Some pairs of similar words are commonly confused in speech and in writing. There is no “speech-checker” to catch our oral miscues, unless we hang out with grammar snobs who don’t care if they keep on friendly terms with us. And with technologically as advanced as Microsoft Word’s spelling-and-grammar checker is, it doesn’t catch everything. How well do you know the differences below?
Gist vs. Just
As a kid, my teachers persistently corrected students who sloppily said things like, “I jist tapped that boy a little on his cheek—not enough to knock out that bloody tooth there on the floor.” So when we grew up, some of us were so paranoid about not saying “jist” when we should have said “just” that we now reflexively say “just” when we should say “gist” (pronounced jist). Confused yet? No? Well, I’m not done yet. Gist means “the main point or part.” When we’re talking about the main point or part of this article with all our friends (yes, all of them), it’s okay to call it the gist of the article—jist don’t call it the just.
Moot vs. Mute
Then there is the infamous moot–mute mix-up. Moot, according to the dictionary, means “deprived of practical significance; made abstract or purely academic.” A “moot point,” is one that is essentially irrelevant or unimportant to the topic at hand, or impossible to discuss intelligently for whatever reason. Mute, on the other hand, is the button we press on the remote when the commercial comes on. To mute (verb) something is “to muffle, reduce, or eliminate the sound of” that thing.
When used as a noun, a mute is “a device attached to or inserted into a musical instrument to soften or alter its tone,” or is a person who cannot or does not talk. By now, this is a moot point, but the word we want to use when talking about, well, a moot point is moot. (It rhymes with boot, or toot.)
Disinterested vs. Uninterested
Ninety-nine in one hundred people will say they are uninterested in grammar, punctuation, syntax, word usage, and all that rot. That means they couldn’t care less. Those ninety-nine are not reading this article, but you are of the One Percent, and I congratulate you, even if you are a figment of my imagination. Many of those ninety-nine people would say they are disinterested in grammar, but . . . tsk, tsk, tsk: If they were disinterested, it would simply mean they were unbiased or impartial. A “disinterested party” is a person or group who doesn’t stand to make or lose anything in a situation.
Members of a jury pool should be disinterested concerning the court case to be tried—not meaning that they have no interest in it (which is a moot point), but they have no strong feelings one way or the other about whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. They are disinterested members of the community. The uninterested ones are those other ninety-nine who aren’t reading this.
Lay vs. Lie
Here’s an almost universally muddled pair of words, and I mention them (again) because it’s one of the most commonly confused of the “commonly confused” words. We used to wonder why our dog never learned to lay down when we told him to. He’d just stare at us blankly and then go on doing whatever he was doing. It turns out he understood grammar better than we did, and when he complained to the humane society, we had to clean up our act. We should have been telling him to “lie down,” not “lay down.” D’oh!
Suffice it to say, in simplest terms, that “to lie” is something you or your dog does (and no, I’m not talking about telling a fib, which is another “lie”), and “to lay” is something you do to something else—you lay the bricks for the fireplace, the book on the table, your head on your desk, or yourself down to sleep (the old children’s prayer is grammatically correct: “Now I lay me down to sleep”). When you go to bed, you will go lie down, and when you can’t get up in the morning, we say, “He (or she) is lying there like a lazy lug,” or something more picturesque. When you visit the beach, you will lay out your blanket on the sand before you lie down on it. Aren’t you glad you’re of the one percent?
Bad vs. Badly
Now, let’s tackle the bad vs. badly mix-up. These two are most often misused in the context of how a person feels about something. “I heard that Charles’s wife left him when he spent their entire savings on a baseball card, and I feel [bad or badly—which is it?] for them.” The correct answer is bad. Yes, it is! (I’m sorry. I feel bad if you got it wrong.) According to the AP Stylebook, bad, used in this way, is an adjective (not an adverb) and is the idiomatic equivalent of “I am in bad health” or “I am in a bad emotional state.” We correctly use badly as an adverb (an adverb modifies verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs). For example, “The Dean’s English dude reasons badly, writes badly, and even spells his name badly.” That’s all grammatically correct, but it makes the Dean’s English dude feel bad.
© 2018 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.