It doesn’t mean what you think it means.

June 05, 2015

Get it right
Get it right

Help me out here, people. For the umpteenth time, I’ve had a note from a reader telling me about an error in my book. Many writers I know, including the peerless Tess Gerritsen, get this kind of feedback.

Now, ordinarily, I love getting corrections from readers because it means that in future editions of the book, I can change, says “commissary” to “dispensary” or put the Pax River Naval Station in the right state (blush).

But quite often, a reader wants to change a word that’s already correct. The latest? Gabbie K. tells me I’ve spelled “minuscule” wrong. She wants me to spell it “miniscule.” Is it because it’s derived from the ancient root “mini” as in, “mini marshmallows”???

And don’t get me started on words that are spelled right, but are perennially misunderstood. There has to be a term for this–words that don’t mean what you think they mean. You know, like toothsome. Ask anyone what she thinks it means. Use it in a sentence, even. “He had a toothsome smile.” Trust me, toothsome does NOT mean toothy. It has nothing to do with teeth. Look it up, I dare you.

And niggardly is not a racist term, although this word is so misunderstood that I’m nervous just typing it. niggardly“>It means stingy, and always has. Out of ignorance, some people think it’s an offensive term. So much so that when I need to say “stingy,” I’ll just say “stingy. Or maybe if I’m feeling daring, I’ll say “begrudgingly.”

Oh, and just so you know–when someone makes a speech and you want to agree with them vociferously, it’s “Hear! Hear!Not “Here, here,” unless you’re calling a dog. And did you know that if someone was killed by hanging, he was hanged, not hung? And the past tense of sneak is sneaked, not snuck. Check it out, people. You know I’m right.

[Note: Some sites like the New York Times have a  new lookup feature. Select any word, and it will takeyou to a dictionary link.]

Here are a few more “counterintuitive-nyms” for you. Treat this as a pop quiz. Do you know what these words mean, how to use them and how to spell them? If yes, then YAY YOU:

Noisome, inflammable, invaluable. Chasten, bemuse, vilify. Fecund, lachrymose. Guttural. Timorous. Restive, leman, sacrilegious.

How about you? What are some sadly misunderstood and misspelled words in your writing world?

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| 72 Comments
  • This is not on topic, but must say something about what I read in “Lakeshore Christmas.” You quoted Bess Streeter Aldrich, it made my heart sing, I discovered her books when I was in my mid-teens and just loved them. I still have a few left and they’re my most cherished. Thanks again.

  • I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned this but the Oxford Dictionary has miniscule as an alternative spelling. I think minuscule makes more sense to use due to other words being built off the latter – like minuscular. According to Oxford Dictionary the spelling “miniscule” is okay for general use but should be avoided in formal contexts.

    Either way it seems to be a minuscular point of conversation and/or controversy.

  • I completely agree. I’ve always been a awesome speller but if a book is good but had a few mistakes I don’t care. It’s about the story not the editing so much unless it’s really bad. Not to mention most people are not good at telling the difference when using words that mean different things but are spelled ALMOST the same. Or they can’t even tell the difference between their and they’re or there. Some people are just too freaking picky and wine too much. Can they wrote books? It’s not s easy as some people think. Hell if I thought I could manage I would but I leave that to the pros. Too many people can’t tell the difference between to and too. Some people have too much time on their hands if they are complain to an author about little things like that since so many people have issues with that kind of stuff. So back of the authors that sometimes spend weeks or months writing books that we take hours to read so be appreciative and don’t complain so much. Me while I spell good, I’m not good with punctuations that is required for book writing. It’s not easy. So thank you all the writers that make life better for the books they’ve written.

  • I was bothered by the minuscule thing so I researched and here’s what one site said:

    The word was originally minuscule, borrowed from French. The minuscule spelling has always been the preferred spelling. However, miniscule is not as simple as a typo. According to the OED, the first citation of the miniscule variant is from 1871, so this is a form that has been around quite a long time.

    The OED says the following about miniscule:

    Variant of MINUSCULE adj., probably arising partly from shift of stress from the second to the first syllable, and partly from association with MINIATURE adj., MINIMUM adj., etc.
    So, there are two reasons that miniscule persists as a variant.

    The first is the shift in stress. In English, unstressed vowels are often reduced to schwa, [ə], no matter what the fully stressed vowel would have been. Minuscule used to always be pronounced with stress on the second syllable (containing the “u”), and was therefore unambiguously an [u] sound. When minuscule began to get stress on the first syllable, it was no longer clear from hearing the word what the second vowel was.

    The second was the existence of semantically similar words that contained the spelling mini, such as miniature and minimum. The word mini is associated with small things.

    Therefore, a person spelling the word minuscule, having no auditory cues to indicate the spelling “minu”, and knowing other smallness words contain “mini”, has every logical reason to think the spelling should be “miniscule”.

    From http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/5350/miniscule-vs-minuscule

  • The only time I regret not contacting an author is when I was reading along and suddenly another character’s name popped up unexpectedly in place of the characters who were in the scene.

  • i must agree with these postings — ‘spell check’ editing often leaves many errors, Lately, a word I have often heard or read misused by journalists is penultimate — in fact I am not sure if I have ever found it used correctly in recent times — they seem to believe it means the ultimate/greatest experience — while it actually means the second to last Pam

  • OK when I read I use the correct word but I’m ADD so I usually skip words when I feel its not necessary. But I would never send a correction to the author because I leave that up to ones that it bothers the most. I’ve been trying to pick my battles so I can sleep at night.

  • I’m the queen grammar Nazi and typos make me grind my teeth. I like the examples you’ve given, especially “Hear Hear” and “hanged.” Right now I’m reading a book that abounds in “accidently” and “publically.” Either writers need to develop proofreading skills or they need to hire a competent proofreader. They owe it to their readers to sell them a decent product. Thanks for making this a priority in your writing. You’ll get return readers if your books are easy to read without having to stop and translate.

  • Even I’m not perfect but as a voracious reader, an editor (proofing etc), and reviewer spelling, grammar and consistency errors tend to jump out at me at times. I don’t always contact every author about every minuscule detail because although I do nit-pick it’s not always important enough to bug someone else about. My latest pet peeve though is incorrectly using affect/effect and their variants. I see it very consistently where people just seem to pick one out of the air – affect works for me, sounds good but the context is a cause and effect not a mental or emotional effect on the person yet they’ve decided they will use whatever “sounds” appropriate not what fits the context.

  • I’ve been sent to HR for my vocabulary, a hazzard of being a writer amongst engineers. I dialed it down to super basic words for several years, then gradually forgot. Ended up in trouble AGAIN. Only this time, the higher up told the new complainer to get a dictionary. Whew. About a week later, the complainer sent an email that read, “… as a Segway to ..”

  • A very wise person recently opined that those who aren’t in the ring (best selling authors with Harvard educations) don’t get to criticize.

    I am grateful every day for spell check, and minor imperfections are the hallmark of a true artisan.

    When someone gets obsessed with nits rather than mesmerized by your intriguing plots, I want to say, “get a f***ing life!” Therefore, I bow to your graciousness and generosity.

  • Mine is “sprung” when “sprang” is correct… Or “he drunk a beer” when it’s “he drank a beer” And “he pleaded” when it’s “he pled”…

    • Except that “he pleaded” is also correct –

      Grammarists states that: “Pled has always been considered incorrect by people who make such judgments, but it is so common that we have to accept it as an alternative form.”

  • For me I hate the commercials for Mesothelioma. They always pronounce it wrong. They say measle-thelioma, instead of meso. It is latin. There is no a in it. Think of the mesa in the desert.

  • Bear and Bare ! But then I have problems going to an airport and trying to figure out which lane to get in . . . I am Arriving, but I will be Departing.

  • I usually don’t notice errors in a book unless they really jump out at me–I am too busy reading the book and probably skip some words. I remember learning in school that some things were appropriate when spoken but written English was more formal. In a novel I would think that it needs to be a combination. My mother is English and when we were growing up she put great emphasis on using correct grammar and learning to spell.

  • I have to laugh. I have learned over the years to reign in my “Grammar Police” tendencies, because correcting people’s grammar just makes them mad. I resort to cringing in silence upon reading “your” instead of “you’re”, and the misuse of “their,” “there” and “they’re.” let alone the use of “irregardless” which isn’t even a word and in fact contradicts itself, kind of like unthaw. I get tired of people “loosing” items and going camping in the “dessert.” I worry about the quality of education in this country, sometimes! Thanks for a great post, and I’ll remember this when I see a grammatical error in a book. 🙂

  • To the “nausea” and nauseated comments. Sometimes things change. I have been a nurse for 46 years. When I was in school we were taught that nauseous was NOT a word. Well……so many people use it that it was added to the dictionary and thus did not show up with red lines under it as I was typing. Very interesting!

  • My pet peeve is reading a book from the library and finding that a previous reader has made written “corrections” in the book. Really?

  • I always just assume the typesetter or whoever at the publisher/printer messed up because I know my favorite authors are perfect. 🙂

  • I am a retired high school English teacher. I have developed some tolerance for misused words because I don’t like being perceived as an English teacher “always on-duty” to the point that people feel uncomfortable around me.

    This is my biggest pet peeve–Speakers everywhere I turn–even the President!!– are using “myself” as a subject pronoun or as an objective pronoun–and THAT drives me over the edge!! I think they have heard the pronoun misused so much that they think it’s correct to say, “My daughter and myself are going shopping” or “The neighbors fed my husband and myself before we left for the game.”

    Am I the only one out there bothered by this misuse?

    • These are often cultural. You can call it a dialect if you like. I’ve noticed that trained people, such as a school teacher, often have a hard time distinguishing between written, formalized grammar and regional styles. Years ago when I taught an ESL program at a university, I was not allowed to rotate through grammar because my linguistics background would override pedagogy. The students wanted “the rules” and I’d say, “who’s rules? British RP? American Standard?” On the other hand, I was equally awesome at teaching public speaking and how to understand American classmates. 🙂

    • Sharon….you are not alone! I cringe each time I see it. Also bring. Vs. take. Even our TV media are saying bring when it should be take.

  • PS…saw the comment from lilacacres and it caught my eye.
    That might be a regional thing, but I’m not sure about that.
    I’m an RN (trained in the Boston area) and we were taught to pronounce that word like NAW-ZAH.
    A rose by any other name, right? (smile)

    • Oh ! I apologize then Terri, I had never come across that pronunciation…..I am an EMT and was certified in central California. Lived in Southern CA and now Northeastern CA – and had not heard it that way, thus the post…..we learn something new each day, right ?

      Thank you for chiming in !

      Pam

  • Really enjoyed this post and since my novel is being released late October, guess I’d better prepare myself.
    I agree with many of the comments here and certainly what you said, Susan.
    A legitimate error is one thing but to get so nit-picky tells me they’re truly more interested in trying to tell the author, “I” could easily write a book. It certainly doesn’t seem they are absorbing and enjoying the story and characters.
    You know the old saying: Those that can DO, those that can’t TEACH!!!

  • I have to agree with Kathleen…I do NOT read fiction to look for errors. I did that when I had to proof my husband’s papers when he was pursuing his Masters degree in Engr. I’m done with that.

    I’ll take this one step further: On a blog for Sherryl Woods, someone commented and almost demanded why the character didn’t have their twins vaccinated. Uh, this is a fictional story…Yikes. It reminded of Bo’s story with the immigration and the crap (oops,, sorry about that) you received from readers. I felt personally bad for Sherryl.

    I have also noticed how readers find other errors (character names in a series not matching, use of strong language, blah, blah, blah)…….people need to just get over it. With the internet, its so easy to fire off such detrimental emails that could possibly change the course of an author’s writing career….and that bothers me. I’m in no way a writer, just an avid reader (can I say that?) 🙂

  • I agree, “baited” breath drives me crazy. That would mean smelling like bait, or worse. It’s “bated” like abated. I see this improper spelling in far too many historical novels. (Avon I’m looking at you!)

      • You would not believe! Not only baited breath, but title wave, bail of straw, sat on a large bolder, caused the horse undo pain, a soft plaintiff moan, drank the vial liquid, pulled the twine taught — I could go on and on. That’s definitely one I wanted to mark up with a red pen.

  • This is one of my most favorite subjects! I even collect humorous inappropriate word use. There’s one non-word I would like placed against an adobe wall pockmarked with bullet holes, and then shot dead: alot. Not a word, folks. Never has been.

    I’ve had my correct spelling “corrected”, one time very publicly, and a strange thing always seems to happen. When you inform the person (diplomatically, of course) that they are mistaken, they either argue with you, or they don’t believe you. The mind boggles!

    Some of my favorites: Good riddens (it’s good riddance!). Up and Adam (it’s up and at ’em!). And actually, these aren’t exactly what you were talking about are they? I think these are what they call malapropisms (or however you spell it!) *g*

  • Susan ~ love the post and the little “counterintutitive-nyms” in bold. I did not know leman or lachrymose. Brits and Canadians spell some words with a “ou” instead of “o” as Americans do. It just makes us unique. Check out Grammar Girl for the historical notes on Mirriam Webster.

    Discombobulated – have not heard that word in such a long time. We loved that word. We thought we were so smart when we used it. The longer the word, the more intelligent we thought we were.

    As we age we do not want to be discombobulated.

  • There’s some sort of synchronicity in the universe. Today, at a very popular writing blog, what should appear but the word ‘minuscule’. But they spelled it miniscule.

    According to Dictionary.com:
    Minuscule, from Latin minus meaning “less,” has frequently come to be spelled miniscule, perhaps under the influence of the prefix mini- in the sense “of a small size.” Although this newer spelling is criticized by many, it occurs with such frequency in edited writing that some consider it a variant spelling rather than a misspelling.

    • Susan & Terry

      I am taking another creative writing course. Last night I was reading a piece to critique. There is was – miniscule rather than minuscule. The discussion time should be interesting tomorrow afternoon. Several retired teachers are taking the class. They have no mercy. We are all students in grade 5 grammar class.

      I once read a satire on how the english language will become a series of letters and very short phrases. It became the mixed up alphabet by the end of the piece.

  • GREAT post! Haha, yours is much more highbrow than anything I’ve written too :X Heh bemuse is something I’ve seen used incorrectly increasingly. How sad.
    “CongraDS” instead of “Congratulations”or “Congrats.” I’ve also noticed a lot more people are writing “should of” instead of “should’ve.”
    I knew most of the words on your list, but wasn’t 100% on some of those. I’m better with context than dictionary definitions, but oh gosh. Mini-scule. I used to love “irregardless” just because it drove my friends crazy, but I think I’m in their camp now.

  • Hi Susan,

    The one comes to mind, used in the phrase “taken for granted” which I seem to see a lot as “taken for granite”. Duh !

    Anything else I can seem to come up with are incorrectly pronounced words…….. there are many that irritate me. However the ones that kill me are “drowned” which some people say “drownded” or if a person is suffering from “nausea”, which is na-zee-uh, but there are several commercials that the spokesperson says “na-ja”. Regional ? Who knows, but they put me on edge at any rate.

    Great topic !

    Pam

  • This is a stand-up-and-cheer kind of post. The know-it-alls who wouldn’t bother to crack open a dictionary before wasting their time and the recipient’s on a matter that’s not?! I’m discombobulated!

  • I knew ‘hanged’ and ‘sneaked’! And most of the others, although I did look them up to make sure I was right. I subscribe to Word of the Day from Dictionary.com which keeps me thinking. Monday was ‘fillip’ which was a new one for me.

    I get irritated by baited breath; peeked or peaked instead of piqued. Then there’s the idiomatic controversy. Is it, you’ve got another ‘thing’ or another ‘think’ coming? I’ll admit to relying on the red squiggly lines in Word when I’m writing but that’s only good for actual misspellings.

    I’ve got a Brit crit partner. We go round and round with ‘correct but different’ spelling.

    I had someone tell me she had a master’s in English but had never heard the word miasma. I don’t have a degree in English of any sort — I figure if I know a word, others should too.

    And what about myriad. You don’t need the ‘of’ (although I believe you can still use it.) And ‘consensus of opinion’. My Latin teacher was a stickler for proper usage. And ‘comprised’. I avoid that one because it looks wrong when it’s right.

    • That’s about the only time you get to use the word “hanged” so take advantage it. Fort Smith, Arkansas, had Judge Isaac Parker, the Hanging Judge. All the time, you hear city representatives telling visitors how many people Judge Parker hung. (The visitors are not amused.)

    • My first textbook teaching English overseas as a brand new teacher was from the UK. I’m American. When the local teachers would ask me to explain chapters that had unfamiliar grammar, vocabulary, or spelling that stumped me, Id reply, “It must be British.” I didn’t realize how often i said that until it became a running joke. Now I have fun with knowing more than one version of English.

    • Yes! Things that look wrong when they’re right. “between her and me” is correct, but people think it should be “between her and I” or worse, “between she and I.”

      So I do what you do–avoid it entirely. There’s always a work-around.

      • This is one that makes me crazy! I don’t know why it’s become such common usage to say after a preposition, so and so and I. I’ve even heard it from television reporters and they should have knowledgeable script writers. One time Dr. Phil said ” Robin and I’s money” Huh?????????????? Like fingernails on a chalk board.

      • My former editor was an Aussie. We went back and forth about ‘correct’ usage. “Fitted” might be the past tense of “fit”, but here in the US we don’t say, “He fitted right in.” And she told me I couldn’t use ‘all of a sudden’ because there’s no such thing as ‘half a sudden’. We had some very interesting discussions. And I did a lot of write-arounds.

  • I cannot believe someone has the time to sit down and write to you about a word they think is not spelled correctly. I am not reading your books for the purpose. I reading your books to be entertained and the sheer enjoyment of your writing…People get a life for heavens sake.

    • LOL, Kathleen. The Internet makes it so easy to dash off a note. I truly do appreciate real corrections, though. Typos in books bug me, and I know things slip by me, my editor and proofreader. In a 100,000-word-plus book, a typo is likely. So if a reader gives me a heads-up, I tell my publisher and they correct something called the “master file” to update it for future editions.

  • I agree with Marie K–your and you’re are my big pet peeves. Most of my writing has been in business letters, legal documents, etc and I have seen a big decline since the 60’s. Please keep teaching!

  • In my writing world (as a 3rd grade teacher) I have been battling the proper usage of your and you’re, to, too, and two, as well as there, their, and they’re and using cause for because. Not quite as intense as your words, but it’s important to me that they learn to use them correctly.

  • Hi Susan,

    Then there are your readers who would rather sing your praises and build you up for the talented author you are! I have too many other things to do with my time (like read more of your books!) than to spend it worrying about any sort of “mini”scule problems!

    I left a “THANK YOU” somewhere on your site a few weeks ago and wanted to repeat it again here in case you didn’t see it. Thank you so much again for the book on CD for my daughter Sarah, the autographed copy of Just Breathe and the postcard with the personal note. When I saw the mail that day I was so moved. What a kind, kind thing that was to do.

    And being a relatively new “Susan Wiggs” fan, Just Breathe was the first of your books I had read and is what got me hooked! So to receive that made it even more special.

    You are a special lady and a true gift to us, your readers.

    Thanks again. Mary

    • Thanks for the reminder about the free rice site. I used to to spend a lot of evenings there until I retired. Now that I am making a real effort to keep my brain functioning at maximum levels I will have to start working on my vocabulary and donating rice at the same time.

  • The minuscule thing drives me mad. I think it’s come about because people see the word spelled incorrectly so many times that they think it’s the correct spelling. (I mean, she obviously felt strongly enough about it to write you.)

    Some people with misconceptions about word use and spelling are at work as copyeditors with some publishers, I think.

    The one I see most often is when people say “reign in” or “keeping reign over her emotions”–it’s rein! When someone holds the *reins* they’re keeping the horse from going too fast. I know it evokes “reign” as in a king’s reign for these people, but grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

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