Watch your language — The wrong word often slips in to a sentence

Published 6:01 pm Friday, July 22, 2022

It’s July and while tomatoes are just starting to turn red and we’re waiting for a tasty harvest, we’ve got a bumper crop of bloopers that are all ready to analyze. Some misuses of language are easily explained or easy to track to a source. However, it can take a bit of detective work to piece together other bloopers and find an explanation for them. Many times, the error can be traced back to a phrase or word that has been recalled impartially or incorrectly.

A student wrote recently that he had allowed his work to pile up and told me: “I have gotten very behind the curb on this one.” I knew right away what he meant and at the same time had a chuckle imagining a very tiny student, say 6-8 inches tall, crouching behind a curb in the road telling me how far behind he is in his work. It’s perfectly fine to say, “I’m behind the eight ball,” meaning that one is at a disadvantage in a certain situation. It’s also acceptable to say “behind the curve” — meaning that one is not up with current ideas or knowledge. But this student didn’t want the latter meaning and the former meaning only partially pertains to his being behind in his work.

Another student wrote that playing in his first football game “made my veins coarse with adrenaline.” The standard expression is “course through one’s veins,” meaning to flow with one’s blood and usually in reference to a strong emotion (courage, fear, etc.), as in “I could feel terror coursing through my veins.” The humor derives in this case from the confusion between “course” meaning to flow and “coarse” meaning thick or rough. And in a similar pattern of partial recall, another student told me he had enough information to cover the “nuts and bones” of the paper he wanted to write.

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Confusion between two words or phrases that sound the same explains the following error found on a website that provides information on cockroaches and the kinds of environments where they thrive. The site includes the following sentence “This has a pungent smell which intern attracts other cockroaches.” Here we see that “in turn” has become “intern” and there is a corresponding shift in stress, so that if one were to read the incorrect use found on the website the stress on the first syllable of “intern” would signal an error in use. An error belonging to the same category can be found in this sentence: “The students were using online sources without sighting them.” The author should have used the verb form “citing” but his error is humorous if you consider students finding sources, using them, but not “seeing” (sighting) them.

Sometimes misuses arise because of incorrect additions that writers or speakers add in the form of prefixes or suffixes. One student wrote that a fellow classmate “repeatably broke the rules established for student behavior.” In this case the student has incorrectly substituted the past time marker “-ed” in “repeatedly” for the adverbial suffix “ably” used correctly in words such as “notably” or “regrettably.” Another such example is found in the phrase “some rivalities between professors” in a sentence that intended to introduce the idea of rivalries among certain professors. This statement, although incorrect, still triggered a dramatic response in this reader. I immediately wanted to know more details, but the student did not make any additional revelations and the identities of the feuding professors regrettably remain unknown. A third example of this kind of error is found in the following sentence: “Bill notated that the students in the other Spanish class had the opportunity to take a practice exam before the final exam.” Here, the student should have used “noted” or “observed.” While “notate” is a completely acceptable verb, its primary use is “to make a notation in a musical sense.” It appears to me that the addition of the suffix “-ate,” found in verbs such as “ameliorate” or “deteriorate,” is an attempt to elevate the tone of the message with the purpose of making the verb more sophisticated than its more humble form “note.”

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is