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...]

Amok vs. amuck

Amok is the 21st-century standard spelling of the word meaning (1) in a frenzy to do violence, or (2) in an uncontrolled state. Amuck is an old alternative spelling of the Malaysian loanword, and it had a few decades of prevalence before the middle 20th century, but it has now fallen out of favor. A few usage authorities still recommend the latter spelling, but amok is preferred in edited writing of this century. Examples I also love running amok at De Kaaskamer, the ideal spot for a tour of … [Read more...]

Hanged vs. hung

Hung is the past tense and past participle of hang in most of that verb's senses. For instance, yesterday you might have hung a picture on the wall, hung a right turn, and hung your head in sorrow. The exception comes where hang means to put to death by hanging. The past tense and past participle of hang in this sense, and only in this sense, is hanged. When someone is hung out of malice but with no intent to kill, as described in the example below, hung is the conventional word: They hung … [Read more...]

Someday vs. some day

The one-word adverb someday works when describing an indefinite future time (e.g., "I'd like to see him again someday"). Some day is two words when it refers to a single day, even if that day is unknown or not specified (e.g., "I have an appointment some day next month"). The distinction is useful, but despite its usefulness and in spite of what usage authorities say, many writers use someday and some day more or less interchangeably. Examples Someday She also sees the sunflower as someday … [Read more...]


The verb belie means (1) to give false representation to, (2) to show [something] to be false, or (3) to contradict. Some writers, possibly confusing belie with betray, misuse belie to mean almost the opposite of what it logically means. For example, betray would make more sense than belie in these sentences: [W]e claim that we want Jesus to remain "the reason for the season," but our actions belie a different focus. [Huffington Post] Devlin points to a number of lyrical inaccuracies in the … [Read more...]

Tough row to hoe

In farming and gardening, to hoe a row is to turn a line of soil for the planting of seeds or bulbs. This is the origin of the idiom tough row to hoe, which describes a large, challenging task. A literal tough row to hoe might be one that is long or that involves hoeing dirt with lots of rocks or roots. A figurative tough row to hoe is any large undertaking that is especially difficult. Road to hoe is a misspelling. For some reason, it's especially common in sports writing---for … [Read more...]

Picaresque vs. picturesque

Picaresque Picaresque comes via French from the Spanish picaro, and it's probably related to the verbs pique and prick. Its modern English definition is unchanged from its French and Spanish meaning. As an adjective, it means (1) roguish or (2) of or involving clever rogues and adventurers---which refers to a genre of satiric Spanish fiction. As a noun, picaresque refers to a person who embodies these qualities. Here are a few examples: Jill Dawson's vivid seventh novel is the picaresque tale … [Read more...]

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