Twenty Common Spelling and Usage Mistakes, Including Some Surprises

One of the most important lessons I have learned as a copy editor is that there are always more copyediting lessons to be learned. The Mashable article partially reproduced below includes a couple of new lessons for me. Entitled “20 Word Usage Mistakes Even Smart People Make,” it sets out many familiar mistakes, like “accept” vs. “except,” “effect” vs. “affect,” and “discreet” vs. “discrete.” Yes, I already knew about those.

But did you know that the term “just deserts” is supposed to be spelled like that, with only one “s” in the middle? Or that “fortuitous” does not mean “a lucky accident”? Check out the first five on the list, then click on the link that follows, to read the rest.

1. INVARIABLY

If something happens invariably, it always happens. To be invariable is to never vary. The word is sometimes used to mean frequently, which has more leeway.

2. COMPRISE/COMPOSE

A whole comprises its parts. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. The U.S. comprises 50 states. But people tend to say is comprised of when they mean comprise. If your instinct is to use the is … of version, then substitute composed. The whole is composed of its parts.

3. FREE REIN

The words rein and reign are commonly confused. Reign is a period of power or authority—kings and queens reign—and a good way to remember it is to note that the g relates it to royal words like regent and regal. A rein is a strap used to control a horse. The confusion comes in when the control of a horse is used as a metaphor for limits on power or authority. Free rein comes from such a metaphor. If you have free rein you can do what you want because no one is tightening the reins.

4. JUST DESERTS

There is only one s in the desert of just deserts. It is not the dessert of after-dinner treats nor the dry and sandy desert. It comes from an old noun form of the verb deserve. A desert is a thing which is deserved.

5. TORTUOUS/TORTUROUS

Tortuous is not the same as torturous. Something that is tortuous has many twists and turns, like a winding road or a complicated argument. It’s just a description. It makes no judgment on what the experience of following that road or argument is like. Torturous, on the other hand, is a harsh judgment—“It was torture!”

Click here to read the rest. Be forewarned, however, that number 19 inadvertently includes a common mistake of its own, which, in all honesty, makes me feel a little better about those that I didn’t know. And for another look at “i.e.” vs. “eg.,” click here.