Easily Confused Words: Stationary vs. Stationery

Yesterday I saw a sign in a shop that said “Stationary” attached to a shelf. 

They were absolutely right: that shelf wasn’t going anywhere. I suspect it’s still in the same place even now, although it’s been about 30 hours since I was there. 

This is a common mistake because people often don’t realise that ‘stationary’ and ‘stationery’ are two different words.  They sound the same, but are spelt differently and have very different meanings.

Stationary means “not moving”. 
A train stops at a station, and remains stationary while people get on and off the train. 

Stationery, on the other hand, is the sort of supplies you’d get at a Stationer’s stop: paper, pens, pencils, erasers, notebooks, and the like. 

Therefore, in order for the sign in the store to have been fully accurate, it could have said “This stationery shelf is stationary”. 

I suspect, however, that most people  would be less appreciative of such a sign than I would be. 

Easily Confused Words: ‘Dessert’ and ‘Desert’.

This is a confusing set of homophones. 

Dessert is  the sweet course eaten at the end of a meal. What’s your favourite? I’m an absolute sucker for lemon meringue pie, but I also love a creamy lemon cheesecake.  A dessert wine is, similarly, sweet and intended to be enjoyed after a meal. 

The key thing to remember is that this is the only meaning for this spelling.

Fun fact: ‘desserts’ is ‘stressed’ spelt backwards, and an anagram of ‘de-stress’.  
I don’t know about you, but I do not believe that can be a coincidence.

The word ‘desert’ is used when someone gets what they deserve, and it is said they have “got their just deserts”. It is usually used in a punitive way – ‘getting your just desert’ is generally not considered to be a pleasant experience. 

Because this is a “thing” that happens, this use of the word is also a noun. 

Fun fact: this is a phrase that came to us from French via  Shakespeare, who used it in Sonnet 72, albeit in a more positive way than is usually done. So anyone using the word ‘desert’ in this way is using Shakespeare’s language without even realising it. 

The word ‘desert’ can also mean abandoning or running away from a place. A soldier who goes AWOL is said to desert their post, while rats are said to ‘desert a sinking ship’ as a metaphor for people disowning or abandoning a place, person or situation that has become painful, awkward or insupportable. 

When we say a place is deserted, it does not mean it looks like a desert. It means that there are no people around – everyone has departed. 

Finally, a desert is a place that doesn’t get much rain, and is quite barren as a result. 

This is the only meaning that sees ‘desert’ pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable: dez-ert This makes it a homonym, not a homophone.  Because it’s a place, this is also a noun. 

Fun fact: while the Sahara Desert is hot and sandy, Antarctica is the world’s largest cold desert. 

You can use a sentence to help you remember the three different words that share this spelling. Saying it aloud will help you remember which is which.
Example: The soldier got his just deserts for deserting his post in the hot desert.

Practice or Practise – Which One Makes Perfect?

Knowing whether to use ‘practice’ or ‘practise’ can be tricky. Because these words are homophones, and the spelling is very similar, it is easy to make mistakes. 

Practice is the noun
I need more practice. 
Practice is key to being a good pianist. 

Practise is the verb
I must practise if I’m going to get this right. 
I used to practise on the piano for an hour every day. 

There is one easy way to remember which is which: these words follow the same spelling rule as ‘advice’ and ‘advise’. 

Advice is a thing you give or receive.  Advise is something you do. 
Because that pair of words don’t sound the same, it’s easy to remember which is which.

You can also think of the ending – ‘ice’ – which we know is a thing, and that reminds us which one of the pair is the noun.

Fun fact:  In British and Australian English, ‘licence’ and ‘license’ follow the same rule. 
I have my driver’s licence. I am licensed to drive. 

However, American English spells both the noun and the verb as license. 

Frequently Mistaken: ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’

Today I received an email which included the line, “It doesn’t matter who’s responsibility it is…”

Written by a professional who should know better, it was ironic that it was me, and not them, doing a massive facepalm.

This incorrect use of the homophone “who’s” instead of “whose” is a common error, but that doesn’t make it excusable.

The apostrophe in “who’s” signals that it is a contraction— a shortening of two words into one, so that “who is” becomes “who’s”. Alternatively, it can also be a contraction of “who has”. You can tell which one it is by determining if the sentence is in past or present tense,

Examples:
That’s the boy who’s a really good actor.
Who’s in charge around here?
Who’s been eating my porridge?

‘Whose’ is a pronoun of ownership. 

Examples:
This is the farmer whose cows ate all my corn. 
Whose car is that? 

Once you know the difference, it’s fairly straightforward. That means there is absolutely no excuse for getting them wrong, even if they do sound the same when spoken.

Fun fact: “it’s” and “its” work exactly the same way.

Being Conscious of One’s Conscience

Said to me today: “I don’t want that on my conscious.”
Me: “You probably don’t want it on your conscience, either.” 
Them: “Huh?”
Me: “They are different words.” 
Them: “Really?”
Me: “I promise you.”

These commonly confused words sound similar but they are not homophones. 

Conscious is an adjective. It is a descriptive word that means awake or aware. 

Examples:
I’m conscious of the confusion between words that sound similar but which are very different in meaning.
He passed out, but he is conscious again now. 

Conscience is a noun. It’s the name given to that part of our being that tells us not to do something we know we shouldn’t, and accuses us when we have done something wrong so that we feel bad about it. 

Examples:
She was good at acting innocent, but her conscience was plagued by guilt.
His conscience reminded him daily of the things he had done. 

The difference in the way these words sound is minor, but the difference in meaning is significant