A compendium of commonly confused words (part 3 of 3)

Welcome to our FINAL blog installment focused on sorting out some of the most commonly confused words in the English language. (If you missed parts 1 and 2, please feel welcome to check them out here and here.) This installment covers a few more of your requests, as well as a few more from my originally planned list. 

  • cue/queue: A "cue" is a signal for action. The green light should've served as her cue to move forward. Since she was staring at her phone, however, the car horn of the vehicle behind her served as her cue instead. A "queue" is a charming word for a line of people or things, or for the act of lining up in such a queue. In England, there are queues (not lines!) everywhere. We Americans like to co-opt nifty words like queue, however, so you should probably get used to it. Go stand in the queue already. I want those pancakes.

  • lose/loose: "Lose" is always a verb. Since she lost her marbles, she could no longer play marble games with her neighbor. She also began to lose her grasp on day-to-day reality. "Loose" is most commonly used as an adjective; it's used to describe things that aren't tightly fitted. Those jeans look really loose on you. Are you sure you shouldn't get a size smaller? While "loose" can also be used as a verb, that usage is fairly rare. When it's used as a verb, it means to set something free. Since it was the end of the workday, he loosed his tie. Finally, "loose" can also be used as a noun, as in the charmingly outdoorsy expression "on the loose."

  • maybe / may be: "Maybe" is an adverb (something that modifies something else) that means "perhaps." Maybe it's a good idea to close the window. "May be" is a verb expression. I may be about to jump out the window. When in doubt, try substituting the word "perhaps." If it works, you can use "maybe." If it doesn't, stick with "may be."

  • mislead/misled and lead/led: "Mislead" is present tense (happening now). I didn't mean to mislead him about my cruel intentions. "Misled" is past tense (already done). In fact, she willfully misled him about her cruel intentions. Same goes for "lead" and "led." While they actually lead lives of gleeful abandon, they led everyone to believe they were serious, somber people.

  • precede/proceed: "Precede" means to come before. To remember this one, focus on the "pre" "Pre-" always means "before" (e.g., prefix, preface, premonition). A light rain preceded the thunder and lightning. "Proceed" means to move forward with something. Once the rain started to come down harder, we proceeded to open our umbrellas and look for a suitable shelter. To remember proceed, think of "pro-" and its use in words like progress, process, promote, and proboscis. (A nose DOES proceed forward, after all.)

  • premise/premises: A "premise" is a supposition or previous statement from which something else is inferred or concluded. The premise that global warming is a sham has no basis in reality. While "premises" could indeed refer to a collection of premises, it much more commonly refers to a house, building, or other property. After arguing with the climate-change denier for more than six hours, the scientist finally asked him to leave the premises of the lab's building complex.

  • principle/principal: This one is everywhere. It appears that many, many well-intentioned English teachers missed making an impression with this distinction. So I'll try again. "Principle" is ONLY a noun. It means a basic truth, rule, or assumption. One of the basic principles of democracy is that all people have equal rights under the law. "Principal" can be a noun or an adjective. As a noun, it refers to someone who is a very senior or important person in an organization (e.g., your school principal or a principal within a business). Fortunately, when "principal" is used as an adjective, its meaning is similarly focused on seniority and importance: it means "main or most important." The principal of the elementary school principally liked to remind us that each of us was smart and special in our own way. His principal focus was instilling confidence in all of his students. To help you remember, remember the classic mnemonic device: The principal is your PAL.

  • setup / set up: "Setup" is the noun, and "set up" is the verb phrase. While the kids planned to set up a lemonade stand, they couldn't find the sign-holding setup in the garage.

  • waver/waiver: "Waver" can be a noun or a verb. The waver stood atop the freeway bridge, waving frantically. He never wavered in his commitment to waving to as many people as possible during the daily rush hour. To "waive" means to give up a legal right. Finally, the waver signed a waiver saying that if he fell off the freeway bridge, he wouldn't sue the state.

  • week/weak: I was legitimately horrified when someone brought this one to my attention. "Really, people mix those up? For real?" Because while I manage to keep from figuratively wrinkling my nose at 100% of the unintentional mix-ups featured earlier in these lists, this one just seems... lazy. Nevertheless I proceed. A "week" is a unit of time. "Weak" is a word that describes a person, place, or thing that lacks power or strength. Last week, the coffee in the office tasted really weak. Next week, can we try a stronger brew?

Finally, some directional guidance to keep you from wasting too much time thinking, "Should that be toward or towards??"

  • backward/backwards: When used to modify a verb, you can go with either. When you use it as an adjective, however, you've got to stick with "backward." While he didn't give her a single backward glance, he simultaneously marveled at her backward point of view. "Maybe the world is evolving backwards," he thought.

  • forward/forwards: When using it as an adverb, stick with "forward." Despite her tendency to dwell on the past, she resolved to keep moving forward. The only possible use of "forwards" I can see is as a noun in a sentence written about email or snail mail. Exhaustedly, I looked over all the superstitious email forwards she'd sent me, wondering if she genuinely thought I believed that human luck is created solely by a willingness to forward chain emails.

  • toward/towards: These are genuinely interchangeable. Nobody cares. Go toward the light, or go towards the light. It's your choice.

Next week, I'm excited to proceed (not precede) to our next topic: word and phrase perversions that we need to set straight, including terrifying non-words such as "irregardless," "asterick," and "supposably." Have a good week, everyone!