Please don’t “complement” my spelling

Published 5:09 pm Friday, March 18, 2022

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Recently, I was reading what fans online were saying about a particular TV show I enjoy watching. I always think it’s fascinating to see the wide range of opinions. But I kept getting distracted by a particular mistake that kept popping up while I was browsing through. Someone kept writing “duel-colored” instead of “dual-colored” as they were describing one of the characters.

“Dual” of course means having two parts, while “duel” is a one-on-one fight between two people. I can’t imagine what “duel-colored” would look like (unless maybe it’s red for all the blood that might get spilled??)

Anyway, this little typo got me thinking about how easy these sorts of confusions can happen in English. There are so many words out there where one wrong letter can accidentally change the whole meaning of a word. Or maybe the words sound similar enough that people unintentionally switch them.

Personally, I always have to check to make sure I don’t accidentally mix up “trial” and “trail.” Similar spelling but completely different meanings! We’d all be scratching our heads if I started talking about hiking “trials,” right? What kind of lawyer would you need for that anyway?!

Forgive me for turning this week’s column into a mini-English lesson, but here are some commonly confused or misused words, particularly ones I see pretty regularly (and some I’m guilty of messing up myself). Read on if you’d like to brush up on your skills!

Complement/compliment: “complement” is used to describe when things go well together, like if you’re describing how nice the flavors of the food on your plate are when paired up. A “compliment” is a nice thing to say about something or someone, like if you decide to compliment the chef for cooking such a complementary meal. To remember the difference between the two, just note that “compliment” is spelled with an “i,” as in “I… would like people to compliment me on my good work.” (Who doesn’t?)

Empathy/sympathy: “empathy” is simply the ability to understand how someone’s perspective or how they feel. “Sympathy” is feeling sorrow for someone else’s suffering. Empathy can cover any emotion, while sympathy has a more negative association. An easy way to remember the difference here is to remember that you can buy “sympathy” cards at the store to send to people when they’re having a bad time.

Principal/principle: a “principal” is the title of a person running a school and “principle” is an ideal or belief. The principal at your school probably has a firm set of principles for the students to follow. To keep from mixing these up, remember that the principal of your school can be your “pal” …if you aren’t a big troublemaker, that is!

Stationary/stationery: “stationary” is not moving, like how a stationary exercise bike doesn’t take you anywhere. “Stationery” is what you use to send letters (back when people didn’t rely so much on the internet). I always remember this one by noting that the “e” in stationery also pops up in the names of writing utensils such as “pens” and “pencils.” Those things are important to have if you want to write on stationery!

Cite/site/sight: “cite” is when you quote something as supporting evidence. “Site” is a location. And “sight” is being able to see. Since they all sound the same, it’s easy to accidentally mix up the letters even though all the definitions are wildly different from one another. To help remember the spellings, think about how “cite” and “credit” both start with the letter “c,” because giving credit is basically what you’re doing when you cite something. You can also remember that “sight” has one more letter than “site.” You can pretend that your eyesight helps you see that extra letter.

Who’s/whose: “who’s” is just a shorter way to say “who is” while “whose” is a possessive pronoun. If you’re unsure which word to use, just substitute “who is” into the sentence. If that doesn’t sound right in the sentence, you should be using “whose” instead.

Amuse/bemuse: “amuse” is used when we find something funny. “Bemuse” sounds like a synonym but it’s actually used when you’re bewildered or puzzled by something. A simple way to remember the difference is to remember that “bemuse” and “bewilder” both start with the same letters.

Lastly, there’s “literally.” It’s a bit of a special case, but good to include here too. It’s supposed to mean “in a literal sense” or “exactly.” An example sentence would be “it literally only takes two minutes to heat this up in the microwave.” That means two minutes. No more, no less!

A lot of people these days, however, tend to use “literally” to mean “figuratively” which is quite the opposite of that first example. An example I saw on the internet was “don’t say ‘he literally blew up’ unless he swallowed a stick of dynamite.”

But with the way language changes over time depending on how more and more people use it, the “literally” error will become more acceptable. We’re going to understand if you use the word figuratively, even if some people might roll their eyes about it.

But the most important thing to remember about any of these words is that people can usually figure out the meaning even if you make a mistake with them. So don’t worry too much if you get the spelling wrong here and there, or you mix up a word or two.

We’ve all been there. Literally!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or 252-332-7206.