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The News Chair

New Year, Same Word Blunders


How many words are in the English language? Well, that’s a bit difficult to answer. Do you count noun and verb versions of the word? Do you count slang or abbreviations?

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the Second Edition of the 20-volume “Oxford English Dictionary” has full entries for 171,476 words in current use, plus 47,156 obsolete words. There’s also 9,500 derivative words … gulp. That’s, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words.

Tiffany Whisner

Tiffany Whisner

No wonder there are so many different rules … or exceptions to those rules … for language usage!


Word danger ahead

Here are a few commonly misunderstood words that may trip you up, according to Laura Hale Brockway on Ragan.com:

1.    Capital, capitol: Capital is the city where the seat of government is located; also money, equipment, or property. Capitol refers to the building in which a legislative body meets.

2.    Disc, disk: Use disc for terms related to recordings, such as Blu-ray disc or disc jockey. Also, disc brakes. Use disk for computer-related and medical references, such as hard disk and slipped disk.

3.    Flier, flyer: According to the AP Stylebook, flier is the preferred term for a handbill or leaflet. Flyer is the proper name of some trains or buses.

4.    Lectern, podium: A lectern is a stand that serves as a support for the notes or books of a speaker. A podium is an elevated platform to stand on when speaking.

5.    Premier, premiere: Premier means first in importance; principal or chief. Premiere means a first performance.

6.    Rack, wrack: The verb form of rack means to arrange on a rack, to torture, or torment. The noun form of wrack means ruins or destruction.


One or two … who knows?

And what about those tricky cases of whether a phrase is one word or two? According to Brockway, a recent article in the “Columbia Journalism Review offered the following guidelines:

  • The one-word form is usually an adjective or adverb.
  • The two-word form is usually a two-word phrase not modifying anything.
  • When in doubt, say the expression out loud.

The following are some less clear-cut word pairs.

1. Already/all ready:

We don’t want to confuse them any more than we already have.

(In this case, already is used as an adverb.)

Are you all ready for the writing test?

(All ready is a phrase meaning thoroughly prepared.)


2. Altogether/all together:

She is altogether the worst writer I have ever seen.

(Altogether is an adjective meaning entirely.)

We were all together for the CEO’s announcement.

(All together is a phrase meaning all there.)


3. Anyone/any one:

Anyone can make that mistake.

(Anyone is a pronoun, meaning anybody.)

Any one of you might be next.

(Any one is a phrase. Any serves as an adjective and one serves as a noun.)


4. Anytime/any time:

You are welcome to consult the style guide anytime.

(Anytime is an adjective and can be replaced with whenever.)

Do you have any time to edit this article?

(Any time is another two-word adjective-noun form.)


5. Backup/back up:

There was a backup on the toll road this morning.

(The one word form means a stoppage or overflow.)

The police officer told the driver to back up.

(The two-word phrase means to go in reverse.)


6. Maybe/may be:

Maybe you should quit while you’re ahead.

(Maybe is an adverb meaning perhaps.)

It may be that the style guide was wrong.

(May be functions as a verb.)


These are just a handful of examples that you may come across in your daily reading and writing. Cheers to 2014 and a year of learning lessons in language!


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