Seep and Steep

By Maeve Maddox

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The writer of an article in the Washington Post about the funeral arrangements for the late Queen Elizabeth II remarked that the events were “seeped in tradition.”

It may have been an inadvertent typo, but it may have been the result of not looking up the word to check its meaning. An event may be steeped in tradition, but not “seeped” in it.

In The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them), Jack M. Bickham warns, “Don’t assume you know; look it up.” His remarks are directed at fiction writers, but the rule applies to journalists as well.

Both verbs—seep and steep—have something to do with liquid and moisture, but they are by no means interchangeable.

A glance at the fraze.it site indicates that the WAPO writer is not alone in confusing the two words. Here are some examples of incorrect usage from both US and British sources:

Its good to remember that some of the members of our own government come from a background seeped in organized hate.

A trade event seeped in all things tea, the World Tea Expo is expected to attract 6,000 attendees and 220 exhibitors this year.

There are people who would give their left leg for a fraction of what we’ve been able to secure for our son, and our hearts are truly seeped in gratitude.

In each instance, the correct verb would be steeped.

steep
Literally, to steep is to soak in water or other liquid.

Fill this submarine-shaped tea infuser with loose leaves and steep in hot water.

Bring just to a simmer, then remove from the heat and let steep for 30 minutes.

You pour the water over the coffee and let it steep for four or five minutes.

Figuratively, steep is used to mean that a thing or a person is absolutely infused with something.

The fraze.it site contains more than 1,500 examples of the figurative use of steeped. Here are a few:

steeped in history
steeped in tradition
steeped in loneliness
steeped in drunkenness
steeped in violence
steeped in hatred
steeped in gratitude
steeped in controversy
steeped in ignorance
steeped in sentiment

seep
Literally, to seep is to ooze, drip, or trickle. When something seeps, it comes out of something. The seeping substance may be water, oil, mist, gas, or anything that can move in an oozing or cloud-like manner.

Cook, stirring, until the oil begins to seep out of the paste, 10 to 15 minutes.

The roof was tampered with, allowing rain to seep into the clinic and damage it.

The odorless gas can seep through cracks in your home from the surrounding soil.

Rock melted by the impact seeped down into cracks in the shattered crater floor.

Figuratively, just about anything can seep.

As kids learn to read and master math, construction sounds from outside seep in.

These self-help staples have seeped seemingly unnoticed into the Western psyche.

West Nile is not the only developing-country disease that has seeped into America.

He was racing against time, as Western influences seeped into native villages.

The practice of meditation seeped into the heart of the Bible Belt in 2002.

There are signs that this sort of critical thinking has seeped into the culture at large.

To steep is to infuse something with something.

To be steeped in is to be full of something.

To seep is to leach out of something or ooze into something.

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