Perilous Pairs

Will you — or your editor — know to pick the right word?

The sentence in a recently written Sherlock Holmes story stopped me cold.

“There were besides some more mundane elements: drafting tables laden with dusty blueprints, labels and vices and tools, chains for heavy lifting suspended from the ceiling.”

Did one word jump out at you?

At first I was shocked to see vices instead of vises. The first refers to destructive habits, the second, a clamping device. There’s no question which one Holmes and Watson would find in an inventor’s workshop.

When two words with different meanings sound the same, it’s easy to type the wrong one. Unless you’re an English teacher or an editor, they’re easy to miss as you check your work. Spell check offers no help.

Sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes to pore over your work. Or is it pour?

Sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes to pore over your work. Or is it pour? (It’s easy to make a poor choice.) Unless you want a wet manuscript, choose pore. Think of looking so closely, you can see the pores in its skin.

If you chose the wrong one, readers may turn pale. (If they turn pail, they may be getting ready to pour over your writing.)

There are so many problem word pairs: vale or veil, complement or compliment, stationery or stationary, straight or strait, peak or pique — to name just a few.

Depending on your audience, the right choice you write may even be wrong. Suppose the story had used vise instead of vice.

In American usage, the word for a clamping tool is vise. But in Britain, you’ll learn with further research, the word for the bad habit and the tool have the same spelling: vice. So for authenticity in a story featuring the British detective, choose the United Kingdom style.

Wise writers know their weaknesses, including which words they tend to confuse. (I’m prone to type it’s instead of its.)

If you don’t trust yourself to catch the difference between pair, pare, and pear, pick someone who can — or proceed at your own peril.

About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.

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