Commonly misunderstood words that trip up writers

They sound similar and even share similar meanings—and that’s what makes these words so dangerous.


Do you remember being an adolescent and feeling like no one understood you?

Well, this column is about words with definitions that are continually misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misconstrued. They are the middle schoolers of our lexicon.

Arbitration, mediation

Arbitration means a third party listens to evidence from all parties and hands down a decision. Example: “The contract called for arbitration by a federal judge.”

Mediation means a third party listens to the evidence from all parties and brings them to an agreement. Example: “The plaintiff agreed to try mediation one last time.”

Carat, caret, karat

Carat is a unit of weight for precious stones, equal to 200 milligrams. Example: “Can you measure rhinestones in carats?”

A caret is a V-shape proofreader’s symbol indicating something is to be inserted. Example: “Carets should be placed within the text, not in the margin.”

Karat is the proportion of gold used with an alloy. Example: “Pure gold is 24 karat.”

Capital, Capitol

Capital is the city where the seat of government is located; also money, equipment, or property. Examples: “Austin is the capital of Texas,” or, “To start our own communications firm, we need to raise capital.”

Capitol refers to the building in which a legislative body meets. Example: “The Texas Capitol is in Austin.”

Disc, disk

Use disc for terms related to recordings, such as Blu-ray Disc or disc jockey. Also, disc brakes. Example: “The disc had a scratch on it.”

Use disk for computer-related and medical references, such as hard disk and slipped disk. Example: “My laptop needs a new hard disk.”

Emigrate, immigrate

To leave the country is to emigrate, also to be an emigrant. Example: “My mother’s family emigrated from Germany after the war.”

To enter a country is to immigrate, also to be an immigrant. Example: “Laurel immigrated to the United Kingdom.”

Faze, phase

To faze means to embarrass or disturb. Example: “The typo in the headline did not seem to faze her.”

Phase means a stage of development or an aspect or part. Example: “There are three editing phases: macro-editing, micro-editing, and proofreading.”

Flier, flyer

According to the AP Stylebook, flier is the preferred term for a handbill or leaflet. Example: “We need to create a flier explaining our new bundled pricing.”

Flyer is the proper name of some trains or buses. Example: “We rode the San Antonio Flyer.”

Forbear, forebear

To forbear means to resist, avoid, or shun. Example: “I will forbear and stop editing your document.”

Forebear is an ancestor. Example: “I am not sure where my forebears came from.”

Lectern, podium

A lectern is a stand that serves as a support for the notes or books of a speaker. Example: “I feel more comfortable standing at the lectern when I speak.”

A podium is an elevated platform to stand on when speaking. Example: “A speaker stands behind a lectern but on a podium.”

Mantel, mantle

A mantel is a shelf. Example: “Amy kept her writing award on the mantelpiece.”

A mantle is a cloak or something that conceals. Example: “A mantle of dust hung over the furniture.”

Premier, premiere

Premier means first in importance; principal or chief. Example: “Our company offers premier writing and editing services.”

Premiere means a first performance. Example: “We attended the premiere of ‘Spamalot.'”

Rack, wrack

The verb form of rack means to arrange on a rack, to torture, or torment. Example: “I racked my brain, but still could not think of a headline.”

The noun form of wrack means ruins or destruction. Example: “Under his leadership, the company will come to wrack and ruin.”

Reluctant, reticent

Reluctant means unwilling to act. Example: “I was reluctant to correct the CEO’s grammar.”

Reticent means unwilling to speak; reserved, restrained. Example: “I am often reticent around people I don’t know very well.”

Care to share any other misunderstood words?

Laura Hale Brockway is a medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. She is also the author of the writing/editing/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.

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