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. 

Ducking Out For A Break.

I try to spend some time each day away from screens and away from work of any description.

It’s good therapy to walk, listen, and breathe, far away from such demands.

It refreshes me, body and soul, and boosts my creativity and concentration.

One of the places I like to visit is the small lake in my town. It has a walking track, an exercise circuit, benches to rest on, barbecue and picnic tables, a playground, and a friendly group of ducks.

Just now, as I wrote “a group of ducks”, I began to muse over which was the correct collective noun for ducks. I suspected that “flock” was used when in flight, and that “brace” was used when they were on the ground, but thought I should check.

A little research in the interests of accuracy yielded surprising results. Did you know there are more than a dozen different collective nouns used for ducks?

According to collectivenounslist.com, those are:

  • Badelynge
  • Badling
  • Brace
  • Dopping
  • Flock
  • Flush
  • Paddling
  • Plump
  • Pump
  • Raft
  • Sword
  • String
  • Team
  • Twack

Some of these terms are more commonly used than others, and I cannot help but think some of them are archaic words. Badelynge definitely looks like the kind of spelling one finds in Chaucer or other Middle English texts. I also suspect that this word has been transformed into “badling” as language and spelling evolved over time.

How, though, are we not commonly calling a group of ducks a “twack”? It’s highly expressive and so delightfully onomatopoeic! Furthermore, it couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a term relating to any other creature.

From now on, ‘badelynge’ and ‘twack’ are the terms I’ll be using to refer to my ducky friends at the lake. Hey nonny nonny!

A twack of ducks! With a badelynge of ducks in the water beneath the boardwarlk!

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.

‘Definitely’ and ‘Defiantly’ Are Different Words.

I am still coming to terms with the fact that this post needed to be written. How do people not know these are different words?

Apparently, though, it’s an all-too-common problem. Social media is littered with posts where someone has answered with “Defiantly!” when what the responder really meant to say was “Definitely!”.

It happens in my own conversations several individuals on a regular basis. In fact, it happened again just yesterday, so I took a screenshot with this blog post in mind.

Yes. I most definitely did turn my friend into a hamburger to protect their identity. 

I don’t know whether autocorrect is to blame, presumably as a result of poor typing, or if it’s just plain old-fashioned ignorance. The answer to that probably varies from one perpetrator to another, but  either way, continuing to mistake one for the other is inexcusable. 

Definitely means “for sure” or “absolutely”. 
In fact, those are excellent choices for anyone who wants to agree with something, but doesn’t actually know how to spell “definitely”. 

Here’s a hint, though.
Definitely even sounds exactly as it is spelt: def-in-it-ely.
It’s phonetically straightforward.

Therefore, anyone trying to spell it should get to the ‘a’ in ‘defiantly’ and know they’re making bad choices. 

Defiantly is a word most often used by parents or teachers describing the way in which a child refused to do as they were told. 
Examples:
The child sat in stony silence, arms crossed defiantly. 
“No!” Robin yelled defiantly, “I won’t apologise for being a grammar snob!” 

You get the idea. 

It’s definitely in your interests to get this right.

Make good choices, people… please?

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.

‘Then’ and ‘Than’ Are Not The Same Word.

Some word confusions are understandable, especially if they sound the same when spoken. We call those homophones, and they sound the same even if they are spelt differently.  Examples are peak/pique/peak or there/their/they’re.

The confusion between ’then’ and ’than’, however, is a completely different matter.

Sadly, this is happening more and more, especially on social media. I don’t even spend that much time on Facebook, but it feels like I see someone saying something like “Nothing is better then this!”  or “I love you more then anything!” at least twice a day. 

Yes, they are similar. 
However, they are clearly not the same.
They don’t look the same.
They don’t sound the same. 
If one doesn’t mix up ’then’ or ’than’ with ’thin’, there is no excuse for mistaking them for one another. 

I swear, it makes my eyes want to bleed.

The two words’ meanings are so vastly different that getting them wrong just makes the person writing look  either poorly educated or plain stupid, even if they are neither. 

This is one of the best and most self-evident arguments in existence for proofreading what one is writing, anywhere and every time. 

‘Then’ rhymes with ‘when”— which is an easy way to remember that it relates to time or sequence. 
Examples: 
He put on his shirt, then his jeans, and then his boots. 
She ran up the hill, then back down again. 
When you have tidied your room, then you can go to the movies. 

‘Than’ rhymes with ‘man’ and is used for making a comparison. 
Examples:
His piece of pizza is bigger than mine. 
A triangle has fewer angles than a square. 
I would rather stay home and read a book than go to work. 

Knowing which is which, and taking care to use the right words all the time, is a simple way to protect your credibility.

And for the love of Merlin’s beard, if you call yourself an author or a teacher, get it right. It’s not that hard. 

The Pun.

The pun is often quite an under-appreciated  form of humour. Also known as paronomasia, its a device of word play that relies on the multiple meanings of words, or the alternate meanings of homophones, to make a joke or draw attention to an idea. 

All my life, puns have been a much-loved form of humour in my family. Sometimes deliberate, other times incidental, my mother always took great enjoyment in teaching us to play with words and meanings, and to take great satisfaction in a well-executed pun.      

Birds, flowers, food, animals, jobs… you name it, we punned about it. 

One of my personal favourites occurred the first time we played Trivial Pursuit as a family.  My brother-in-law asked me a Science & Nature question: “Which is bigger, the Moon or Uranus?” “Hold on and I’ll check!” I quipped, then bent right  over and stuck my head between my knees.  The combination of sight gag and pun had everyone roaring with laughter. Since then, the story has been passed on numerous times to friends, extended family, and the next generation. 

Admittedly, some can be fairly lame, but when wielded by a person with great vocabulary and word power, a pun can be a thing of beauty. 
Shakespeare himself loved a good pun, incorporating many of them into his plays. Shakespeare often engaged in paronomasia in both humorous and more serious contexts as a way of exploring or developing key ideas.. 

Mercutio’s joke as he is dying, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” is a prime example, and a master stroke of dark comedy genius secreted within a play that actually has very little to laugh about.

The ability of characters such as Iago and Richard III to twist words using puns demonstrates just how easily they are able to manipulate both meaning and situations to their advantage, and provide powerful insights into each one’s evil genius.

It’s nice to think that Shakespeare and I are of the same mind when it comes to puns. They are fun; they are clever; they engage the intellect; they bring ideas into sharp focus. And the fact that there are a plethora of ways to use them means a lot. 

Of course, some people just don’t appreciate that particular brand of humour. There’s no point, for example, trying to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they can’t help taking things literally.

Don’t Waver Over Your Waivers!

A mistake frequently made in writing is to say that someone “did not waiver” in their faith, or from a decision they had made.  What they really mean is that the person in question did not waver

Once again, it is a failure to choose between differently spelled homophones that is the problem here. 

Waiver: the renunciation or surrendering of  ownership, a right  or a claim
Example: The council decided to waive the annual fee for dog registration. The waiver resulted in more households registering  their pets. 

Waver: to hesitate or falter, or to flicker, quiver or tremble.
Examples: Her feelings for him wavered between passionate love and indifference. 
He did not waver in his support for the mayor, who was a woman of integrity. 
The flame of the candle wavered in the gentle breeze.

At least when one waves at the waves, the spelling is the same so you can’t get it wrong!

Podcast Review: ‘Fry’s English Delight’

As soon as I discovered the existence of this podcast I knew it was going to be good. 

Steven Fry, actor, comedian, TV host, really needs no introduction. He has a nice voice, charming style and ease of delivery that really suit these enjoyable and varied excursions into different aspects of the English language.

The fact that the title is a play on Fry’s Turkish Delight is an indication of the defining qualities of the show: clever, witty, rather English, and most enjoyable. 

The podcast is very easy listening, presented in language anyone can understand. Each episode runs for just under half an hour, so it fits well into the time people might spend commuting, exercising or having lunch. It’s obviously a show designed to be interesting and entertaining for everyone, not just for academics or linguists, although as an English teacher of more years that I care to admit, I certainly don’t feel as though it over-simplifies or talks down to people, either. 

Apart from being great entertainment, the value of a podcast like this is that it not only teaches or reminds us about elements of the English language that we use every day without thinking, it also helps us to appreciate the beauty and intricacy of language and the ways it can be used to create and shape meaning so that our communications are more thoughtful and effective. 

The podcast is available via Audible, and is free of charge for members. 

A Fit of Pique.

I get really annoyed when I see people writing about peaking someone’s interest. 

A mountain is peaked. A cap can be peaked. 
People can even look peaked: in this sense, it means they are pale. 
A career can peak. 
In fact, someone’s interest in something can peak, right before it declines again. 

While they sound the same, the correct term for having caused intense interest or curiosity, is piqued

To pique someone’s interest is to heighten or arouse it. In other words, it is to stimulate their curiosity or attention. 

A fit of pique is an episode of annoyance or irritation – such as might happen, for example, if someone’s negative emotions are piqued. 

A related word is piquant, which means provocative, tantalising, spicy or tangy. Food that excites the taste buds or a story that excites the imagination can both be described as piquant. 

The other homophone is peeked. This is the past tense of peek: to take a quick look, or a sneaky one. 

So… now that I’ve piqued your interest with my fit of pique, and you’ve peeked at my post… I’m sure your interest has long since peaked. 

See? Homophones can be fun!