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accidently

You can remember this one by remembering how to spell “accidental.” There are quite a few words with -ally suffixes (like “incidentally”) which are not to be confused with words that have “-ly” suffixes (like “independently”). “Incidental” is a word, but “independental” is not.

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accept / except

If you offer me Godiva chocolates I will gladly accept them—except for the candied violet ones. Just remember that the “X” in “except”  excludes things—they tend to stand out, be different. In contrast, just look at those two cozy “C’s” snuggling up together. Very accepting. And be careful; when typing “except” it often comes out “expect.”

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access

“Access” is one of many nouns that have been turned into a verb in recent years. Conservatives object to phrases like “you can access your account online.” Substitute “use,” “reach,” or “get access to” if you want to please them.

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vitae

Unless you are going to claim credit for accomplishments in previous incarnations, you should refer to your “vita,” not your “vitae.” All kidding aside, the “ae” in “vitae” supposedly indicates the genitive rather than the plural (that is, vitae in this case works like a possessive form to modify “curriculum”); but the derivation of vita from curriculum vitae is purely speculative (see the Oxford English Dictionary), and vitae on its own makes no sense grammatically.

“Résumé,” by the way, is a French word with both “Es” accented, and literally means “summary.” In English one often sees it without the accents, or with only the second accent, neither of which is a serious error. But if you’re trying to show how multilingual you are, remember the first accent.

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accent marks

In what follows, “accent mark” will be used in a loose sense to include all diacritical marks that guide pronunciation. Operating systems and programs differ in how they produce accent marks, but it’s worth learning how yours works. Writing them in by hand afterwards looks amateurish.

Words adopted from foreign languages sometimes carry their accent marks with them, as in “fiancé, ” “protégé,” and “cliché.” As words become more at home in English, they tend to shed the marks: “Café” is often spelled “cafe.” Unfortunately, “résumé” seems to be losing its marks one at a time (see under “vita/vitae”).

Many computer users have not learned their systems well enough to understand how to produce the desired accent and often insert an apostrophe (curled) or foot mark (straight) after the accented letter instead: “cafe’.” This is both ugly and incorrect. The same error is commonly seen on storefront signs.

So far we’ve used examples containing acute (right-leaning) accent marks. French and Italian (but not Spanish) words often contain grave (left-leaning) accents; in Italian it’s a caffè. It is important not to substitute one kind of accent for the other.

The diaeresis over a letter signifies that it is to be pronounced as a separate syllable: “noël” and “naïve” are sometimes spelled with a diaeresis, for instance. The umlaut, which looks identical, modifies the sound of a vowel, as in German Fräulein (girl), where the accent mark changes the “frow” sound of Frau (woman) to “froy.” Rock groups like “Blue Öyster Cult” scattered umlauts about nonsensically to create an exotic look.

Spanish words not completely assimilated into English like piñata and niño retain the tilde, which tells you that an “N” is to be pronounced with a “Y” sound after it.

In English-language publications accent marks are often discarded, but the acute and grave accents are the ones most often retained.

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acapella, a capella

In referring to singing unaccompanied by instruments, the traditional spelling is the Italian one, a cappella: two words, two Ps, two Ls. The Latin spelling a capella is learned, but in the realm of musical terminology, we usually stick with Italian. The one-word spelling “acapella” is widely used by Americans, including by some performing groups, but this is generally regarded by music experts as an error.

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academia

Although some academics are undoubtedly nuts, the usual English-language pronunciation of “academia” does not rhyme with “macadamia.” The third syllable is pronounced “deem.” Just say “academe” and add “ee-yuh.” However, there’s an interesting possibility if you go with “ack-uh-DAME-ee-yuh: although some people will sneer at your lack of sophistication, others will assume you’re using the Latin pronunciation and being learned.

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abstruse / obtuse

Most people first encounter “obtuse” in geometry class, where it labels an angle of more than 90 degrees and less than 180. Imagine what sort of blunt arrowhead that kind of angle would make and you will understand why it also has a figurative meaning of “dull, stupid.” But people often mix the word up with “abstruse,” which means “difficult to understand.”

When you mean to criticize something for being needlessly complex or baffling, the word you need is not “obtuse,” but “abstruse.”

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