2b Or Not To Be.
Choosing The Correct Word.
On a recent visit to a museum, an information sign proclaimed that the castle that originally stood on that site had been "raised to the ground" in the 16th century. This seemed rather odd; unless it was originally subterranean and had been dragged to the surface. In which case, where was it now?
Of course the correct phrase should have been "razed to the ground".
Before we start, let's just make it clear that this blog post is not going to be poking fun at people for making incorrect word choices, or struggling with misheard common phrases. Indeed it would be very hypocritical.
Like many people, I struggle with homonyms. Homonyms (and homophones) are words with the same spelling but different meanings, or words that sound the same, but are spelt differently and have distinct meanings. The classic example is Their, There and They're.
I am fortunate in that I actually know the differences between most common homonyms and can easily spot them when proof reading my writing or marking students' work. However, when I am writing, I almost always pick the wrong word first time. Over the years, I've learned to immediately go back over sentences and check the usage and correct as necessary and final versions rarely have errors. I liken it to choosing words blindly from a high shelf. I get to the word and pick one of the choices from the shelf at random. When I finish the sentence, I have to go back and double-check I picked the correct one.
The second problem that many people have is related to phrases. This is often because they are so commonly misused in every day life that we just blindly say or write them without thinking. Or the phrase was slightly misheard - "raised to the ground" is a good example.
An especially tricky subset of this problem is knowing when to use the verb form or noun form of a word (and knowing what that even means! I am a product of the Tory government's disastrous decision in the 80s to not explicitly teach grammar, so I really struggle with this).
Examples of this would be when to use "Licence" or "License".
"Practice" or "practise"?
The problem with all these examples, is that a basic spell checker wouldn't pick up these as errors. All these words are correctly spelled. The latest versions of MS Word now have intelligent grammar checkers, that will place a blue squiggly line under these words, and flag a possible "incorrect word choice", but it's far from perfect and doesn't actually correct it for you.
So how can you minimise these errors in your writing?
Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there that can help.
The simplest thing to do is simply ask Google.
After reading the sign at the museum and thinking it didn't look right, I simply Googled.
'raised to the ground' OR 'razed to the ground'
I received lots of hits and was able to confirm that my instinct was correct.
Similarly, 'Licence' OR 'License' will produce dozens of pages that seek to explain the difference, or even furnish you with helpful mnemonics to remember the correct usage.
A real gem of a website is
This lists in alphabetical order thousands of commonly confused words.
Public Health Warning:
It's important to remember that US English and UK English can often be different. A great example is
Tyre vs Tire
As the website helpfully highlights further down the article, tyre is the traditional UK spelling for the rubber surround on a wheel.
Both UK and US writers use tire for fatigue - e.g. I am beginning to tire.
Americans use tire for both meanings.
If it's unclear from the website if it is US or UK English, try typing one of the variants into Google - perhaps in a very simple sentence fragment - and seeing if it returns hits from trusted UK websites such as the BBC or The Guardian or even gov.uk. As always, try and find a couple of examples to be certain.
What words do you find especially tricky?
Have you any suggestions for how to choose the correct word or phrase?
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media.
Until next time,
Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.
Disclosure: I am a member of both the Amazon and Bookshop.org affiliates programs, meaning that I get a small commission everytime a book is purchased using links from my site.