Commonly confused sound-alike words: Vol. M


My cumulative list continues with 10 sets of words that begin with the letter M. The confusion relates to spelling or meaning:

1. manner/manor

Manner is a way of doing or behaving. Example: “The waiter has a pleasant and helpful manner.” A manor is a house on an estate. Example: “Cardinal Thomas Wolsey acquired the 14th-century manor at Hampton Court in 1514.” Until King Henry VIII took it away from him, Wolsey was “lord of the manor.”

E-book authors and celebrity watchers seem to be especially prone to write the erroneous “lord of the manner.”

2. mantle/mantel

A mantle is a cloak. The prophet Elijah designated Elisha as his successor by throwing his mantle over him. A mantel is the ornamental shelf above a fireplace on which people display trophies and knickknacks.

3. marshal/Marshall

In modern English, a marshal is an officer of the U.S. Justice Department or a parade leader. In Old English, a marshal was a servant whose job was to tend the horses. The occupation of marshal is reflected in the surname Marshall, but the double-l spelling is only for the proper name.

Marshal also functions as a verb meaning “to arrange or set things in methodical order.” Example: “I’m glad that I wrote my book, because it made me marshal my thoughts.”

4. martial/marital

The error here is one of transposed letters. Martial is pronounced like marshal and means warlike. Marital is pronounced with three syllables (MARE-ih-tul) and means “relating to marriage.”

The error, when it occurs, is always good for a laugh. Example: “New York law also has what is known as constructive abandonment which means one spouse refuses to have martial relations for one or more years.”—Divorce lawyer’s site.

5. meter/metre

Both words are nouns. A meter is a measuring device, such as a gas meter. Metre is a metric unit or a type of rhythm in verse.

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6. metal/mettle/meddle

Metal is a hard, shiny, malleable material used in the manufacture of tools or artifacts. Mettle derives from the same source as metal and was once used in the same way, but now is used only figuratively to mean the quality of a creature’s disposition. A saucepan is made of metal. To really test their mettle, put presidential candidates in crisis.

Note: A mettlesome person or animal is full of spirit. Meddlesome individuals make themselves unpopular by interfering in affairs that do not concern them; they meddle.

7. militate/mitigate

Militate is “to wage war.” Its current use is usually figurative, with the sense of “to weigh against.” Example: “All the facts militate against this policy.”

Mitigate is “to make something less severe.” Example: “Homeowners can mitigate the loss of butterfly habitat by breaking up expanses of grass with forage plants.”

8. morbid/moribund

Morbid means “in a diseased state.” Moribund means “in a dying state.” Both words derive from the Latin word for death and are used literally and figuratively.

9. mordant/trenchant

Both words are applied to language and humor. Mordant comes from a French verb meaning “to bite” and means “bitingly sarcastic.” Trenchant comes from a French verb meaning “to cut.” A “mordant remark” hurts, whereas a “trenchant remark” enlightens.

10. mucous/mucus

Mucus is a noun: “a viscous substance secreted by the mucous cells and glands of animals.” Mucous is an adjective: “of the nature of, resembling, or consisting of mucus.” A mucous gland excretes mucus.

A version of this originally first appeared on DailyWritingTips.


Commonly confused sound-alike words: Vols. E and F


The words in the following list represent misunderstanding of the words’ meanings and not simply an inability to spell them correctly.

This post covers words starting with the letters e and f (the a-b list is here, and the c-d one here):

1. economic / economical

These adjectives are related but have distinct meanings. Economic refers to economics or the economy: “Reagan’s economic policies came to be known as ‘Reaganomics.'”

Economical means, “giving good value in relation to the resources used”: “Buying in bulk is an economical way to shop.”

2. ensure / insure

To ensure is to guarantee: “The librarian held his passport to ensure that he would return the book before leaving.”

To insure is to enter into an agreement to assure against future loss: “The Joneses decided to insure their house against flooding as well as fire.”

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3. envelop / envelope

The word without the final e is a verb meaning “to surround”: “Come, let me envelop you in my arms.” The word with the final e is a noun, meaning “container for a letter”: “She placed the letter in the envelope and sealed it with a kiss.”

The verb is pronounced with stress on the second syllable. For the noun, the stress falls on the first syllable. As for the pronunciation of the noun’s first syllable, both EN and ON are heard. For an extended commentary on the pronunciation of envelope, see “The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations” by Charles Elster.

4. famous / infamous

Many bloggers seem unaware that these two words are not interchangeable. Not only have I seen people like Adolf Hitler and Al Capone referred to as “famous,” I’ve recently seen infamous used in reference to people who, as far as I know, are not noted for doing bad things. Both adjectives mean “well known,” but famous means well known for admirable qualities, whereas infamous implies despicable behavior. Princess Diana is famous for her work in ridding the world of landmines. The gangster John Dillinger was an infamous bank robber.

5. farther / further

A great deal of ink, real and virtual, is spilled insisting that further must never be used in reference to physical distance. According to this argument, we may say, “I walked farther than you,” but not, “I walked further than you.” This is one of those prissy distinctions that has found its way into stylebooks but is belied by centuries of usage. Either farther or further is acceptable in the context of physical distance. However, as Paul Brians (“Common Errors in English Usage”) puts it, “Some people get really testy about this.”

Further, on the other hand, is the preferred form in abstract and figurative senses:

“This office will be closed until further notice.” Further is the only choice as a verb: “Mr. Smith’s generous donation will enable us to further our plans for expanding the homeless shelter.”

6. flaunt / flout

“To flout” is to express contempt for something. If you’re showing something off, you’re flaunting it. If you’re disregarding a law, a rule or a social convention, you’re flouting it. For example: “I unfriended Charlie because he was constantly flouting civil behavior with his vulgar language.” “She is unbelievably wealthy, but she doesn’t flaunt it.”

7. flounder / founder

Used as verbs, these two words are often confused.
Literally, to flounder means “to struggle”: “The cat floundered desperately in the water.”

Literally, founder may be used in any of the following senses:

[of a building] to fall down
[of a horse] to fall helplessly to the ground
[of a ship] to fill with water and sink

Figuratively, flounder retains the meaning of “to struggle” with the added connotations of ineptness, confusion or embarrassment: “He floundered for a bit, trying to figure out how to rephrase the question.”

Figuratively, founder means “to fail”: “Even with that money, there’s no guarantee the day care center wouldn’t founder later.”

8. forbear / forebear

The first, forbear, is a verb meaning “to refrain from”: “Prince Charles will forbear from making political pronouncements when he becomes king, The Observer reported yesterday.” The second, forebear, is a noun meaning ancestor: “The British must rediscover the boldness and ambition of their Victorian forebears, say the politicians.”

9. forward / foreword

The confusion between these words is understandable. The adjective forward describes something that is in front of or ahead of something else. The noun foreword is a preface, a brief essay that stands at the front of a book. An easy way to keep them straight is to pay attention to the word in foreword. A foreword is made up of words.

10. fortuitous / fortunate

Both words derive from Latin fortuna, “luck or chance.” Fortuna could be either good or bad; it was what happened to a person. In modern English, fortunate has the connotation of good fortune only: “It was fortunate for him that someone heard his cries for help.”

Fortuitous, on the other hand, retains the notion of happenstance or accident. “A fortuitous meeting” is an accidental meeting. However, because of the similarity of fortuitous to fortunate, the expression “a fortuitous meeting” is most commonly understood to mean a meeting that was lucky as well as coincidental.

A version of this article first appeared on DailyWritingTips.