Say it Right: Somewhat similar and commonly confused

Have you ever scratched your head in debate over the spelling or proper form of a word?

I think we all wonder at times perhaps what metal (solid material) that medal (commemorative disc) contains. And it takes some mettle (courage) to admit when we are not sure.

Sometimes it is difficult to discern what makes words discrete (separate or distinct), but small differences in their meanings may necessitate being very discreet (guarded or cautious) in their uses.

Say you were asked to speak at a group and told you should deliver an elegy (poem or song in reflection). This could be quite different from preparing a eulogy, which is a laudatory speech or tribute to honor and praise. The first is often mournful, but the second is one definitely meant to be delivered at a person’s death or memorial. I help myself recall these by remembering the “u” in laudatory and tribute that goes with the “u” in eulogy.

Notice the words “speak” and “speech” in the previous paragraph. Though they are not homophones, their spellings are often confused. The “ea” is needed for the verb, while “ee” is used in the noun.

If you were writing the words for a speech, you might use stationery (writing paper), and if you worked at a built-in desk, that would be a piece of stationary furniture. I remember these by saying, “e for envelope” and “a for always there.”

Sometimes a one-letter difference is compounded by pronunciation. The word “corral” is said with the emphasis on the second syllable. With one “r” fewer, coral is spoken with stress on its first syllable. The first word means to gather together or the pen into which those beings are mustered. The latter c-word refers to a hard substance secreted by certain marine creatures.

Speaking of the sea, the 23rd state in our union, Maine, comes to mind. Don’t confuse this spelling with main, meaning chief in size or importance. And of paramount value to the horse would be its mane, or the long hair on his neck.

Many of these words are homophones because they sound alike. Some are quite different in use, though, even being disparate parts of speech. The utilitarian canvas is a noun, a coarse, strong cloth. The verb canvass is to solicit votes or campaign, or just discuss thoroughly. Ah, and to go full circle, this can also be used as a noun, describing the process of attempting to secure votes.

If you have a certain style, or manner of doing something, there are probably some acts you consider forbidden or off limits. I remember, as a child, that our schoolyard had a taboo or banned stile, steps over a fence or wall.

I admit I am old style, and many of these words’ differences are small, but I think we in the modern world need the admonishment, “beware of texting creativities.”

Sandi Ekberg taught high school English in Medford for 30 years. If you have grammar questions, email her at ifixgrammar@charter.net.

Share This Story