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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/complimentary

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.

coliseum

The standard spelling for an outdoor stadium is “coliseum”, but the one in Rome is called the “Colosseum.” Also note that the name of the specific construction in Rome is capitalized.

crescendo / climax

When something is growing louder or more intense, it is going through a crescendo (from an Italian word meaning “growing”). Traditionalists object to its use when you mean “climax.” A crescendo of cheers by an enthusiastic audience grows until it reaches a climax, or peak. “Crescendo” as a verb is common, but also disapproved of by many authorities. Instead of “the orchestra crescendos,” write “the orchestra plays a crescendo.”

council

The first two words are pronounced the same but have distinct meanings. An official group that deliberates, like the Council on Foreign Relations, is a “council”; all the rest are “counsels”: your lawyer, advice, etc. A consul is a local representative of a foreign government.

coma / comma

Some people write of patients languishing in a comma, and others refer to inserting a coma into a sentence. A long-term unconscious state is a coma; the punctuation mark is a comma.

compare to

These are sometimes interchangeable, but when you are stressing similarities between the items compared, the most common word is “to”: “She compared his home-made wine to toxic waste.” If you are examining both similarities and differences, use “with”: “The teacher compared Steve’s exam with Robert’s to see whether they had cheated.”