This post is a little different from my usual notes on commonly confused words. Some writers worry about whether they should use despatch or dispatch, but this is an easy dilemma to solve – just pick the spelling you prefer. Both forms are legitimate.
- to send off to a destination; the sending of something or someone to a destination
- to perform or deal with a task or problem quickly and efficiently
- to kill; the killing of something or someone
- an official communication or report
Dispatch is the older form and is often preferred for that reason. It is also the form that, according to Fowler’s, is regarded as ‘etymologically more correct’. Despatch is a variant that is usually traced back to Samuel Johnson; his dictionary of 1755 listed the des- form despite Johnson himself always using the dis- form. It is therefore thought that the spelling despatch was originally an error.
However, it is now completely acceptable to use either form – although the use of despatch is often associated with British English.
(But I prefer dispatch.)
I sometimes see college used when the writer means colleague. I think this is usually due to a typing error or uncertainty about how to spell colleague. Unfortunately, this is a spelling error that a spellchecker won’t be able to help with.
- an educational institution
- an organised body within a particular profession
My tip: say the word out loud. You probably wouldn’t spell league as lege.
Two weeks ago I published a post on the homophones nigh and nye. A nye is a flock or brood of pheasants, which leads me to this week’s sometimes confused words: peasant and pheasant. I presume this is often a spelling error rather than real confusion on the part of the writer (especially as peasant and pheasant are not homophones).
- a poor agricultural worker of low social status or class
- an ignorant, rude, uncouth, unsophisticated or uncultured person
- a long-tailed game bird originally native to Asia
My tip: a peasant is a person.
Half and halve are not homophones, but they sound similar and their meanings are closely related.
- either of two equal or corresponding parts that together make up a whole
- the fraction equal to one divided by two
“I cut the pear in half”
- to divide something into two equal, or nearly equal, parts
- to reduce by half
“I halved the pear”
My tip is to try to remember that halve is a verb. This advice is slightly complicated by the plural form of half – “I cut the pears into halves” – but the context should help you determine which is appropriate.
Nigh and nye are homophones, and neither is particularly common. I suspect a general audience would be most familiar with nigh. Nigh is considered archaic and literary, but the usage of nye is very limited.
- close to
- almost or nearly
- a brood (or sometimes flock) of pheasants
My tip: “the end is nigh”.
Cymbal and symbol are homophones. It tends to be symbol that is used when cymbal would be appropriate rather than the other way round; I suspect that is because symbol is simply more familiar. I also find cymbal is sometimes misspelt as cymbol (I haven’t been able to find any sources that accept cymbol as a legitimate alternative spelling, but I would be interested to hear from anyone who has such a source).
- a slightly concave, round brass plate which is struck against another or with a stick to produce a sound
- a mark, shape, sign, figure or character used as a conventional representation of an object, quantity, function, process or organisation
- a thing that stands for or represents something else
My tip: cymbals are used when producing music.
Sometimes spelling custody as custardy is funny in a surreal way, but most of the time it should be avoided.
- resembling or having the properties or characteristics of custard
- the act of keeping safe; care or guardianship of someone or something
- imprisonment (usually before being tried)
My tip: associate custardy with custard and custody with prison.
Waiver and waver are homophones, but they mean very different things. I often find that waiver is used when the writer actually means waver – I presume the mistake is made because the writer has the ay sound in mind.
- the act or an instance of giving up a claim or right
- a document recording the giving up of a claim or right
- to hesitate between possibilities; to be indecisive
- to swing from one thing to another
- to become unsteady; to falter; to become weaker
- to move back and forth or one way and another; to quiver or flicker
My tip: try to associate waiver with the giving up of a claim. It should be fairly easy to remember that waver is the spelling for everything else.
Prescribe and proscribe do not mean the same thing. In some circumstances, it may be very important to know exactly which word to use. Most people are probably familiar with prescribe because it is the correct word for ‘to issue a prescription for medicine’.
- to recommend or authorise the use of
- to state authoritatively or lay down as a rule
- to prohibit or forbid
- to condemn or denounce; to outlaw or banish
My suggestion for remembering which word to use is to associate prescribe with yes and proscribe with no.
This post is an excuse to use a cute photo. The delightful creatures you see when walking your dog are fawns; the mythological creatures you read about are fauns.
- a deer aged under one year
- (of a deer) to produce young
- a pale brown colour
- to give a display of insincere or exaggerated flattery
- to try to please someone by a show of extreme friendliness or affection
- a being that is part human and part goat (usually in Roman mythology)