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creeped / crept

The standard past tense of “creep” is “crept.” “Creeped” is used mostly in the slang expression “creeped out” to describe the reaction of someone to something weird or disgusting.

costumer

Just what would a “costumer service” do? Supply extra-shiny spangles for a Broadway diva’s outfit? But this phrase is almost always a typographical error for “customer service,” and it appears on an enormous number of Web pages. Be careful not to swap the U and O when you type “customer.”

contrary / contrast

The phrases “on the contrary” and “to the contrary” are used to reply to an opposing point. Your friend tells you she is moving to New York and you express surprise because you thought she hated big cities. She replies, “On the contrary, I’ve always wanted to live in an urban area.”

When a distinction is being made that does not involve opposition of this sort, “in contrast” is appropriate. “In New York, you don’t need a car. In Los Angeles, in contrast, you can’t really get along without one, though you won’t need a snow shovel.”

Here’s a simple test: if you could possibly substitute “that’s wrong” the phrase you want is “on the contrary” or “to the contrary.” If not, then use “in contrast.”

credible

“Credible” means “believable” or “trustworthy.” It is also used in a more abstract sense, meaning something like “worthy”: “She made a credible lyric soprano.” Don’t confuse “credible” with “credulous,” a much rarer word which means “gullible.” “He was incredulous” means “he didn’t believe it” whereas “he was incredible” means “he was wonderful” (but use the latter expression only in casual speech).

Although you will commonly see it said of some far-fetched story either that “it strains credulity” or that “it strains credibility,” the latter is more traditional. Something that strains credulity would be beyond the powers of even a very gullible person to believe. This form of the saying isn’t very effective because a credulous person isn’t straining to believe things anyway. Such a person believes easily without thinking. It makes more sense to say that something too weird or wild to be credible “strains credibility.”

See also “incredible” and “begs belief.”

criticism

Beginning literature or art history students are often surprised to learn that in such contexts “criticism” can be a neutral term meaning simply “evaluating a work of literature or art.” A critical article about The Color Purple can be entirely positive about Alice Walker’s novel. Movie critics write about films they like as well as about films they dislike: writing of both kinds is called “criticism.”

crape / crepe

In modern English “crape” refers to thin, crinkled paper or cloth. Black crape was traditionally associated with mourning. A crepe is a thin flat French pancake. Most Americans pronounce the two words the same, to rhyme with “ape.” If you want to spell it the French way, you’ll need to add a circumflex over the first Ecrêpe, and pronounce it to rhyme with “step.” Even if you use the French form you’re likely to sound the final S in plural crêpes, though a real French speaker would leave it silent.

cowered / coward

“Coward” and “cower” may seem logically connected. But “coward”—a noun used to scornfully label a fearful person—is derived from a French root, and “cower”—a verb meaning to crouch down, often fearfully—is derived from an entirely different Nordic one. “Cowered” is just the past tense of “cower” and should not be used as a spelling for the label given to a timid person. “It’s always “a coward” and “the coward.”

“Cowered” is also occasionally used improperly when “cowed”—meaning “intimidated”—is meant. It is not related etymologically to either “coward” or “cowered.”

continual / continuous

“Continuous” refers to actions which are uninterrupted: “My upstairs neighbor played his stereo continuously from 6:00 PM to 3:30 AM.” Continual actions, however, need not be uninterrupted, only repeated: “My father continually urges me to get a job.”

complement / compliment

Originally these two spellings were used interchangeably, but they have come to be distinguished from each other in modern times. Most of the time the word people intend is “compliment”: nice things said about someone (“She paid me the compliment of admiring the way I shined my shoes”). “Complement,” much less common, has a number of meanings associated with matching or completing. Complements supplement each other, each adding something the others lack, so we can say that “Alice’s love for entertaining and Mike’s love for washing dishes complement each other.” Remember, if you’re not making nice to someone, the word is “complement.”

A complement can also be the full number of something needed to make it complete: “my computer has a full complement of video-editing programs.” If it is preceded by “full” the word you want is almost certainly “complement.”

See also complementary

could give a damn

If you don’t care at all about something, the standard popular expression is “I couldn’t give a damn.” People often say instead “I could give a damn,” which should logically mean they care. Note that we say “I don’t give a damn,” not “I give a damn” unless it’s set in some kind of negative context such as “do you really think I give a damn?” or “do I look like I give a damn?’

The same goes for parallel expressions where the last word is “darn” or some other expletive.

Just remember that in Gone with the Wind Clark Gable told Vivien Leigh, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

See also could care less.