Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Confused words, part 3

Here's a less-than-magnificent seven pairs (or, in one case, trio) of commonly confused words.

Compose / Comprise
I made a horrible mistake on Twitter recently. I pasted a phrase from a draft report where the writer had made the common error of writing "comprises of". Then I 'corrected' it and only did half the job. 
Oops. The resulting firestorm almost got me thrown out of the International Siblinghood of Grammar Pedants. I was only saved by the fact that this was an error of vocabulary, not grammar, and the ISG is nothing if not a stickler for the rules. Still, it makes me shiver just to think about it.

If a thing is made up of other things, either "it is composed of" them or "it comprises" them (no 'of'). Similarly, the things that make up a bigger thing "compose" it. But nothing can "be comprised of" or "comprise of" anything else.

So, you can say the following:
The alphabet comprises 26 letters
The alphabet is composed of 26 letters
Twenty-six letters compose the alphabet (awkward, I know, but technically correct)
But not:
The alphabet is comprised of 26 letters
The alphabet comprises of 26 letters
If that's too hard to remember, just remember that 'of' never goes with 'comprise'.

Interment / Internment
The dead are interred. The living are interned, by becoming 'internal' to an organisation (or, in the case of the disastrous anti-terrorism policy in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, imprisoned without trial).

An interment is a funeral, where the star of the show is put in terra, i.e. in the ground. 

Phase / Faze
The British suffer more than Americans from the belief that the letter 'Z' is somehow vulgar, so they're more likely to write "unphased" when they mean "unfazed". Since a phase is a set period of time in which something specific happens, being phased should only happen to traffic lights, or possibly the villains in Star Trek. 

Raise / Raze
You've got to wonder at the logical failure of anyone who writes "raised to the ground", unless they're talking about leaving the basement. It helps if you know a bit of French: razer means to shave; but surely we're all familiar enough with razors? 

Peak / Peek
There's an irritating Twitter robot called @StealthMountain that will correct you for writing "sneak peak" instead of "sneak peek". It's had to do this more than 300,000 times in 18 months, which is about once every two minutes. I suppose it's a necessary public service, but it's annoying if you were only pointing out someone else's error. It could have been worse: the robot might have called itself @ClandestineOrgasm.

Ordnance / Ordinance
Again, one little letter makes a difference. An ordinance is an official decree, and all acts of Parliament were called ordinances during the eleven years when England was a republic (1649-60). The UK's official map-maker is often mistakenly called the Ordinance Survey - presumably people think this refers to some law - but it's actually the Ordnance Survey. Get it wrong when typing the URL and you'll end up in a fake site full of malware. 
For security reasons, this map is not available in France

Ordnance is ammunition (as in, "the battlefield was littered with spent ordnance") or artillery. Some people have suggested a sinister reason for the British Board of Ordnance getting the job of surveying the country, as if the government was planning to impose martial law (after all, the project began during the panic following the French Revolution), but the simpler answer is that the government feared an invasion and wanted to give the British artillery an advantage on any battlefield in southern England. Once Napoleon had been safely dispatched, the Ordnance went ahead and surveyed the rest of the country, since they had nothing better to do and no one was better qualified to do the job. 

Cite / Site / Sight
I always feel slightly dirty if I read a newspaper article about bad grammar and then go looking for mistakes. Hunting down errors in the comments section is even worse. It's like pornography: one has a perfectly legitimate interest in the subject, but it still feels like a cheap way of gaining fulfilment. 

There's also the danger of making a mistake yourself, so I restrained myself from correcting Ginghead. He or she had replied to a comment below a Guardian article on 'Grammar rules everyone should follow' with the following:
Ginghead's use of "sighted" might have been right, of course, if HardcorePrawn had actually seen the example he mentioned. But Ginghead insists that he can't have done so. The word he was looking for is 'cite': "to quote or refer to (a passage, book, or author) in substantiation as an authority, proof, or example" (Collins).

Sight and site, while normally nouns, can also be verbs: 'sight' as a more forceful form of 'see' while 'site' means to put in place, as in:
"As the building site came into sight, she sighted where her department was to be sited."
I'll leave it to any German-speaking readers to concoct a joke about how 'site' is a place while zeit is time. They can then argue with the theoretical physicists about whether there's really any difference. 

See also:
Nine (or eighteen) commonly mistaken words: Loose, Infer, Forgo, Empathise, Lay, Principal, Pry, Fare, Discrete
More Confused Words Dowse, Slander, Illicit, Scold, Founder, Flail
Mistaken words: couples or just good friends?  Treble, Choose, Discomfit, Last/Past, Alternate, Forbear, Cancel/Postpone, Market(place), Affect
(yes there are three, so this post is technically part 4: proof that maths fails me as often as words. Still, even the Vatican can't number its popes properly)

Moral: Feel free to set up your own Twitter robot, but don't tread on the toes, and definitely not the foothills, of @StealthMountain.


  1. Since nearly all peeks are not 'sneak' - being based on a PR invite or similar - I think the Twitter robot is wrongly aimed.

  2. This article really peeked my interest. (another one I often see)

    1. Really? That is bad.
      These homophones are a boon for headline writers. I once wrote a story about the campaign for an inquiry into the sinking of the 'Derbyshire' and gave it the headline 'Derbyshire pique'.

  3. Baited breath -- what, to catch mice? All too common. Now, bated breath..
    Towing the line all too common as well. Toeing the line is what's meant.