You’re Saying it Wrong: Five Commonly Misspoken (and Misspelled) Words and Phrases
Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume 4
The English language is full of words that sound alike but are written differently, or are spelled alike but pronounced differently, and which make you look silly when you mix them up. Even worse, we have different words that sound alike and have very similar meanings, but will make grammar geeks look silly when they accuse each other of misusing the words even when they're not sure themselves about which one to use. This series is an attempt to help folks remember which word not to use, and maybe help some other folks to stop taking grammar so darn seriously all the time. In this installment, we'll see why we shouldn't try to peak someone's interest, wet someone's appetite, say "Here comes the Calvary," drink expresso, or use affect as a noun outside of clinical psychology.
People say: “Peek (or peak) your interest.”
They mean “pique your interest.”
The words sound exactly alike, so someone who has never read the phrase can be completely forgiven for using peek or peak to mean pique. Well, less so for using peek, because it makes no sense at all. To pique one’s interest means to catch it, or to excite it. It doesn’t mean to look at it from behind something else. Using peak makes a bit more sense, since one of the meanings of peak is the very top of something, as in, “She stood on the mountain’s peak.” It seems like you could also use peak as a verb meaning to elevate [something] to its highest possible level, especially when you consider usages like, “His campaign peaked too early in the year for him to win the election.” But this usage is intransitive, that is to say, a campaign can peak, but try as hard as he might, the campaign manager cannot peak a campaign. It’s something that happens, not something that can be done to something.
Now that we know why the incorrect usages are incorrect, let’s look at the correct usage. Pique, as you probably have guessed, has its origins in the French language. It was originally a noun meaning a sting or an irritation. It evolved to mean (and is still used to mean) anger or resentment, as in, “The bad grammar sent the writer into a fit of pique.” It seems like the natural evolution of pique into a verb would have it meaning to annoy or to vex, and that is one of its meanings (though it’s usually used in the passive voice as in, “The writer was piqued by the scathing review.”) But when someone is piqued, he’s anything but indifferent.
Now consider a related word: piquant. It means “pleasingly spicy or tangy,” and is mostly used to describe food that you’d be interested in eating. I’m not sure how a word that originally meant (as a noun) “an irritation” or (as a verb) “to irritate” evolved into an adjective meaning “tasty” (though sometimes spicy food can kinda hurt), but there it is. When you pique someone’s interest, you’re making them pay attention, whether it’s because you’re offering something they find pleasant, or because you’re bugging them so much that they have to pay attention.
Remember the correct usage of pique by remembering the related adjective, piquant. Or you could just avoid the word altogether and say “catch your interest” or “arouse your interest,” or even “sharpen your interest,” which brings us to the next misusage.
People say: “Wet your appetite.”
They mean: “Whet your appetite.”
The words wet and whet sound alike. Even in dialects where the h isn’t silent in words like whet (and where and why), that slight aspiration between the w and the next vowel isn’t exactly loud, either. So in speech, we have to hear the distinction between [wɛt] and [whɛt] (or even [wɛt] and [wɛt]) to know that there’s a difference. Confusion is to be expected. So let’s look at the meanings of the two words.
When something is wet, it’s got liquid (usually water) all over it (or even soaked into it). If you’re going to wet something, you’re going to put water on it. You’re not going to pour water on someone’s appetite, not even figuratively. That would lessen their appetite, not make it more keen, which is what whet means.
The original meaning of whet was “to sharpen,” as a knife or an axe. It was also used as a noun referring to the thing used to do the sharpening, though we mostly add the word stone to it these days and use a whetstone to whet our knives. But we need to use something else to whet our appetites, like delicious aromas (the smell of the roast turkey at Thanksgiving always whets my appetite), or tasty food (an appetizer), or even a drink, which is how you’re going to remember the correct usage: think of the movie Pale Rider, where the Preacher says, “There’s nothing like a shot of whiskey to whet a man’s appetite.”
People say: “Here comes the Calvary.”
They mean “Here comes the cavalry”
The words Calvary and cavalry have all the same sounds in them (not quite in the same order), and it’s easy to mix them up—even in print, if you’re not reading carefully. But they don’t mean anywhere near the same thing.
Calvary is the Latin name of the hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. (The Aramaic name, in the Gospels, is transcribed as Golgotha.) The word calvary (without the capital C) is also used to mean artistic depictions of the crucifixion, usually in sculpture, usually displayed outdoors. It has also been used to mean “a great ordeal.” This is not something that can come to your rescue (though I’m tempted to make a pun about how Jesus saves….) Calvary is pronounced with the L before the V, like this: CAL-va-ry.
Cavalry, on the other hand, is a group of soldiers on horseback. When using the phrase “here comes the cavalry,” we’re usually not talking about actual horse soldiers but rather a person or group who is coming to help us out of a jam. We say this because of a cliché in old American westerns: the hero and/or heroine is in trouble, usually about to get killed by either bandits or Indians, and a cavalry troop happens along just in time to save them. There’s even a 20-minute Western short called “Here Comes the Cavalry.” The word cavalry descends from cavalier, which in turn descends from chivalry, or knighthood. The root of chivalry is the French word for horse, cheval. Cavalry is pronounced with the V before the L, like this: CAV-al-ry.
To remember the difference, look at the images to the right.
People say: “Expresso.”
They mean “Espresso”
Espresso is very strong coffee made by forcing very hot water through darkly roasted, finely ground, and closely packed beans. The process was invented in Italy by a fellow called Luigi Bezzera.
Expresso (with the x ), on the other hand, is an Americanization of the Italian word espresso (which has no x ). I’m not sure how the X got in there, but I think it’s the same phenomenon that has some people saying expecially (with an x ) when they mean especially (which has no x ). It may also have to do with the existence in English of the word express , which means both “quick” and “just for you,” both of which describe a cup of espresso. But generally speaking, if I want to have a nice cup of coffee, I’m going to want to savor it, not pound it down as quickly as I can. Plus, you need to take a minute to let it cool, right? Don’t drink your espresso like an express train.
Remember the difference by remembering that 1) espresso is Italian, not American, and 2) a good cup of coffee is best enjoyed at leisure.
People say: “Affect”
They mean “effect” (Or sometimes, the other way 'round.)
Oh, boy, is this one complicated. Both words have very similar (in some dialects, identical) pronunciations. Worse, both words can be used as either a noun or a verb, so that shortcut is closed. Even more confusing, the words have similar (not the same!) meanings. It’s enough to affect one’s sanity. Thinking too hard about this could have detrimental effects. But let me affect a more professorial air, and try to effect a greater understanding of these two words in hopes that this article will affect you deeply.
There. Confused yet?
Affect can be used as both a noun and a verb. As a verb, it has more than one meaning. It can mean “to act upon or influence,” as in, “The corporation’s earnings announcement affected its stock price.” Or it can mean “to pretend or assume,” as in, “Thinking it would make him seem more sophisticated, Jim-Bob affected a British accent.”
As a noun, it means a feeling or an emotion either expressed or observed, and this usage is limited to the field of psychology. “Blunted affect can be an indication of mental illness.” It should be noted that this usage has a different pronunciation: AF-ekt, instead of the verb’s pronunciation, uh-FEKT. Most people will never (correctly) use affect as a noun.
Effect can also be used as both a noun and a verb, though its pronunciation does not change. As a noun, it can mean “result,” as in, “The explosion had a devastating effect on the neighborhood.” It can mean the ability to bring about a result, as in, “Xander shot the vampire, but the bullets had no effect.” It can mean a spectacle or impression, as in, “Star Wars is known for its groundbreaking special effects.” It can mean the state of being operative, as in, “The tax breaks will remain in effect for two more years.” It can mean a scientific phenomenon, as in, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” All of these meanings are pronounced like this: uh-FEKT.
As a verb, effect means to bring about, as in, “The new policy will effect an economic recovery.” In this case, effect is also pronounced uh-FEKT.
Remember which is which by…um…by learning the definitions. I’m afraid there’s no shortcut here, and it can be very confusing, especially when you’re trying to explain that the economic effects of the stock market crash also affected the art world, causing many artists to affect a disdain for money, which effectively made them outsiders to high society. Affect is almost always a verb, but that doesn’t mean that effect is rarely a verb. You’ll just have to use the same method that we grammar geeks use: when in doubt, look it up.
Many of you have asked about words like disgruntled and why we never see anyone who is "gruntled." That article is on the way. In the meantime, I'm curious about the words and phrases that drive you crazy. What words or punctuation rules do you have trouble with? Please answer in the comments, below.