You're Saying it Wrong III: Five Commonly Misspoken (and Misspelled) Words and Phrases
Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume V
The English language is rich and adaptable. It can take words and word-elements from other languages and use them just as if they'd grown up together. It can use its own words in new and astounding ways. But sometimes, people try to push that envelope a little too far, and end up using words in ways that just won't work, no matter how far they stretch and bend out of their original meanings. In You're Saying it Wrong, part 3, we'll see why we don't pull our rope 'taunt' when we go 'repelling,' find out why inferring is different from implying, and might literally chuckle at people who try to make metaphors mean what they say.
People say: “I’m going repelling.”
They mean: “I’m going rappelling.”
This is another case of phonological confusion. The only differences between them in print are the first vowel and a single p versus a doubled one. When spoken (especially if the speaker is mumbling), they sound pretty much the same. The one that’s usually misused to mean the other, repelling, is usually pronounced like this: ruh PELL ing (or like this: [rəpɛlɪŋ], if you’re a phonology nerd). That little upside-down e is called a ‘schwa,’ and when you’re trying to be scientific about speech transcription, you use it when you hear what phonologists call a “mid-central vowel.” Many people say the schwa sound when they aren’t being particularly formal about their pronunciation. (Say “What do you mean?” out loud, and you’ll probably hear three schwas in rapid succession, like this: “Whə də yə mean?”) It doesn’t help the confusion when you consider that rappelling is also usually pronounced [rəpɛlɪŋ]. It makes things even worse when people who mean “I’m going to use a rope to safely descend a vertical surface” deliberately say “I’m going ree-PELL-ing,” (or [ripɛlɪŋ] for the phonology nerds) emphasizing not only the long E sound at the beginning of the wrong word but also their ignorance of the right word.
As you’ve figured out by now, rappelling means using a rope to safely descend from a height. (The word comes to English from French.) Some people do it for its own sake; others do it as a subset of mountaineering or rock-climbing. Rescue workers and soldiers do it as part of their jobs. I’ve done it myself, and it’s fun. But it has nothing at all to do with repelling, which means, “making something go away.” Sometimes people try repelling mosquitoes by spraying themselves with repellant.
Remember the difference by looking at the picture of the woman rappelling, and realizing that she can’t try to make mosquitoes go away without taking a nasty fall.
People Say, “Pull It Taunt.” (Or, “Pull It Taught.”)
They Mean, “Pull It Taut.”
Taut is a word that has fallen out of general use. It means “tight,” in a very limited sense, and most of us use tight instead of taut, so this issue may become moot in the near future. But in the meantime, it’s important not to use the wrong word in place of taut, or you’ll look silly. Let’s start with the mistake that’s the most forgivable.
It’s easy to understand why someone would write taught when they mean to write taut: they sound exactly alike. But they mean very different things. Taut is an adjective. It means “tight,” but in a more limited sense. You can have a taut rope, but you can’t wear taut trousers, for example. Taught, on the other hand, is the past tense of the verb teach. Remember this one by realizing that you can pull a rope taut, but no matter how hard you pull, it will never teach you anything.
The other misuse is completely mystifying to me, and yet I’ve heard many, many people—smart people!—use it. “Pull it taunt,” they say, usually talking about a rope. In my youth, I was accused of being a smart-aleck when I asked my Scoutmaster what he meant. “Should I pull it and then make fun of it?” Because that’s what taunt means: to tease or mock someone. So how did that n get into the word taut, turning it into an opportunity for innocent young me to get stuck doing the washing-up for the whole troop as a punishment for my wiseacre attitude? I have no idea. It may be that taut is falling out of general usage, but then again, so is taunt. Think about it: when was the last time you heard about one child ‘taunting’ another on the playground? We usually use tease, or even bully (as a verb), where we might correctly use taunt. Maybe the misuse happens because taught is still a commonly used word that sounds exactly like taut, but means something very different. The logic might be that since the speaker knows that he doesn’t mean taught, it must be a different word, and this other seldom-used word (which he also doesn’t know the meaning of) sounds like it might fit. Sure, it has an extra n in it, but who cares? He sure doesn’t mean to say taught. If this is the case, it’s an example of a very small linguistic shift, and this sort of thing does happen in languages over time. Thankfully, both taut and taunt are, as mentioned, falling out of general usage, and we won’t have to worry about it for much longer. Remember the difference by realizing that if you try to pull something ‘taunt,’ I will gleefully make fun of you. Or you can just use tight.
People Say: "Different Than”
They Mean, “Different From”
They don’t sound alike, nor are they spelled alike. This is a pure question of an informal (and imprecise) usage creeping into formal speech and writing. Than is a conjunction meant to be used comparatively, as in, “You may be smarter than she is, but she knows more than you do.” There has to be a value difference between the things being compared. One thing needs to be larger, faster, heavier, stronger, wetter, closer, or whatever, to use than . Than doesn’t work when there is no value difference in the things being compared. You’d never write, “Han is unique than Leia is,” or, “Dantoine is remote than Alderaan,” for example. It doesn’t sound right. There must be an explicit comparison of unequal values. Dantooine, for example, can be more remote than Alderaan. (Han can’t be more unique, since unique is a superlative, but I digress.)
Different is a curious word in that it talks about un-like-ness without necessarily implying a difference in quality or value. “Han and Leia are different,” or, “Dantooine and Alderaan are different.” The differences may be objective, “Han and Leia are different: Han is a man and Leia is a woman,” or subjective “Han and Leia are different: Han is unpleasant and Leia is agreeable.” But to use the comparative conjunction than, you need one thing to be more (or less) of the same quality than the other. Han can be more unpleasant than Leia, or Dantooine can be more remote than Alderaan, for example.
From, however, is a preposition with many usages. It can be used to indicate a starting point, as in, “Luke brought Artoo from Tatooine to the Death Star.” It can be used to indicate a source, as in, “Luke got his lightsaber from Obi-Wan.” It can be used to indicate removal or prevention, as in, “Han saved Leia from being executed.” And it is used to denote difference, as when Luke asked Yoda, “How am I to know the good side from the bad?” Luke didn’t ask, “How am I to know the good side than the bad,” did he? Of course not, because that sounds wrong.
Of course, the informal construction, “This is different than that,” is so widely used that it hardly sounds ungrammatical anymore, even though there’s no level of difference being compared. “This is more different than that,” would be more grammatically satisfying, though what exactly is being differed from is unspecified. To add to the controversy, some English-speaking countries are starting to use to instead of from , as in, “Dantooine is different to Alderaan.” No foolin’; I’ve heard this usage on the BBC. This is one of those little things that drive prescriptive grammarians crazy, and merely annoy amateur linguists like me. You don’t really need to remember the difference, since nobody will call you on it if you write, “Han is different than Luke.” Most people won’t even notice anything odd about that sentence. If someone does complain about it (and isn’t your boss or your peevish professor), you can tell him that this usage has become so common that it is now accepted in formal writing. The response you get will be either an interesting discussion or a pompous insistence that you’re wrong. This is one way in which linguists are different from* prescriptive grammarians.
*See what I did there?
People Say, “You Inferred That….”
They Mean, “You Implied That….” (Or The Other Way 'Round)
These words are both falling into disuse. They don’t often come up in casual conversation, but when they do, they’re often used by someone who wants to sound more educated than he really is. This strategy often backfires, since the writer (usually an anonymous poster on an internet forum or commenter on a blog) often mixes up these unfamiliar words because of their related meanings.
When someone implies something, they’re trying to say something without explicitly stating it. For example, if someone said, “There may be an honest reason for Joe to be searching through Steve’s bureau, but I can’t think of one,” they would be implying that Joe was doing something dishonest.
When someone infers something, they’re assigning an unstated meaning to somebody else’s statement. For example, if the first person merely said, “I don’t know why Joe was searching through Steve’s bureau,” and a second person said, “Are you calling Joe a thief?” the second person inferred the accusation, since one was not implied.
The confusion comes from the fact that if an unstated meaning is implied, it must necessarily also be inferred if the intent of the message is to be understood. Remember this difference by remembering that only a speaker or a writer can imply, and only a listener or reader can infer.
People Say, “Literally”
They Mean, “Figuratively”
When you say that something literally happened, you mean that you are not speaking in metaphor; the words you say denote what happened in real life. If you say "I literally ran out of gas on the interstate," then we can assume you probably had a long walk to the gas station, but if you say "I literally ran out of gas halfway through my cross-country footrace," we have to wonder what you were carrying gas for in the first place. Amusingly, lots of people misuse literally as a kind of intensifier, probably trying to make what they’re saying sound more interesting. “The guy at the comedy club was so hilarious I literally busted a gut laughing!” Wow, really? So, can I see the scar? Or did you bust someone else’s gut? “When I jumped out of the closet, Bob here was so scared, I swear he literally jumped out of his skin!” Wow, really? How’d you get his skin back on him, then? ‘Cos, there’s his skin, with him right inside it.
This becomes even more amusing when people misuse literally to intensify a euphemism. They might actually mean that the thing the euphemism figuratively describes literally happened, but that’s not what their words actually mean. “That anatomy class was so gross, I literally tossed my cookies.” Wow, really? Was the professor mad at you? Did anyone catch them? Why do gross things make you throw baked goods around the room? If it was any grosser, would you have tossed a pie? Oh, you mean you vomited! Literally? That's so gross!
Remember the correct usage by thinking about this short film. I would embed it, but there’s some NSFW language that would not be suitable for HubPages. But if you’re an adult and are not offended by some four-letter words and implied sexual situations, you will enjoy “Literally,” winner of The Mitten Movie Project's 'Best Of Show' Award - July 2009.