Grammar Booty Call: The Write and Wrong Words 3 Comments

Grammar Booty Call: The Write and Wrong Words

In the last month or so, I’ve seen or heard people use words that look or sound kind of right but are, in fact, incorrect. It’s not just grocers, signwriters and not-well-read-enough advertising professionals who do it; even some of our (writerly) ilk aren’t immune to this accidental affliction.

walked passed / walked past

I don’t know why this continues to crop up. It’s true that in walking past others, we also pass them, but the two verbs—which are distinct—shouldn’t be used in conjunction with each other. Syntactically speaking, it would be akin to saying I ate swallowed the cake.

bought / brought

It’s often older people who fall victim to this malapropism—for instance: I bought the car to the mechanicBrought is the past form of bring, so remember that they both have a b and an r. You may have bought an item from a shop, but it’s not until you’ve brought it someplace else that it moves out of that shop.

humus / hummus

There are many ways to spell the name of the scrumptious dip hummus—for instance, hummoushoumoushommoshoummos. And understandably so, as loanwords (this one’s from Arabic) sometimes don’t involve a perfect transliteration. But it’s not okay to spell it humus, which is the name for the organic components in soil. No-one wants dirt with their kebabs.

Humus [sic] dip
Anyone for some humus?


on route / en route

While the phrase en route does definitely sound like it involves the English preposition on, it actually comes from the French and therefore uses the French preposition en. The confusion arises from the English approximation of the word’s pronunciation, which sounds like on. Unfortunately, not many Anglophones are comfortable articulating nasal diphthongs.

principle / principal

These two words become nonsensical when one is used in place of the other. Consider: Don’t steal, because doing so would violate the principal that people have a right to their stuff. And: I can’t believe Anna got the principle violinist role in the orchestra. The first of the pair, principle, only has one meaning—a fundamental rule or belief or piece of knowledge (e.g. mathematical principles or a principled person). The second, whether in noun or adjective form, likewise only refers to one thing—that of the being the main or most prominent figure (thus, a high school is headed by a principal, and the most complicated cello parts in a symphony are played by the principal cellist).

bonefied / bona fide

Just… what? No. Becoming a bonefied staff member makes no sense—unless the new job involves a Wolverine-esque injection of Adamantium into one’s skeletal system, or the writer is taking licence with the (legit) word calcified to describe the job as stagnant.

Wolverine's Adamantium skeleton
Wolverine’s Adamantium skeleton


beckon call / beck and call

Like walked passed, I appreciate that beckon and call have a semantic affinity with each other. Likewise, the correct form involves two nouns, beck and call, that both evoke senses of being summoned. However, bear in mind the position in a sentence in which the phrase appears: it’s often used as an object (I attend to her every beck and call), so it’ll come after a verb. In this instance, beckon, as another verb introduced without a preceding conjunction and not as part of a relative clause, would just be syntactically superfluous (compare I love your sing [wrong] with I love you and sing your praises and I love that you sing [both correct]).

prefix / preface

While prefix is a legitimate term that, like preface, encompasses a sense of ‘coming before’ something else, one cannot prefix a statement/argument with an explanation or stipulation. Prefixes are morphological units and therefore point to words (e.g. un- is the prefix in ungrateful); prefaces, owing their origin to the book publishing industry, are statements that precede others.

wrack / rack

This is a tricky one. Wrack encompasses destruction on a large scale—My hometown was wracked by the bushfire—whereas rack refers to anguish on a smaller, more individual scale, as a nod to the medieval torture device of the same name. Thus: I racked my brains studying for this test and Aronofsky’s film was nerve-racking.

The 'rack' torture device
The ‘rack’ torture device


tussled / tousled

This final one cropped up during the latest Voiceworks proofreading session. The phrase in contention was tussled hair, conjuring an image of hair in a dishevelled state. A tussle is a brawl or struggle between individuals, and it indeed causes a social situation to be in disarray. However, when referring to hair, the correct term is tousled (‘to make untidy’).

By Adolfo Aranjuez

Adolfo Aranjuez (a.k.a. ‘Fez’) is the deputy editor of Voiceworks. He is also the in-house editor at independent publisher Melbourne Books, and the 2013 edition of its annual anthology Award Winning Australian Writing is currently open for submissions. If you’d like to send him a Grammar Booty Call, you can contact him via Twitter on @adolfo_ae.

  • http://Website nagida

    I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  • Adolfo

    Thanks, Nagida!

  • susie

    also, apart and ‘a part’.. this one I find so irksome because of the complete opposite of their meanings
    frequently I see stationary and stationery mixed up too : (

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