Top Ten Confused Words [T]

By Maeve Maddox

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

1. taught / taut
The word taught is the past tense of the verb to teach. It is also used as an adjective to mean instructed: “Howard Phillips Lovecraft, weird fiction writer and primogenitor of modern horror fiction, was a self-taught writer.”

The adjective taut means “pulled tight.”

A common error is to spell taut as taught, as in this fishing advice in a magazine called Backpacker:

INCORRECT: Use more weight to keep the line taught.
CORRECT: Use more weight to keep the line taut.

2. titivate / titillate
The verb titivate means “to spruce up, to make more attractive.” Ex. We decided to titivate the kitchen with new cabinets and countertops.

The verb titillate means “to excite the senses or imagination in an agreeable way.” Ex. Camilla Ochlan has crafted a supernatural mystery-thriller that will titillate the palate of even the most discriminating Sci-Fi Fantasy reader.

The error is to mix them up, as in this example from a restaurant site:

INCORRECT: We are sure to have something to titivate your tastebuds.
CORRECT: We are sure to have something to titillate your taste buds.

3. tortuous / torturous
The adjective tortuous means “full of twists; complex.” The tortuous road we had to climb had one steep and narrow curve after another all the way to the top.

The adjective torturous means “full of pain or suffering. Ex. More significantly, the book prominently features a scene in which the heroes resort to torturous means in order to extract vital, life-or-death information.

The error is to mix them up, although some might argue that a thing can be full of twists and pain at the same time.

4. tenant / tenet
A tenant is someone who rents property. Ex. The tenant always paid her rent on time.
A tenet is a principle or belief. Ex. The tenet to love one’s neighbor is stated in Leviticus 19:18.

The error with these words goes both ways:

INCORRECT: This course is designed to give the students an overview of the basic tenants of Christian Doctrine.
CORRECT : This course is designed to give the students an overview of the basic tenets of Christian Doctrine.

INCORRECT: Most importantly, stay informed about your rights as a tenet.
CORRECT: Most importantly, stay informed about your rights as a tenant.

5. than / then
The word than is a conjunction used after a comparative adjective or adverb to introduce the second member of the comparison. Ex. She thinks her border collie is smarter than my boxer.

The word then is an adverb that refers to a specified time, past or future, as opposed to the present. Ex. We didn’t have enough money for luxuries like books then.

6. through / threw
Through is a preposition used to convey the idea of entering the inside of something and coming out the other side: They always go through the churchyard on their way home.

Threw is the past tense of the verb to throw: He threw the ball over the fence.

The usual error is to spell through as threw, as in this example from a geocaching site:

INCORRECT: You will need to go threw the tunnel to access this cache.
CORRECT: You will need to go through the tunnel to access this cache.

7. throws / throes
Throws is the third person present singular of the verb to throw: He throws with his left arm. Throws can also be the plural of the noun throw that refers to a light blanket: She keeps throws on all the couches and chairs.

Throes is a noun that means “severe pains.” Figuratively, it can mean “difficult times.” Ex. The pirate lay in the last throes of death. The Smiths are in the throes of divorce.

8. track / tract
As a noun, track is a mark or series of marks left by the passage of something. The Mountie caught the fugitive by following the track left in the snow.

One meaning of the noun tract is “a book or written work treating of some particular topic.” Ex. The evangelists passed out tracts on the subject of salvation.

9. till / ’til
Till has different functions, one of which is that of conjunction with the same meaning as until: ‘to the time that; up to the point when”: I will sit here till he agrees to speak to me.

The form ’til is an unnecessary shortening of until.

The error is in thinking that till is a shortening of until.

10. torpid / turgid
The adjective torpid means benumbed or “devoid of the power or motion of feeling.” Ex. Even when he was awake he was completely torpid.

The adjective turgid means swollen, distended, puffed out. The word is applied figuratively to language with the meanings inflated, pompous, bombastic.

Examples of literal and figurative use:
My arm was turgid where the snake had bitten it.
Eventually, the movie surrenders to the most turgid Hollywood speechifying and sentimentality, far more so than the original permitted itself to do.

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3 Responses to “Top Ten Confused Words [T]”

  • Tim Slager

    I’ve heard taut confused with taunt more often than taught. And I tend to confuse turgid with turbid.

  • venqax

    I know the “then/than” confusion is real and common but I’ve never been able to understand it. Spoken I know the vowels are easily mushed, but I have no idea how in writing such a mistake gets made so often with 2 very basic words that, assumedly, nearly all people know the meanings of and the difference between. It’s like confusing when and where. How can you do that? Maybe more a question for psychology than linguistics.

  • Melissa Semento

    I find that I do not have a problem with most of the words in this article, with the exception of than/then. Most likely, it is a problem due to the speed in which communications must be replied to in the work setting. Both words are used often. In typing they can be come easily confused for each other.

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