Category Archives: Confusing Words

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.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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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.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

shined or shone?

The verb* to shine can mean:

♦ to emit or reflect light (The sun is shining.)

♦ to be eminent, conspicuous, or distinguished (When she’s onstage, she really shines.)

♦ to be evident or clear (The truth will shine through.)

In the above examples, shine is used as an intransitive verb (v.i.); the verb does not have a direct object. Shine can also be a transitive verb (v.t.), meaning:

♦ to light or direct a light (“Shine that light over here, would ya?”)

♦ to make bright by polishing (“Please iron my shirts and shine my shoes.”)

In these instances, “something” (the object) is being shined (light; shoes).

Or should that be shone?

Shined and shone are sometimes used interchangeably (i.e., neither is incorrect), especially when used as an intransitive verb (and especially in the U.S.):

The light shone in the distance.

The light shined in the distance.

Most commonly, shone is preferred as the past tense (and past participle) of the intransitive verb shine when referring to something that is luminous.

The moon shone brightly.

Multitalented, Mark shone in many different capacities.

The flashlight shone when Sue turned it on.

Shined is used when polishing or shining an object (transitive verb).

He has shined a light on corruption within the agency.

Sue shined the flashlight on the intruder.

I shined my shoes until they shone.

Usage outside of the United States may differ.

*Shine can also be a noun. (“Would you like a shine, mister?”)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

anytime or any time?

Languages evolve. New words and expressions gain acceptance; hyphens get added and then dropped as two words merge into one. (Search online for “step-daughter” and you will find two words (step daughter), a hyphenated version (step-daughter), and one word (stepdaughter).)

Which version you choose depends, in part, upon where you live, what you are writing, and where your writing will be published. If you are writing a blog post and you live in the United States, your readers probably won’t think twice about stepdaughter or step-daughter, and they’ll understand “step daughter” (though I’d advise against that choice). If you are submitting your work, follow the preferences of your editor or publisher on style matters, especially if the work will be published in different markets (e.g., North America or United Kingdom).

Two-word compounds tend to get hyphenated before they get merged, so if the unhyphenated version has made its way into a reputable dictionary (e.g., stepdaughter), then that is likely the most up-to-date choice, with step-daughter an acceptable variant. (Wellbeing, as one word, has not yet become standard in North America; the preferred form is well-being. Back seat, when used as an adjective, may be either hyphenated or merged: “Don’t be a backseat driver.”)

One word or two, back seat and backseat have the same meaning. Hyphenated or not, step-daughter and stepdaughter refer to the same person. In other instances, however, the meaning changes when two words are merged into one. Consider some time and sometime:

“I need some time to figure out what I want to write about.” (Here, “some” could easily be omitted; it could also be replaced with “more”: “I need more time.”)

“I’ll get around to finishing that novel sometime.” (Here, “someday” could be substituted for “sometime.”)

Similarly, “any” time can refer to a quantity or amount of time:

“I haven’t had any time this week to work on my project.”

“I haven’t had anytime this week to work on my project.” X

Anytime, an adverb, is a variation of any time and is often used in casual conversation and correspondence:

“This rain isn’t going to let up anytime soon.”

“Call me anytime, day or night.”

If I were writing an advertising slogan that included anywhere, then anytime might be the better stylistic choice:

Our experts are ready to help you—anytime, anywhere.

Anytime can also be used to mean “whenever”:

“Anytime I see an error, I point it out.” (“Whenever I see an error, I point it out.”)

(I consider this use of anytime informal, too. More accurately, I am saying: “Every time I see an error, I point it out.”)

“Anytime” is sometimes given as a response to “Thank you”:

“Thanks for the lift.”

“Anytime. Glad I could help.”

The two-word form is preferable in formal communications:

“I can see you any time next week, but this week my schedule is full.”

Always use the two-word form following the preposition at.

“If, at any time, you feel uncomfortable, please notify one of the assistants.”

“You can close your account at any time if you are not satisfied with the service.”

Take time to think about your intended meaning and ensure that your words reflect your intentions.