Upmost vs. utmost

When you need an adjective meaning (1) of the highest or greatest degree or (2) most extreme, the word is utmost. When you need an adjective meaning situated at the top, highest, or most upward position, the word you're looking for is upmost. The latter is an old, almost archaic word that now mostly appears where writers obviously mean utmost. Examples Utmost Clearly, the Panthers are doing their utmost to entice people to visit the rink. [Regina Leader-Post] You can feel that the … [Read more...]

Wagon vs. waggon

Wagon and waggon are different spellings of the same word meaning, among other things, a sturdy four-wheeled vehicle for transporting things. Waggon was preferred in British English until a century ago,1 and it still appears occasionally, but it is fast becoming archaic. In this century, the shorter one is preferred in all main varieties of English. This ngram, which graphs the use of wagon and waggon in a large number of British texts published from 1800 to 2000, shows waggon's decline … [Read more...]

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic means making well-meaning but negligible adjustments to an endeavor that is doomed to fail. It is a useful phrase, but it has been overused.  The expression goes back at least three decades (the earliest example we could find is from 1975), but its use has picked up sharply during the last few years. You know an expression has worn out its welcome when politicians take to it---for example: Palin derided the GOP "establishment" and accused them of … [Read more...]

Waiver vs. waver

Waiver is a noun with several meanings, including (1) intentional relinquishment of a right or privilege, (2) a dispensation, and (3) a deferment. In most cases, the one who relinquishes a right or privilege gives the waiver, while the one who benefits from the relinquishment receives the waiver. Waver is a verb meaning (1) to move unsteadily back and forth, (2) to vacillate, or (3) to tremble in sound. Related distinctions apply to the verbs waive and wave. Examples Waiver Oak Hills Local … [Read more...]

Some way vs. someway

While sometime, someday, someplace, someone, etc. are all long-established, dictionary-approved words, there is no accepted equivalent compound of the two-word phrase some way. In published writing of all kinds, the two words are almost always separate, as in these cases: We wanted to honor his birthday in some way today and spent a few hours last night reacquainting ourselves with some of Dr. King's speeches. [Chicagoist] That word is generally reserved for music that's new, unusual or … [Read more...]

Whiskey vs. whisky

The difference between whiskey and whisky is simple but important: whisky usually denotes Scotch whisky and Scotch-inspired liquors, and whiskey denotes the Irish and American liquors. The word itself (both spellings) is of Celtic origin, and modern whisky/whiskey distillation practices originated in Ireland and Scotland. Using whiskey to refer to Scotch whisky can get you in trouble in Scotland. Examples In November, China ruled that any product labelled as "Scotch whisky" in China must … [Read more...]

Yoke vs. yolk

Yoke and yolk aren't exactly homophones, but they are sometimes confused due to their closeness in sound. Yolk (which can be a count noun or a mass noun) is the yellow portion of an egg. A yoke is the crossbar that encircles the necks of a pair of oxen or other draft animals. It's usually metaphorical, often as part of the phrases throw off the yoke and under the yoke.  Examples Eager to throw off the yoke of government ownership, the U.K.'s two partially state-owned banks have been quietly … [Read more...]

Espresso vs. expresso

Expresso started as a misspelling of espresso, which came to English from Italian and refers to a strong, pressure-brewed coffee. But because expresso has so often appeared in place of espresso, we can perhaps consider it a variant. And indeed, some dictionaries now list it as such. This doesn't change the fact that many English speakers consider expresso wrong, however, and some will no doubt continue to do so no matter how common it becomes. So if you don't want anyone to think you're … [Read more...]

Fictional vs. fictitious

The adjective fictitious began as a variant of fictional, but the words have differentiated over time. Although both can be used to mean imaginary or fabricated, fictional is often used to describe imaginative works of art and things relating to them. A science-fiction novel, for instance, is fictional, as are its characters and story. Fictitious usually means, more generally, imaginary or fabricated, without necessarily referring to fictional works of art. For example, a nonexistent illness one … [Read more...]

Instinctive vs. instinctual

At root, instinctive and instinctual are essentially the same; both mean (1) of or arising from the instinct, or (2) pertaining to the instinct. There is a subtle difference between them in some writing on psychology published in the last century. In these contexts, instinctive describes any unlearned response no matter how basic. For example, the fight-or-flight response to danger is instinctive, as is the tendency for babies to cry when hungry. Instinctual, meanwhile, describes feelings, … [Read more...]

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