Julia Maurus issues a reminder to check that your spelling matches your meaning.

Before I moved to far-north Queensland, I knew very little about Torres Strait. But I knew how to spell it. Once this term entered my everyday vocabulary, I was astonished to discover that many people misspell it as ‘Torres Straight’.

Why would that be? I wondered. A ‘strait’ is a narrow channel of the sea linking two larger areas of sea. ‘Straight’ means not crooked. If you consider the geographical context, obviously ‘strait’ is the correct word. I’d never seen anyone misspell Bass Strait, but maybe people mix up ‘strait’ and ‘straight’ all the time, simply because they don’t know what ‘strait’ means.

The truth is, there are numerous pairs of words that people mix up all the time. Last issue we looked at ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative’, but there are many more. Most differ only slightly in spelling and pronunciation, but they all have different meanings, which writers must note.

Sometimes we use the wrong word accidentally (one’s fingers can unconsciously write or type the spelling one uses more often, even if that is not the word one had in mind). Sometimes it happens because the writer thinks two words are interchangeable when they’re not. Other times it’s because the writer never learnt the correct word, its meaning or spelling, in the first place.

The problem is infectious: if we see a word written or used incorrectly enough times, that misuse becomes familiar and comfortable and it may take a conscious personal effort to continue to apply the correct usage.

So, in this post I want to alert you to words that are commonly mixed up, to make sure we all keep to the straight and narrow. (Incidentally, sources indicate that the expression ‘straight and narrow’ is derived from Matthew 7:14: ‘strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life’, which means people have been mixing up ‘strait’ and ‘straight’ for generations.)


‘Adverse’ means unfavourable or hostile and is used to describe things (not people): for example, ‘She had an adverse reaction to the meal.’ ‘Averse’ means opposed to or disinclined and is used where the subject is a person: ‘She is averse to cooking.’


To ‘affect’ means to influence, to move (emotionally) or to make a pretence of something. For example, ‘What you eat can affect your health.’

To ‘effect’ is to bring about: ‘The campaign will encourage obese adults to effect dietary change.’ The noun ‘effect’ means a result or outcome, something that is produced by a cause, or an overall impression: ‘Superfoods have a positive effect on your health.’

Here is an example of misuse:

The bumblebee has been used safely in over 40 countries to pollinate greenhouse crops with negligible affects on flora and fauna.

The writer means to say that bumblebees do not ‘affect’ flora and fauna, or that they have negligible ‘effects’ on flora and fauna.


To ‘compliment’ means to praise or express commendation or admiration. To ‘complement’ means to make complete. For example, it would be a compliment to tell a woman that she complements her partner.


‘Complimentary’ means free (gratis); it is also the adjectival form of ‘compliment’. After-dinner mints in a restaurant are complimentary. ‘Complementary’ is the adjectival form of ‘complement’, so it means ‘forming a satisfactory or balanced whole’: for example, cranberry is a complementary sauce for turkey.


One letter makes all the difference. ‘Descent’ means a path of downward movement, or derivation from an ancestor or ancestral group. If you are a descendant of Aboriginal people, you are of Aboriginal ‘descent’. ‘Decent’ means good, proper, respectable. Your racial ‘descent’ has nothing to do with whether you are a ‘decent’ person.


A child is a ‘dependant’ (noun) because he or she is ‘dependent’ (adjective) on parental support.


This error occasionally pops up on menus (especially in non-English-speaking areas). A ‘desert’ is a dry, barren region (the verb ‘desert’ means to abandon), whereas ‘dessert’ is a sweet course at the end of a meal.


To ‘flaunt’ is to show off. To ‘flout’ is to show a contemptuous disregard of something, such as convention. A chef can ‘flaunt’ his culinary skills, but may be very unimpressed if his guests ‘flout’ convention by eating with their hands instead of using cutlery.


If I ‘lose’ something I cease to have or possess it, or I fail (losing a game, for example). ‘Loose’, on the other hand, means to release (‘to loose an arrow’), or to be free from confinement or restraint (‘Never let the kids loose in a candy store’), and can describe something that is not strict or tight or bundled. You can also ‘lose’ yourself in something (figuratively), like music or a book. For example, you would ‘lose [not ‘loose’] yourself in a romantic thriller’.


Source: Penguin Read More e-newsletter, March 2014.


As The Penguin Working Words explains, ‘Nauseated means experiencing disgust or feeling sick (that is, experiencing nausea). Nauseous and nauseating both mean causing disgust or nausea; nauseous has also come to mean experiencing nausea, but this usage is not universally accepted.’


The adjective ‘principal’ means chief or most important, while the noun ‘principal’ means the leading or highest-ranking person (such as a school principal) or a capital sum of money (as distinct from profit or interest). ‘Principle’, on the other hand, is a noun that means a rule of conduct or a fundamental truth.


‘Sewage’ is the waste matter. ‘Sewerage’ is the infrastructure (pipes, etc.) that transports sewage.


These words are not confused as often, but I have seen several instances lately, such as in a financial report I was reading: ‘Options to conduct business to minimise air travel should be sort.’

As a noun, ‘sort’ means a type, class or kind. As a verb, it means to arrange into class, type, etc. or to put something into working order. ‘Sought’ is the past tense and past participle of ‘seek’: something is being ‘sought’ if someone or something is desiring it or is trying to find it by searching for it. So, once one has ‘sought’ options to minimise air travel, one may have to ‘sort’ through information about to each option.


One of my pet peeves— I receive regular staff emails asking if I need any ‘stationary’. ‘Stationary’ is an adjective that means ‘not moving’. ‘Stationery’ means writing materials: pens, paper, envelopes, etc.


Mixing up words and meaning can make your writing look unprofessional. An astute reader will presume your work has not been properly proofread.

If we mix up words often enough, they lose their distinct meanings, and with that we lose some of the diversity and beauty of our language.

Have other meaning mix-ups to expose? Post your tirades below!


The original version of this article was published as ‘Style File’ in The Australian Writer issue 389 (September–November 2015).

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