Racking your brain for the right word is particularly grueling on deadline. Are paramedics attempting to stanch the bleeding after a mass shooting? Or should that be staunch? And was the lawyer riffling through her notes, or rifling? Did the defense refute or rebut the arguments?
Other usage decisions, like choosing between “victim” and “survivor” to describe a person who has been sexually assaulted, might not have a right or wrong answer, only a set of best practices to arrive at a carefully considered choice. And still others, like the distinction between sex and gender identity, have become more prominent in recent years.
No matter what linguistic conundrum you may be wrestling with, here’s a secret: Even the best copy editors don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of every spelling and grammar rule. They know what the common trouble spots are — frequently misspelled words, erroneous abbreviations, homonyms, words with prefixes that may or may not be hyphenated — and then take the time to find the correct rule to help them make a decision.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of words that reporters (and the public) frequently misuse. If you memorize all of them and can tell a lectern from a podium in your sleep, great! But really, all you need to remember is that these 120-some words are usual suspects for bungled copy, and then remember to reach for the stylebook or dictionary when you see them.
acquitted/innocent/not guilty When someone is charged with a crime, the starting assumption is that they are innocent. It’s up to prosecutors to prove that they are guilty, so a defendant who denies the allegations pleads not guilty. Be careful to avoid language that assigns guilt when someone has only been accused, charged or suspected of a crime. When someone is acquitted, it means they have been found not guilty by a judge or jury and can’t be prosecuted for the same crime again. A dismissal of charges happens before a trial, either because a prosecutor does not believe there is enough evidence to support the case or because a judge deems it not credible and decides not to hear it. When a case is dismissed without prejudice, a verdict has not been rendered, so a prosecutor could decide to renew the charges at a later date (if, for instance, additional evidence emerges).
adverse/averse Adverse means harmful or unfavorable, while averse means unwilling or hesitant. The new show received adverse reviews, leaving people averse to seeing it.
affect/effect Affect as a verb means to influence or change (affect the weather), while effect as a verb means to accomplish or carry out (effect reforms in the troubled school district). When used as a noun, effect refers to an outcome or consequence. Affect, as a noun, refers to an observable manifestation like a nervous laugh.
alumna/alumnae/alumnus/alumni A female graduate is an alumna, and female graduates are alumnae. The equivalent terms for men are alumnus (singular) and alumni (plural). For a group of both men and women, either alumni or graduates works.
appraise/apprise Appraise means to assess the value of something (appraise a home), while apprise means to inform or notify (apprise of the incoming storm).
attain/obtain You attain, or reach, a goal, but you obtain, or acquire, an object. Johnny attained top marks in his classes, enabling him to obtain the scholarship.
bimonthly/semimonthly Many readers mix these up, so the clearest way forward is to spell out what you mean, whether that’s twice a month or every two months. But if you want to know: Bimonthly means every two months, while semimonthly means twice a month. The same distinction applies to biweekly/semiweekly, and biannual/semiannual. Many people are paid biweekly and visit the dentist for cleanings semiannually.
bring/take Bring indicates movement toward you, while take refers to movement away from you. So while you can ask someone to bring you coffee, you take a picnic lunch to the park.
Brussels sprouts Not brussel sprouts! They take their name from the city — Brussels, Belgium — where they originated in the 13th century.
burglary/larceny/mugging/robbery/theft Larceny, which means the same thing as theft or stealing, refers to the taking of property without permission. Robbery, which is a violent form of larceny, refers to the taking of something through force, violence or intimidation. Burglary is entering a building illegally with the intent to commit a crime of theft. Mugging refers to an assault in a public place and usually involves robbery or attempted robbery.
canvas/canvass Canvas refers to cloth, while canvass means to survey, poll or solicit (canvass voters).
capital/capitol A capital is a city that is the seat of a state or country’s government; a capitol is a building where the government meets. You can remember the difference by recalling that the word capitol contains an “o” — like the circular domes of many government buildings.
carat/caret/karat A carat is a unit of weight for gemstones, a karat is a unit used to measure the purity of gold (pure gold is 24 karats), and a caret is a proofreader’s mark used to indicate an insertion (^).
compare to/compare with Compare to is used to emphasize how two things are similar (compare a Super Bowl story in the New York Times to one in the Washington Post), while compare with emphasizes difference (winter in Miami is much warmer compared with winter in Indianapolis).
continual/continuous Something that is continual happens repeatedly (continual lateness), but something continuous is uninterrupted or unbroken (a continuous stream).
date rape Avoid the expression because it might confuse readers or give them the impression that “date rape” is a less serious form of rape. Instead, specify the person’s relationship to the individual who assaulted them.
disability Only mention a person’s disability when it’s pertinent to a story, and rather than describing someone as disabled, name their specific condition (e.g., Down syndrome, PTSD). Always choose language that focuses on the person’s abilities rather than their disabilities, and avoid “handicapped,” “ablebodied” and “physically challenged.” Write “a person with a disability,” which stresses their humanity, rather than “a disabled person.” Avoid language that frames someone’s disability as a limitation. Tell readers that a person uses a wheelchair, not that they are confined to one, and write that a person has a disease, not that they are afflicted, crippled by, a victim of or suffer from it. Avoid “lame,” “lunatic,” “fall on deaf ears,” “turn a blind eye to” and other ableist phrases that have made their way into common use. (Do not use the adjective “crippling” to describe the national debt or the labor shortage.)
discreet/discrete Discreet refers to a person who can be trusted with secrets, while discrete means separate or individual. Her coworkers were discreet about planning a surprise party, then they showed up with five discrete types of pizza.
disinterested/uninterested Someone who is disinterested is impartial or unbiased, while someone who is uninterested is bored or indifferent. (A journalist may be disinterested in a hotly contested campaign but is hardly uninterested.)
each other/one another Two people look at each other; more than two people look at one another.
e.g./i.e. E.g. means “for example”; i.e. means “that is” or “in other words.” Both are followed by a comma. When in doubt, substitute “for example” or “that is” for the abbreviation and check to see if the sentence makes sense. The Summer Olympics is composed of a variety of sports (e.g., basketball, baseball, boxing), but only one sport consists of five events (i.e., the pentathlon).
emigrate/immigrate A person emigrates from their homeland but immigrates to a new country. You can remember the difference by recalling that both exit and emigration start with “e” and in and immigration begin with “i.”
eminent/imminent Eminent means famous and respected, while imminent means about to occur (a memory aid: imminent and immediate both begin with “i”).
ensure/insure To ensure something means to guarantee or make certain of; to insure means to arrange compensation in the event of damage or loss. Remember the difference by thinking of the similar beginnings of the words investment and insurance.
eponym/namesake An eponym is the giver of a name, while the namesake is the recipient. So Alexander Hamilton is the eponym of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” and the musical is his namesake. (Sorry, headline writers, we know that eponym isn’t nearly as catchy.)
ethnicity/race Race is biological and refers to a set of physical attributes such as hair color or skin color (e.g., white, Black, Asian), while ethnicity relates to cultural identity and expression (e.g., Jewish, Irish, Arab). Only include someone’s race or ethnicity in a story when it’s pertinent (for instance, include the race of the victim or perpetrator of a hate crime but not a shoplifter, unless they are being sought by police). Be as specific as possible when describing people’s ethnicities: Chinese American or Vietnamese American rather than Asian American, for instance.
farther/further Farther refers to a physical distance (three feet farther), while further refers to time or metaphorical distance (a journey further into the past).
fiancé/fiancée Fiancé refers to a man who is engaged to be married, and fiancée refers to a woman. (If you were wondering, the pronunciation is identical.) The gender neutral term is betrothed.
flounder/founder To flounder means to stumble or flail; to founder means to sink. The sailor floundered about on the deck of the foundering ship.
forbear/forebear To forbear is to refrain from doing something (forbear from drinking); a forebear is an ancestor. Remember that forebear begins with “fore,” as in ancestors who came before.
forego/forgo Forego means to precede in place or time (her reputation foregoes her), while forgo means to reject or go without (he will forgo the trip amid the pandemic).
fulsome Fulsome means excessively complimentary, flattering or abundant (a fulsome harvest), not merely full or complete.
gantlet/gauntlet The original spelling of the expression was “to run the gantlet,” and AP Style still directs journalists to use gantlet to mean a flogging ordeal, literally or figuratively (a gantlet is a path lined with attackers). A gauntlet is a long glove worn by medieval knights, which would be thrown down to challenge someone to combat or picked up to accept a challenge (now the word is only used figuratively).
gender/sex Sex is biological and assigned at birth (male or female); gender is a socially constructed identity that exists on a continuum and can change over time. Embryos have a sex, but not a gender. Sex is traditionally seen as binary, but gender can span identities beyond male or female (some people identify with multiple genders, while others may not identify with any gender).
home/hone Only “home” is used with “in,” and the expression means to move closer to something, literally or figuratively (home in on a target or home in on an answer). Hone means “to sharpen” (hone your skills).
imply/infer A speaker or writer implies, or strongly suggests, something that isn’t explicitly stated. The reader or listener infers the meaning or draws a conclusion. The basketball player scrolling through his phone at the press conference implied a lack of interest; reporters inferred it.
incredible/incredulous Incredible means difficult to believe or extraordinary; incredulous means skeptical or unbelieving. A quadruple rainbow after a storm may be an incredible sight, though if you tell a friend about it later, they may be incredulous that you’ve really seen one.
jerry-built/jury-rigged A jerry-built structure is cheaply or poorly made; a juryrigged one is intended only for temporary or emergency use.
lay/lie To lay means to place or to put down and always requires a direct object (the thing that is placed). To lie means to recline and never takes an object. You lay a towel on the beach, but your sister lies on the couch. A trick to remember the difference is that both lie and recline contain an “i”. The forms of lay are laid, laying and had laid; the forms of lie are lay, are lying and had lain.
leach/leech Leach, used as a verb, refers to the percolation of liquid through material. Leech, as a noun, is a bloodsucker, or a parasitic person who seeks advantage or gain. As a verb, leech refers to clinging to someone in a parasitic way.
lectern/podium A speaker stands at a lectern (the structure that holds her microphone and notes), which sits on a podium (a small platform on a stage).
loath/loathe Loathe is a verb that means to have intense hatred for something or someone. Loath is an adjective that means reluctant and is followed by “to.” I am loath to take a vacation because I loathe packing.
mantel/mantle A mantel is a shelf; a mantle is a cloak. (Remember that both shelf and mantel have an “el.”) When you accept a challenge, you take up the mantle.
masterful/masterly Masterful means domineering or overpowering (a masterful storm); masterly means performing with great skill (a masterly violinist).
palate/palette/pallet Palate refers to the roof of the mouth or a person’s sense of taste or flavor (a discerning palate); a palette is the flat surface on which an artist mixes colors; a pallet is a stacking platform.
principal/principle A principle is a fundamental idea or truth; a principal is the school official, or a sum that earns interest. (It’s corny, yes, but the “principal is your pal” memory aid works!)
prescribe/proscribe To prescribe means to administer (prescribe an antibiotic) or command. To proscribe is to forbid or prohibit (the law proscribes you from drinking until you turn 21).
rape/sexual assault/sexual violence Sexual violence is the broad non-legal term that includes crimes like rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse. Rape refers to forced sexual intercourse, specifi cally. Sexual assault indicates unwanted sexual contact, though the law in some states uses the term interchangeably with rape. (Check your state’s law to verify the most accurate language.)
rebut/refute To rebut means to reply and to take issue with (lawyers rebut one another’s arguments); to refute goes further and means to prove wrong successfully (a photo from outer space would refute the idea that the Earth is flat).
reign/rein Reign refers to the tenure of a monarch, while a rein is a long, thin strip attached to the end of a horse’s bit. The expression rein in means to curb or check (rein in an impulse). The phrase that refers to giving someone unchecked power is free rein.
restaurateur The word restaurant does not appear in this often-misspelled word.
reticent/reluctant Reticent refers to someone who is inclined to be silent, while a reluctant person is hesitant to act. A journalist may be reticent when interviewing a fascinating subject, yet this does not mean that she is reluctant to listen.
riffle/rifle To rifle is to steal; to riffle is to turn the pages of a book quickly and casually.
sacrilegious Oddly, the spelling of it does not contain the word religious.
spit and image The expression is spit and image, not spitting image, for an exact likeness of someone.
stanch/staunch Stanch means to check or stop the flow of (stanch the flow of blood). Staunch means committed, resolute or unyielding.
stationary/stationery Stationary with an “a” means not moving. Stationery with an “e” refers to paper office supplies.
survivor/victim Both labels should be used with caution when referring to people who have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault. Survivor emphasizes that a person has made it through an event and implies strength and healing that may or may not have occurred. Some individuals prefer to be called victims instead, but other people feel that the word implies weakness or puts the focus on the attacker or the crime. When in doubt, ask the person’s preference. Or simply avoid labels and be descriptive: Instead of a sexual assault victim, a person who was sexually assaulted.
tortuous/torturous Tortuous means full of twists and turns (a tortuous path). Torturous means causing excruciating pain or suffering (a torturous injury after a car crash).
trooper/trouper A trooper is a law enforcement official. A trouper is a resilient or uncomplaining person. One can be both!
turbid/turgid Turbid means cloudy, opaque or confused in meaning (turbid water). Turgid means swollen or tediously pompous (journalists hope their stories are not turgid).
Did we miss your biggest pet peeve or most embarrassing oops error? Tell us! You can add common misuses you see in the comment section.
Sarah Bahr is a regular freelance writer for The New York Times. She previously worked as an editor on the Times’ Flexible Editing Desk and has also written for the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis Monthly.