Top 10 Confused Words in English [S]

By Maeve Maddox

My cumulative list of “words commonly confused” continues with ten that begin with the letter S. The confusion relates to spelling or meaning.

1. sight / site
Both words function as nouns and verbs.

As a noun, sight is a thing seen. Ex. The Pont du Garde is an astounding sight.

As a verb, sight means “catch sight of something or to take aim.” Ex. The lookout sighted land at dawn. Ex. The surveyor sighted the compass.

Site is from Latin situs: place, position. The principal meaning for web users is probably “a web address.” Ex. Daily Writing Tips is one of my favorite sites.

The context in which site is frequently confused with sight regards physical location.

Examples of correct usage:
• A small Iron Age settlement was found during excavations at the site of a new housing development near Swindon.
• Redness, soreness, swelling, or itching may develop at the site of the injection.

2. stationary / stationery
Stationary is an adjective meaning fixed or unmoving. Ex. All of his traffic violations involved stationary vehicles.

Stationery is a noun meaning writing and office materials, especially writing paper and envelopes. Ex. She’s old-fashioned enough to write letters by longhand on monogrammed stationery.

Tip: An easy way to remember which is which is to be aware of the er in stationery. It matches the -er at the end of paper.

3. storey / story
This distinction concerns British speakers, although some older Americans were taught to observe the difference between storey, “the level of a building,” and story, “a tale.” Younger generations of Americans are accustomed to using story for both meanings.

Examples:
• I live in a one bedroom second-storey walkup in Chelsea.
• Children derive comfort as well as vocabulary from a daily bedtime story.

The plural of storey is storeys. The plural of story is stories.

4. sometime / sometimes / some time
Sometime is an adverb that means an indefinite, unstated time in the future. Ex. I’ll clean the garage sometime.

Sometimes is an adverb that means “continually, off and on, occasionally.” Ex. Sometimes she reads in the evening instead of watching television.

Some time is a phrase that refers to a period of time. Ex. My web design took some time to complete, but was worth the wait.

5. shear / sheer
Both words function as different parts of speech with numerous meanings. The confusion is that of misspelling sheer as shear when the meaning of sheer is “thin, fine, diaphanous.”

INCORRECT: She bought some shear curtains for the living room.
CORRECT: She bought some sheer curtains for the living room.

Shear is a verb meaning “to cut” or “remove wool by cutting.” Ex. We watched the men shear the sheep.

6. set / sit
As a verb, set means, “to place.” Ex. Please set the hot dish on a pad.

The verb sit means, “to be or remain in that posture in which the weight of the body rests upon the posteriors; to be seated. Ex. Are you going to sit at that computer all day?

7. sale / sell
Sale is a noun meaning “the act of selling.” Ex. He regretted the sale of his old Encyclopedia Britannica.

Sell is a verb meaning “to transfer ownership of something for a price.” Ex. When are you going to sell your golf clubs?

Sell functions as a noun in the expression “hard sell.” Ex. Jones has mastered the art of the hard sell: he can bully a customer into buying anything.

The error with these words is to use sell in place of sale, as in this example from a site about garage sales:

INCORRECT: I had a garage sell and I only made 5 dollars! .
CORRECT: I had a garage sale and I only made 5 dollars! .

8. straight / strait
Both straight and strait function as more than one part of speech. The error with this pair is one of spelling.

In all its uses, strait conveys the ideas of “tight,” “tightly fitting,” and “narrow,” whereas straight connotes the idea of “not crooked.”

Here are some examples of both strait and straight:

• What the British call a “strait waistcoat,” the Americans refer to as a “strait jacket”: a garment for the upper part of the body, made of strong material and admitting of being tightly laced, used for the restraint of violent lunatics or prisoners.

• One meaning of strait as a noun is “a comparatively narrow water-way or passage connecting two large bodies of water, like the Strait of Gibraltar.

• A straight line is the shortest distance between two points.

• The old soldier stood straight and tall as he saluted the flag.

9. statue / statute
A statue is “a representation in the round of a person, animal, etc., which is sculptured, molded, or cast in marble, metal, plaster, or a similar material. Ex. One of the most famous statues in the world is the David of Michelangelo.

Generally speaking, a statute is a law. Ex. The perpetrator was identified just before the statute of limitations ran out.

The usual error with this pair is to write statue for statute, as in this comment on a legal site:

INCORRECT: My husband was sentenced to prison on a 20 year old burglary charge in California? Can they do this? Is there no statue of limitations on this type of crime?
CORRECT: My husband was sentenced to prison on a 20 year old burglary charge in California? Can they do this? Is there no statute of limitations on this type of crime?

10. sensuous / sensual
Both adjectives relate to the senses and are often used interchangeably.

Sensuous, however, contrasts with the adjectives spiritual and intellectual. Although often equated with sexuality, sensuous can describe anything that appeals to the bodily senses, producing an agreeable effect conducive to physical comfort or contentment. For example, the touch of a cat’s fur, the aroma of bread baking, the warmth from a cozy fire, etc. are sensuous in nature.

Sensual, on the other hand, implies a certain indulgence of appetite, a gratification or titillation of the senses that goes beyond what might be considered acceptable, at least in public. Ex. Madonna and Led Zeppelin Make a Startling, Sensual Pairing in “Justify a Whole Lotta Love.”

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4 Responses to “Top 10 Confused Words in English [S]”

  • David Knuttunen

    “Sometime” does not need to refer to the future. It can refer to the past, as in “the sometime editor of the college paper,” or simply mean occasional, as when Richard in the movie Lion in Winter says, “I am a constant soldier, a sometime poet, and I will be king.”

  • thebluebird11

    I would also add to the first one, CITE (to quote a source of information to serve as an example or to justify a point of view; also to summon to court).

  • P.N. van den Bosch

    “Sometime” also means “former”, in Shakespeare (“The sometime Duke of Milan”) and his contemporaries, although many people now mistake it for “occasional”, as James Goldman, author of “The Lion in Winter” appears to have done (unless, of course, the line is to be interpreted as “a former poet”, which doesn’t balance “constant” quite so well).

  • Maeve

    P.N. van den Bosch,
    “Sometime,” as in “sometime Duke of Milan,” is an adjective. That’s another post altogether.

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