Commonly confused sound-alike words: Vols. I, J, K and L

This installment on word pairs that confound many writers and speakers spans four letters, instead of the usual two. You’re welcome.

When people mishear or misinterpret similar words, they tend to pass those errors along.

Some are so prevalent that they invariably catch the eyes of alert writers and editors. Others creep stealthily into text, silently snickering as they wait, poised to damage scribes’ credibility.

Be watchful for these lurking menaces:

1. illicit/elicit

Illicit is an adjective meaning, “not allowed by law or social conventions.” Elicit is a verb meaning, “to draw out a reply or reaction.”

2. imply/infer

Increasing numbers of speakers ignore the distinction between these words, but it remains a useful one. Imply is “to suggest indirectly.” Infer is “to draw a conclusion.”

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3. it’s/its

Despite the hundreds, perhaps thousands of explanations to be found on the Web regarding the difference between these two spellings, the mistake of writing it’s for its remains the most common written error of them all.

It’s is the contracted form of the words it and is. Its is the possessive adjective that corresponds to his and their:

Max has dyed his hair red.

The children have passed their exams.

The cat has paint on its tail.

4. jibe/jive

The most common error with this pair is to use jive, a word that derives from musical terminology, in a context that calls for jibe, a word that means, “to agree with.” Here are two correct uses of the word jibe:

His interpretation of the law doesn’t jibe with mine.

Your explanation does not jibe with the facts.

5. loath/loathe

Loath (pronounced with a harder th like the one in thin) is an adjective originally meaning hostile, angry or spiteful. In modern usage it means averse, disinclined, reluctant or unwilling, as in this New York Times headline:” Inquiry Goes To Committee That May Be Loath to Act.” A variant spelling is loth.

Loathe (pronounced with a softer th like the one in this) is a verb meaning “to feel strong aversion for” as in the title of a TED topic: “Why Do So Many People Loathe Their Jobs?”

(Note: TED is a nonprofit organization that sponsors and broadcasts lectures on various social issues. The name is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design.)

6. loose/lose

Loose can function as a verb meaning “to free” or “to release,” but its most common use is as an adjective to mean “not tight.” Lose is a verb that has various connotations of loss. For example, a person may lose his way in the woods. The past tense of lose is lost.

7. latter/ladder

As a noun, latter means “the person or thing mentioned second of two.” A ladder is an appliance of wood or other material, consisting of a series of bars, rungs or steps fixed between two supports.

Speakers who do not distinguish clearly between the sounds of t and d may misspell latter as ladder, as in these examples:

INCORRECT: There are two modes to constructed play: Casual, and Ranked. Some people choose the former; some people choose the ladder. —Gaming site.

CORRECT: There are two modes to constructed play: Casual, and Ranked. Some people choose the former; some people choose the latter.

INCORRECT: Many police officers know that much of their job is to collect revenue. It’s now apparent, that when given the option to conduct extortion or not, they will choose the ladder. —A talk radio website.

CORRECT : Many police officers know that much of their job is to collect revenue. It’s now apparent, that when given the option to conduct extortion or not, they will choose the latter.

8. lightening/lightning

The word lightening comes from the verb to lighten, “to make lighter.” An artist can lighten a color. A kindly neighbor can lighten someone’s loneliness. A driver can lighten a load. Dark hair may be lightened by the sun.

Lightning is “the visible discharge of electricity between one group of clouds and another, or between the clouds and the ground.”

9. libel/slander

Libel
functions as a noun and as a verb. The noun is usually used to mean “a published statement damaging to the reputation of a person.” The verb means “to defame or discredit by the circulation of libelous statements.”

As a noun, slander denotes “the utterance or dissemination of false statements or reports concerning a person in order to defame or injure that person.” As a verb, slander is “to spread slanderous reports about.” The legal difference between the two is that libel is written and slander is spoken or conveyed in some other non-written manner.

Another error with libel is that the noun (libel) is sometimes used incorrectly in place of the adjective liable, as in this example from a Canadian government site:

INCORRECT: The landlord testifies that the tenant became libel for the rent from December 01, 2008 and that he allowed her to move in on November 19, 2008 until December 01 without payment of rent.

CORRECT: The landlord testifies that the tenant became liable for the rent from December 01, 2008 and that he allowed her to move in on November 19, 2008 until December 01 without payment of rent.

Liable is an adjective that means “bound or obliged by law or in accordance with a rule or convention.”

10. lay/lie

Some would argue that insisting on the distinction between the verbs lay (to put or to place) and lie (to recline) is beating a dead horse. I insist on the difference because I believe that speakers who are bright enough to want to master a standard form of English are bright enough to learn the difference between these two verbs.

Tell your children to lay their homework on the table. Tell your dog he may lie under it. Lay is transitive (has an object). Lie is intransitive (has no object).

A version of this article originally appeared on Daily Writing Tips.

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