5 Words Often Mistakenly Used in Place of Others

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When writers, amateurs and professionals alike, employ words or phrases they have heard spoken but not seen written, they often mistakenly use a homophone or near homophone of the intended word. Each of the sentences below includes a word that is often used erroneously. A discussion and revision accompanies each example.

1. Given punk rock’s innate tendency to flaunt convention, the style fits the subject matter in its own roughshod sort of way.

Flaunt, a verb meaning “show off,” is frequently confused for flout, a verb meaning “show disregard for”: “Given punk rock’s innate tendency to flout convention, the style fits the subject matter in its own roughshod sort of way.”

2. Others honed in on what they consider the company’s poor customer service and monopolistic tendencies.

Hone means “sharpen” or “make more effective,” but what is meant here is home, as a verb meaning “proceed” or “direct attention toward”: “Others homed in on what they consider the company’s poor customer service and monopolistic tendencies.”

3. She had been the principle trial attorney for the public defender’s office.

Both principle and principal derive from the Latin term princeps, meaning “prince” (the Latin word is also the origin of prince), but principle serves only as a noun, while principal, which can be a noun that refers to a key or leading person or to an amount of money, is also an adjective meaning “most important,” as in this sentence: “She had been the principal trial attorney for the public defender’s office.”

4. They were fulfilling a central tenant of the democracy envisioned by our founders.

Though tenant and tenet both stem from the same Latin word, tenere, meaning “hold,” the former refers to someone who rents or leases property, while the latter, meaning “principle,” is the correct choice for this sentence: “They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders.”

5. Her deep-seeded resentment erupted one day in a spontaneous burst of indignation.

“Deep seeded” seems to make sense in a reference to an emotion that is submerged in someone’s psyche, but there is no such idiom; the correct phrase is “deep seated”: “Her deep-seated resentment erupted one day in a spontaneous burst of indignation.”

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16 thoughts on “5 Words Often Mistakenly Used in Place of Others”

  1. I think I’ll defend “hone in on.”
    When you hone something, you bring it to a focused point, as with your attention on a matter. It’s the way I’ve always heard it, and the dictionaries I just Googled seem to agree. In my ten seconds of research, I didn’t see any suggestion that it was non-standard or a corruption. Why do you think it’s wrong?

  2. Here are dictionary* definitions of “enormity”:

    1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness.
    2. A monstrous offense or evil; an outrage.
    3. Usage Problem . Great size; immensity

    Notice #3 is thankfully and properly noted as a Usage Problem. Enormity DOES NOT mean great in size or darn big. That would be “enormousness.” This is one of the most common errors re today’s subject I see in “sneer word” professional writing. On BrainyQuotes (!) the word is only used properly in 4 of the 15 quotes cited on the first page. Simply inexcusable.

    *Online dictionary, NOT MW. God only knows that they list, I am afraid to look.

  3. For all intensive purposes, this is a great list. (Ha ha.)
    ApK, here’s more about “hone” v “home,” from MW’s Dictionary of English Usage:
    It hadn’t been seen until George H.W. Bush used it in his 1980 presidential campaign, when he talked about “honing in on the issues,” and word mavens of the era noted that it was the wrong word.
    “Home in on is fairly new phrase itself, one whose origins can be traced to the verb home as it relates to homing pigeons. The OED shows that home was first used in the sense ‘to fly back home after being released at a distant point’ in the late 19th century. The extended use of this verb from which home in on is directly derived was first recorded in 1920 in a magazine called Wireless World: ‘The pilot can detect instantly from the signals, especially if “homing” towards a beacon.’
    It was mostly used by the military and not found in a general context until 1956.
    Many incorrect word uses gain acceptance over the years and even people writing online dictionaries don’t know the proper forms of them. Some “could care less” when this happens. Others feel differently.

  4. Bill, I find that account very hard to believe. As I said, I’ve heard it all my life, and the Ngram viewer shows a rising curve (but indeed a magnitude or two smaller than “home in” during the same time) of the phrase over my lifetime. I guess it’s possible that George and I are personally responsible for all of it. But it’s also possible that it was never the “wrong word,” but a different, less prevalent expression, that appeared around the same time.

  5. In number 4, tenant vs. tenet, you say tenet is the right choice but then you repeat the sentence using tenant.

  6. ApK, did you know that any dictionary can call itself a Webster? It’s true, and even good bookstores carry them. I made the mistake years ago of buying a “Webster” dictionary and it had mistakes in it, like “Down’s syndrome” and “Daylight Savings Time” instead of Down syndrome and daylight saving time. I’ve been careful since and the source I cited is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, published by the same company that’s been doing it since 1831. They don’t make things up and cite William Safire as a source. Hearing a word or phrase all your life, even by people you admire and respect, doesn’t make it right. Nor should we lose respect for those who make such errors. I know people smarter than I am who use words like irregardless. Maybe one day hone will be as right as home. The Associated Press now accepts hopefully in the to be hoped sense, website as one word and internet is no longer capitalized. I’d bet a dollar that if you submitted something for publication you’d now use home. Its origin as described simply makes more sense.

  7. The source of the verb “to home in on” definitely comes from the use of trained carrier pigeons that could always find their home roosts.
    From there, it spread to such things as birds-of-prey that home in on rodents for something to kill and eat for nourishment. The phrase “to home in on” has come to mean “to seek and to find”.
    Then in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Army Missile Command designed and developed the HAWK surface-to-air missile, of which tens of thousands were manufactured and deployed. If you are following the line-of-thought, you might understand that HAWK is an acronym for “Homing All-the-Way Killer” because of the way that its radar systems guided it relentless to it target. The HAWK was also widely deployed by the U.S. Marine Corps and many allies of the United States: NATO allies (e.g. West Germany, Italy, Turkey), South Korea, Japan, Taiwan (the R.O.C.), Australia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel. As far as I know, the HAWK missile never was used in combat, and this was largely because no enemy air force was foolish enough to attack an airfield, city, naval base, etc., that was defended by batteries of HAWK missiles. The HAWK missile went through many levels of improvement during its decades of service, particular because of the many developments in electronics and radar that happened over that long period of time.
    Another kind of “homing-all-the-way-killer” missile is represented by the “Sidewinder” missile. Rather than radar systems, the Sidewinder uses one or more infrared detectors to seek out enemy warplanes, especially ones with hot turbojet or turbofan engines. Because of its unusual kind of flight control system, the early Sidewinders got their name because of the way that their flights looked like sidewinder rattlesnakes slithering across the sand of the deserts of California. The Sidewinder has become the standard short-range air-to-air missile of all of the allies of the United States, as well as countries that aren’t allied with anyone at all, e.g. Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Finland. Unfortunately, lots of Sidewinders have been fired in combat in the skies over the Republic of China (the Formosa Straits), North Vietnam, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (with Iranian planes as their targets).
    There are torpedoes that are designed to home in on, find, and destroy enemy submarines. The first of those were used to fight against German U-boats during WW II, but since then they have very rarely or never been used in combat, fortunately for the submariners of the world.

  8. The verb “to hone” also has a lot to do with combat and sharp blades. For example, “Zorro, the hero of colonial California, honed his gay blade for raids on the Mexican authorities there.”
    Robin Hood also spent time honing his blade before fights with the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. (Think of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood! He spent more time in swordfights than in firing arrows.)

    Johnny is not the sharpest blade in the basket? Well, then, someone needs to spend some time honing his blade. (Teaching him.)

  9. Bill,
    I’m aware of the possibility of error, and clearly some of the Ngram references were OCR errors, but I am looking for some evidence that it’s incorrect, rather than just different expression. One the one hand, I have always taken the expression with “hone” to mean focusing on an issue or particular point, which seems related to honing a blade, while “home” seems to suggest more find one’s way in a broader sense.
    On the other hand, DWTs articles are usually well researched so I presume there is some evidence behind the claim, and also the fact that the Ngram viewer shows usage over a similar period of time does suggest a relationship, since I would have thought that the expression using “hone” would have been in use much longer along with expressions like “put too fine a point on it.”

  10. As a side issue (with or without intensive purposes) I find it hard to believe that *hone in* “hadn’t been seen until George H.W. Bush used it in his 1980 presidential campaign.” It has to “of” been around longer than that. Still whether it’s a “different” expression or not, I think it has to qualify as illegitimate because its origin is almost certainly a mistaken take on “home in”. Just like “anchors away” and “tow the line”, both of which could be used as sensical expressions in the proper context.

  11. I think number three is a typo that was supposed to read “She had been the principleD trial attorney for the public defender’s office”, the implication being that every lawyers’ office needed a least one member designated as such. To the author here, however, that possibility was so unlikely as to be overlooked entirely and the notion that it was a principal error seemed most probable. Quite understandable.

  12. I am surprised to see no comments about “to flout.” To my ear, this verb seems archaic in American English.

    If that is (mostly/somewhat?) true, then might it now be acceptable to use flaunt convention in place of flout convention? What are the norms when a word or term is fading from use?

  13. @SHARON EICHER: Even if *flout* were archaic– which it’s not– that would not make *flaunt* a legitimate replacement for it. That is simply not what *flaunt* means. Ever.

    *Flautist*, OTOH, while not archaic, is precious and unnecessary. Flutist is a perfectly good English word with an obvious meaning. And that, of course, has nothing at all to do with *flout* except sounding like it. So shame on me.

  14. I’ve noticed over the last twenty or so years the emergence of “momentarily” in outgoing phone messages, i.e., “I’ll be with you momentarily,” which literally means “I’ll be with you FOR a moment ” Not the intention of the message maker. It should be “I’ll be with you IN A MOMENT. The difference is clear, but the evolution of language has it’s own mysterious ways of moving ahead – or sideways. This one has moved in to stay I’m afraid.

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