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Pairs of words that cause problems

It is with more and more frequency for us to see confusion between pairs of words some of which are homonyms (two words that sound the same but may be spelled differently) and others of which are similar in phonetic structure but are not exact. One such pair is pour vs. pore. The first word, of course, means “to flow” or “to run freely,” while the second means “to read studiously.” It is not uncommon to see a sentence such as “I poured over the documents to make sure everything was in order.” The error is understandable because we tend to use the verb to pour more frequently than to pore.

Another pair of homonyms suffering from misuse is peek vs. peak. The error often shows up in sentences such as “We took a sneak peak at the preparations for the big party.” In this case, the noun peak, meaning “a pointed or projecting part” has been used instead of peek “a glance.” The similarity in the spelling of sneak and peak also plays a role in creating confusion.

I’m sure many of you have seen the words loose and lose used incorrectly. Take, for instance, the following examples of misuse: “No one wants to loose power in this hot weather” or “We hope Mike doesn’t loose his job because of all the cutbacks.” Loose is most commonly used as an adjective meaning “free from restraint” while lose is a verb meaning “to fail to keep or maintain.”

Effect and affect, whether used as nouns or verbs, are also easy to confuse. The verb effect means “to cause to happen” while affect means “to produce an effect on.” This means the sentence “The changes will effect all of us” is incorrect while “All their efforts to help the community will surely effect many changes” is correct. A good way to check to see if you are using the verb “effect” correctly is to substitute the verb “cause” and see if the meaning stays the same.

It is possible the verbs lie and lay win the prize for causing us the most confusion. This pair of verbs is understandably difficult because of the duplication within each set of forms. Lie is an intransitive verb (it does not take a direct object) meaning “to be or stay at rest in” while lay is a transitive verb meaning “to place or set down.” The present, past and present participle forms for the verb to lie are lie, lay and lying. For to lay they are lay, laid and laying. So a person or object may recline or lie on something, but one lays something (direct object) down. This makes it incorrect to command your dog to “Lay down.” Our dogs should lie down although yesterday they lay down (not laid down) when commanded.

I’ll close this column with the pair disinterested vs. uninterested.

The first word means “impartial” or “objective.” So if someone says he is disinterested in the outcome, it means he is not biased or leaning toward a particular outcome. If someone is uninterested in politics, it means she lacks an interest in that topic. This makes the following sentence incorrect. “The students’ disinterest in the material caused them to complain of boredom.” Many linguists and teachers feel the confusion between these two forms has become so great and the misuse so common, disinterested now means uninterested for most people. Whether language purists like it or not, common usage (what people actually do with language) has resulted in a change in meaning.

This is not a rare or infrequent occurrence in language. There are times when usage trumps the dictionary. The word personable which used to mean primarily “physically attractive” is now commonly used to mean “having a nice personality.”


1. The rain did not affect/effect the outcome of the game.

2. Our efforts can certainly affect/effect positive change in our community.

3. The side affects/effects of that drug are still unknown.

4. Teaching your dog to lie/lay down on command is essential.

5. We might loose/lose that cable if it’s not secured because it’s so loose/lose.

6. We often lie/lay down for a nap after a long day at work.

7. Yesterday Grandad lay/laid down for his afternoon nap.

8. The keys were lying/laying on the dresser exactly where you lay/laid them.

9. It’s best to consult a distinterested/uninterested person if you want an unbiased opinion.

10. It’s unfortunate that so many students are disinterested/uninterested in participating in the cultural events after classes.

(Answers: 1. affect; 2. effect; 3. effects; 4. lie; 5. lose, loose; 6. lie; 7. lay; 8. lying, laid; 9. disinterested; 10. uninterested)

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.