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Frequently Misused/Misspelled Words and Phrases - Excerpt

© Mark Terence Chapman

Here is a chapter from the book:




Data vs. Datum

Right: The data are used to plot a graph.

Right: Additional data is available upon request.


Data is the plural of the singular datum (a single piece of information, such as a fact or statistic). When referring to multiple data points, use data as a plural noun. However, when referring to a body of information, it is permissible to use data as a singular noun.


Descent vs. Decent vs. Dissent

Wrong: He seems like a descent enough person.

Right: He seems like a decent enough person.


Descent (duh-SENT or dee-SENT) is the act of moving from a higher place to a lower one, while decent (DEE-sent) means satisfactory, proper, modest, or respectable. Dissent (dih-SENT) means disagreement.


A mountain climber wouldn’t want his descent to be too quick. Ideally, he should use a decent rate of descent and avoid dissent with his fellow climbers.


Dessert vs. Desert

Wrong: She wandered for days, lost in the dessert.

Right: She wandered for days, lost in the desert.


Unless she was eating the world’s largest hot fudge sundae, she was lost in a desert (an extremely dry place that supports only sparse vegetation), not a dessert (the final course of a meal).


Dial the phone

Wrong: Hold on while I dial the phone.

Right: Hold on while I call her.

Right: Hold on while I ring her up.


Back in the days of mechanical, rotary phones, we used to turn a dial to call someone. Now, with electronic touchtone or touchscreen phones it’s a matter of pushing buttons (or even using our voices) to call someone. If we use a Dial these days, it’s probably a bar of soap. (By the way, ring her up is chiefly British English.)


Different than vs. Different from vs. Different to vs. Differs from

Wrong: San Francisco is different than Oakland in many ways.

Right: San Francisco is different from Oakland in many ways.

Right: San Francisco differs from Oakland in many ways.


Just to be clear, different than is always incorrect. It should be different from in U.S. English or different to in U.K. English. (It’s unusual that to and from would be used synonymously in this context.) Isn’t it interesting how U.S. English differs from U.K. English in so many respects?


Diffuse(ing) vs. Defuse(ing)

Wrong: We need to diffuse the situation.

Right: We need to defuse the situation.


Diffuse has a number of meanings, but all are along the lines of spread out, scatter, or disseminate. In this context, defuse means to make less dangerous, tense, or embarrassing.


A bomb is capable of diffusing debris throughout a blast zone, if someone doesn’t defuse it first.


Disc vs. Disk

Wrong: My hard disc crashed.

Right: My hard disk crashed.

Right: My compact disc is scratched.


Disc and disk are both valid spellings, but are used differently. If referring to CDs, then say compact disc. But when talking about floppies (diskettes) or hard drives, spell it floppy disk drive or hard disk drive. (By the way, never refer to solid-state drives (SSDs) or flash drives (thumb drives, memory sticks, etc.) as disk drives. They store data on flash memory chips, not disk platters.)


Discrete vs. Discreet

Wrong: We have to be discrete about it.

Right: We have to be discreet about it.


Discreet means to be circumspect or prudent, while discrete means distinct or separate. If you see friends pairing off into discrete couples at a party, you might want to be discreet about whom you tell.


Disperse vs. Disburse

Wrong: Make sure you disperse everyone’s pay on time this week.

Right: Make sure you disburse everyone’s pay on time this week.


Disperse means to scatter or spread widely. You probably wouldn’t want someone to do that with your paycheck. On the other hand, you might want to disperse smoke or an unruly mob. Money, however, is disbursed, or paid out. (Adding to the confusion between the two words is a secondary meaning for disburse of distributing or scattering.)


You might disburse money to troops before they disperse an unruly crowd.


Do to vs. Due to

Wrong: We failed do to your incompetence!

Right: We failed due to your incompetence!


Due to means “because of.” Do to is simply a misspelling due to the similarity in pronunciation of the words.


Double spacing between sentences

Wrong: What’s the answer?  I don’t know.

Right: What’s the answer? I don’t know.


Back in the dark ages of typewriters (i.e., before word processors) fonts were monospaced. This meant that all characters, from the skinny little i to the wide w took the same amount of horizontal space on the page. As a result, sentences seemed to run together unless two blank spaces were added between sentences. Since the advent of proportional spacing and word processors, this is no longer necessary. So, please, give your overworked editor a break and use only one space between sentences. This has been a Public Service Announcement. (Okay, so this wasn’t a word or phrase. Sue me.)


Drier vs. Dryer

Right: After the storm, I was drier than you were.

Right: I threw my damp clothes in the dryer.

Right: I threw my damp clothes in the drier.


Drier means more dry. Dryer most often refers to a machine used to dry clothing. But both spellings are interchangeable. So feel free to spell the machine whichever way you prefer.


Dual vs. Duel

Wrong: Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a dual.

Right: Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.


Dual means consisting of two, or having a twofold nature. (A dual overhead cam engine.) A duel is a ritualized form of combat, often to the death, fought according to an agreed-upon code of conduct. More generally, it can also refer to any contest between two individuals.


Duffle vs. Duffel

Right: I threw my camping gear in a duffle bag.

Right: I threw my camping gear in a duffel bag.


The duffel bag, a cylindrical bag made of a thick-napped cloth or canvas, is named for the town of Duffel in Belgium, where the cloth was first made. However, today both spellings of the word are considered correct. So spell it however you prefer, but be consistent in which spelling you use. Don’t mix-and-match.


Dying vs. Dyeing

Wrong: I can’t go out with you tonight because I’m dying my hair.

Right: I can’t go out with you tonight because I’m dyeing my hair.


Unless a woman is changing her hair color during a life-and-death emergency, most likely she’s dyeing it, not dying.

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