‘Half’ and ‘halve’

Half and halve are not homophones, but they sound similar and their meanings are closely related.

PearsHalf:

  • 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”

Halve:

  • 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.

‘Cymbal’ and ‘symbol’

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).

DrumsCymbal

  • a slightly concave, round brass plate which is struck against another or with a stick to produce a sound

Symbol

  • 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.

‘Custardy’ and ‘custody’

Sometimes spelling custody as custardy is funny in a surreal way, but most of the time it should be avoided.

Custardy

  • resembling or having the properties or characteristics of custard

Chain fenceCustody

  • 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’

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.

Waiver

  • the act or an instance of giving up a claim or right
  • a document recording the giving up of a claim or right

Waver

  • Candle flamesto 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.

i before e except after c

SpellingI was fairly young when I found that the rule ‘i before e except after c’ sometimes led my spelling astray. I remember being very disappointed that adults had told me something that wasn’t completely true.

It would probably have helped if someone had told me it is spelling advice that only really applies when the combination of i and e is pronounced ee:

believe
ceiling
receive
siege

If the combination of i and e is pronounced ay, the rule does not apply:

beige
neighbour

The rule also does not apply if the combination is pronounced i:

eider
height

Or if the i and the e are pronounced separately:

holier
occupier

There are some words that simply do not obey the rule, and these just have to be learnt:

caffeine
heir
species

The simple and general explanation for the exceptions is that many of those words were formed differently (from two or more parts) or come from another language. I would have been placated by that.


Sources:

  • Fowler, H. W. and Butterfield, J. (2015) Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • New Hart’s rules: the handbook of style for writers and editors (2014) 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

‘Prescribe’ and ‘proscribe’

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’.

PillsPrescribe

  • to recommend or authorise the use of
  • to state authoritatively or lay down as a rule

Proscribe

  • 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.

Nycthemeron

This week’s interesting word is a borrowing from Greek. A nycthemeron is a period of twenty-four hours – one day and one night.

It can also be spelt nychthemeron. It is a term that seems to be used predominantly in academic texts, but I think it would fit in nicely in works of a more fantastical nature.

The OED gives the earliest recorded usage as follows:

“Onely the shadowy Vale of the Night will be cast over them once in a Nycthemeron.”

– Henry More, Two choice and useful treatises. 1682

I have taken this explanation of the origin directly from Oxford Dictionaries Online because Greek language is not my speciality:

“From Hellenistic Greek νυχθήμερον period of a day and a night, use as noun of neuter singular of νυχθήμερος lasting for a day and a night from ancient Greek νυκτ-, νύξ night + ἡμέρα day.” (You can view the entry here.)

Day and night

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Won’t

Old writingHave you ever wondered why the contraction of will not is won’t?

Do not becomes don’t, cannot becomes can’t, and shall not becomes shan’t. Won’t does not follow the same pattern.

That is because won’t is actually a contraction of woll not. Woll is an archaic form of will; many Germanic languages have or had a similar word with a similar meaning.

Won’t fought off competition from other forms including wonnot, woonnot and wo’nt to become the standard contraction we use today.

We may no longer use woll, but it is easy to see why English has retained won’t instead of using willn’t or even win’t.


Sources:

‘Faun’ and ‘fawn’

FawnThis 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.

Fawn

  • 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

Faun

  • a being that is part human and part goat (usually in Roman mythology)

‘Brake’ and ‘break’

I regularly see break and brake used incorrectly. They are homophones and it’s very easy to type the right letters in the wrong order.

Break has lots of meanings but I am going to list the core ones (I have also omitted brake’s rarer ones). If you would like a more extensive breakdown, you should visit Oxford Dictionaries online.

Brake

  • to make a moving vehicle slow down by using a brake
  • a device for stopping or slowing a vehicle
  • a thing that slows, hinders or stops progress, activity or momentum

Break

  • to separate or become separated into piecesBroken down car
  • to damage or become damaged so as not to work
  • to cut through or penetrate
  • to interrupt
  • to fail to observe or to infringe
  • to crush emotional strength or resistance
  • to go through change or enter a new state
  • to suddenly become public
  • an interruption of continuity or uniformity
  • a pause in work or activity
  • a gap or opening
  • an opportunity or chance

Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple tip to help anyone who may struggle with using break and brake. If you have a suggestion, please share it in the comments!

Thank you to James J Harris for suggesting this post.