Similar Sounds with Different Spellings and Meanings: A Few Tiny but Tricky Words
Many a word in the English language sounds, when spoken, exactly like or at least deceptively similar to another word. When such pairs are spelled out in writing, however, their forms differ –‘than’ and ‘then’ are an exemplary pair – and that difference indicates important differences in meaning. Even a single letter can, as experienced authors know all too well, produce an entirely inappropriate meaning, and the results can be insignificant, irritating, humorous or catastrophic. Such misspellings slip all too easily into a text, even when the author knows the correct choice, so it is important to watch for them while proofreading your writing before it is submitted for publication or other forms of dissemination. The following notes on a few tiny but important words that are often confused in academic and scientific writing may prove helpful.
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• To begin with the example I introduced above, ‘than’ is comparative in meaning and ‘then’ is temporal. Statements of comparison and preference should be expressed with ‘than’: ‘your essay is much longer than mine’ and ‘she would rather read than write.’ A quantity exceeding expectations or specifications is also indicated by ‘than’: ‘there was more coffee left than I feared.’ ‘Then,’ on the other hand, is used to refer to a time other than the present moment. It can be a time in the past – ‘the trees were so much shorter then’ – or the future: ‘she will be in Europe then.’ ‘Then’ is also used to refer to something that comes next in time, space or order, as in ‘I make breakfast for the kids, drive them to school and then I get to sit down at my computer.’ ‘Then’ can be used to refer to what comes next in logic as well: ‘the logical conclusion, then, is that boys and girls performed equally well’ or ‘if you have followed the guidelines with precision, then there should not be a problem,’ though the word ‘then’ is not strictly necessary in either example.
• ‘Are’ and ‘our’ may sound the same, but they are different parts of speech with very different meanings. ‘Are’ is the simple present tense of the verb ‘to be’ in the plural form: ‘we are here,’ ‘you two are early’ and ‘they are late.’ The word is also used for the singular in the second person: ‘you are alone.’ ‘Our’ is a possessive form of the first-person plural pronoun ‘we.’ ‘We arrived early, but we forgot our gift, so we had to rush back for it’ demonstrates its correct use.
• ‘To,’ ‘too’ and ‘two’ cannot be distinguished through pronunciation, but their differences are clear to the eye. ‘To’ is a preposition suggesting movement towards a particular destination, as it does in ‘she went to the library this morning.’ It is also the first part of infinitive verbs in the English language: ‘I love to read.’ ‘Too’ is an adverb meaning ‘in addition,’ ‘also’ or ‘as well.’ ‘I have that book too’ is a good example, but it can mean ‘I have it in addition to other books’ or ‘I have it just as you do,’ with context providing further clues. ‘Too’ often indicates that something is excessive, as in ‘that is far too high a price for that book,’ but it can be used less formally to mean a pleasing amount: ‘too right you are.’ ‘Two’ is the word for the number 2, as in “I have two books.’
• Finally, ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ remain a troublesome pair. ‘Its’ without an apostrophe is the possessive form of the neuter pronoun ‘it.’ ‘The sea has whitecaps on its surface this evening’ demonstrates correct usage. ‘It’s’ with an apostrophe between the ‘t’ and the ‘s’ is a contraction for ‘it is’ or ‘it has.’ Examples of its use include ‘it’s perfect’ and ‘it’s been snowing for days,’ but since ‘it’s’ is a contraction, it should be avoided in formal scholarly prose except in quotations or other demonstrations of informal speech.
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