Category Archives: Confusing Words

its or it’s?

What’s the difference between its and it’s?
A lot!

Its is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to it.” (If a pen belongs to Jay, then the pen is his. If a tail belongs to an animal, we can refer to its tail.) As with his, hers, theirs, yours, and ours, no apostrophe is needed for its.

This is mine and that is yours.

My dad let me borrow his car.

This strategy has its drawbacks.

The bike has been returned to its rightful owner.

The species became extinct after its habitat was destroyed.

It’s is a contraction, a shortened form of it is or it has. (Contractions are commonly used in informal speech and writing.)

It’s all been said before, but I’ll say it again.

It’s true. I’m a terrible host.

It’s her fault!

The apostrophe indicates missing letters.

“G’night,” said Marge.

When reading dialogue, we understand that the word “goodnight” is intended by the speaker, who did not fully enunciate the word.

If you are tempted to add an apostrophe to its (or wondering if you need one), ask yourself whether its can be replaced with “it is” or “it has”:

It’s your call.
It is your call.

See if it’s hurt.
See if it is hurt.

It’s all right.
It is all right.

It’s got nothing to do with you.
It has got nothing to do with you.

Don’t pull its tail!
Don’t pull it is tail! X

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

taut and taught

These two words sound alike, but taught and taut have different meanings. Taut is an adjective meaning tense or tight. Taught is the past (and past participle) form of the verb teach.

taut

(adjective): “The ad promised that the face cream would make my skin smooth and taut.”
Her nerves were taut as she awaited the results.

taught

(verb): “She taught me everything I know about photography.”
“I have been taught by renowned experts in the field.

Remember:

Taut is similar to tight (“Pull the rope taut.”)

The past tense of teach is NOT “teached.”

“He teached me how to play stickball.” X

“He taught me how to play stickball.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

mantel or mantle?

A mantel is a shelf above a fireplace.*

Mantle can be a noun or a verb and has a variety of meanings. Most commonly, mantle is used to refer to a cloak (as a garment or as “a figurative cloak symbolizing preeminence or authority”) or to the part of the earth’s interior that lies beneath the crust.

The mantle is approximately 1,800 miles thick and makes up 84% of the planet’s total volume. (National Geographic Society)

Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet is about the Russian writer and philosopher.

When she withdrew her mantle, I saw that her shoulders were bare.

Finally, a woman has taken on the mantle of leadership.

Mantle can also mean “something that covers, enfolds, or envelops.”

A mantle of snow covered the ground.

Our vision obscured by the thick mantle of smoke, we crept along the ground until we reached safety.

If you are a baseball fan, remember Mickey Mantle, the New York Yankee who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974:

The Mick wore the mantle of success with pride.

 

*Mantel can also mean “a beam, stone, or arch serving as a lintel to support the masonry above a fireplace” and “the finish around a fireplace,” but most references will be to the shelf above a fireplace. (Mantle is a variant spelling, but mantel is preferred.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

lead or led?

The past tense (and past participle) of the verb lead is led. Lead is often used (incorrectly) as the past tense, perhaps because the noun lead is pronounced the same way as the verb led—except when it’s not! Confused yet? Read on!

lead (noun, pronounced “led”)

Exposure to lead can be very harmful to young children.

The core of a “lead” pencil does not contain lead—but the painted wood might!*

Many lead pipes are being replaced with copper.

lead (noun, pronounced “leed”)

“The boss wants you to take the lead on this project.”

“Mary got the lead in the school play.”

Related: lead (adjective, pronounced “leed”)

“Barry is the lead singer of the Phobias.”

“The lead story in today’s paper will be of interest to aspiring screenwriters.”

lead (verb, pronounced “leed”)

“Mark will lead the discussion on Wednesday.”

“Lead the way!”

“Don’t lead me on.”

led (past tense and past participle of the verb to lead)

The suspect led investigators to the body.

“One thing led to another and before I knew it, I had a ring on my finger.”

“She’s been led astray.”

“Sharon has led this company for twenty years.”

Mistakes are easily made when we are in a hurry. For important matters, take time to proofread your work.

An investigation is underway to uncover the systems malfunctions that lead to this disaster. X

* See https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/kidspost/ever-wondered-about-the-lead-in-pencils/2014/11/26/f8b5869c-548a-11e4-809b-8cc0a295c773_story.html?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

desert and dessert

Don’t confuse a geographical region (desert) with the final course of a meal (dessert) or the act of desertion!

desert

(noun): The desert is uninhabited.

We found an oasis in the desert.

(adjective): The desert climate is harsh.

The desert island provided a temporary haven.

(verb): If you desert now, you will be marked a traitor.

You cannot desert your friend in her time of need.

dessert

(noun): Dessert was the highlight of the evening.

The dessert was sweet and rich.

(A term such as dessert wine is considered as a unit, so “dessert” here is not an adjective. In fact, dessertspoon is written as one word.)

Note: The expression “just deserts ” (what is deserved) is not spelled ‘desserts’–unless, of course, it’s the name of a business that only sells sweet treats!

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Are you content or contented?

Content is one of those words that can be pronounced in two different ways, depending on the meaning.

Content (pron. CON-tent), meaning “the things that are held, included, or provided” (as in “The wine’s alcohol content is listed on the label”), is often used in the plural:

The table of contents is part of the book’s front matter.

The contents of this blog are suitable for minors.

Content (pron. kən-TENT), meaning “satisfied,” can be used as a noun (“After I leave, you can sleep to your heart’s content!”), an adjective (“I’m content here.”), or a verb (“The show was sold out, so we had to content ourselves with a trip to the planetarium.”).

Contented is an adjective (meaning “satisfied,” as above, or “feeling or expressing satisfaction”):

“They don’t have chocolate ice cream. You will have to be contented with vanilla.”

Contentment is the state of being contented.

So when would you use content, and when would you use contented?

The words are synonymous, but according to Bryan A. Garner,* content is more common as a predicate adjective (“I am content just sitting here.”) and the adjective contented commonly precedes a noun (“The contented puppy fell asleep.”).

Adverb forms are contently and contentedly:

He lived contentedly among the natives.

The sheep were contently grazing in the pasture.

 

* Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2009).

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

discrete or discreet?

Discrete and discreet are both adjectives. The pronunciation is the same, and the spelling is similar, so they are easily confused.

Discrete means distinct and separate, whereas discreet means “intentionally unobtrusive” and inconspicuous or careful and circumspect (in speech or behavior).

Synonyms include subdued and understated for the first meaning of discreet and prudent for the second.

Examples

discrete

Discrete segments of the population have been identified as part of the study’s methodology.

The chronon has been proposed as a discrete and indivisible unit of time.

discreet

The discreet lighting and cozy furnishings helped me relax as I braced myself for a difficult conversation.

The discreet packaging gives no indication of the contents.

These different meanings are also reflected in the adverbs discretely and discreetly.

Time can be measured discretely or continuously.

John asked Chris a series of personal questions, knowing that a camera was discreetly recording their interaction.

They’d been meeting discreetly for over a year before I learned about their relationship.