.


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