Word Traps for Unwary Writers

by Elaine Viets

    Here are more word traps for unwary writers. I’ve found all these examples in books from major publishers. No, I’m not telling you the authors’ names or the books’ titles. It could happen to any of us. Just be on the look out for these snares. Let’s start with how a missing W can make your book X-rated:


    Balling/bawling. I was shocked by this sentence in a well-promoted book: “When they announced I was national champ, my mother started balling.”
    Really? In front God and everybody? The simple substitution of a W for one of those Ls would have Mother engaged in public “bawling.” That’s much more socially acceptable.
    Colombia/Columbia/pre-Columbian — a triple threat.

    Colombia – with an O in the middle.  A country in northwest South America, and as any Miami Vice fan knows, the home of violent drug traffickers, including the Cali and Medellin cartels.colomba map

    Columbia – with a U in the middle.  US, the poetic name for the United States. Columbia is also the District of Columbia, better known as Washington, D.C., and a variety of towns and places, including Columbia University, which is currently in a very ugly rape scandal. Poets and headline writers dumped Columbia as the female symbol of the US about 1920 and started carrying a torch for the Statue of Liberty.


    Pre-Columbian – with a U in the middle. That means before Christopher Columbus and his European pals started slaughtering and enslaving the indigenous native people in the New World. Er, I mean, before the noble Caucasians brought civilization to the backward savages. This word really trips up writers who discuss pre-Columbian art, especially when it’s located in Colombia, like these sculptures.

    Fare-thee-well/Fair-thee-well. Fare-thee-well means “good-bye and good luck” and it’s been used in countless songs and ballads. Here’s a version of the time-honored lyrics:
    Fare thee well my own true love
    And farewell for a while.
     I’m going away, but I’ll be back
    If I go ten thousand miles

    Sound familiar? You’ve listened to versions recorded by folkie Nic Jones as “Ten Thousand Miles,” as well as by Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Marianne Faithfull and more.
    “Fair-thee-well” is flat-out wrong. Don’t use it.

    Heroine/Heroin. Lately, “heroine addicts” are turning up in way too many novels. These are not readers addicted to the DC Comics heroines.

Dc comics heroines

    But drug users craving China white are “heroin addicts.”


    Pored/Poured. Way too many people have been “pouring” over books. All that water ruins the pages. It’s easier if you “pore” over your books. 
Fresh stream on water surface   
   Ring/Wring.  “I could just ring her little neck.” Maybe she was wearing jingle bells. But I think he really wanted to “wring” her neck, which would make her bawl. Those Ws are nothing but trouble.

jingle bell necklace

    Rite/Right: “A tattoo is a right of passage,” the author wrote. Wrong. A tattoo is a “rite” of passage. Got that right?
    Good luck, writers. Go and sin no more.


39 thoughts on “Word Traps for Unwary Writers

  1. Ha! I had a guy “balling” his eyes out in one of my chapters recently. I mean, yeah, i SUPPOSE it works as a metaphorically image but it was not what I meant.

    My beta buddies caught it. We had a good laugh.

  2. ome other homonym sins:
    Affect, effect
    Allusion, illusion
    Principal, principle
    and one of my pet peeves…
    Emigrate (from), immigrate (to)

    I read a book recently that had this line: “It appealed to people from all woks of life.”

    There’s a joke in there somewhere but I haven’t had my coffee yet…

  3. I suppose it’s possible that a teenager might argue to his parents that getting a tattoo is a “right” of passage, but it’s unlikely.
    Made it by a hare’s breath? Only if a lucky rabbit blew on you. Otherwise a slim success would be by a hair’s breadth.

  4. He is the newly appointed premiere of the country. No, he’s the premier, but the movie of his life will premiere soon.

    He stood stationery while holding the piece of stationary. No. He stood stationary while holding the piece of stationery..

  5. Speaking of missing letters, I have long feared accidentally leaving out the “l” in “public.” Finally happened to me in a newsletter that is distributed to about 800 people. In a headline, no less. Ah, well. I got some ribbing about that.

  6. Irregardless the point is mute … Regardless the point is moot.

    Newsflash – a report is circulating that today is Joe Hartlaub’s birthday. Many more, sir!

  7. Great list, Elaine and commenters! All those pairs and many more are in my soon-to-be released quick writers’ resource, “Spelling on the Go – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips.” 🙂

  8. The first, top, and all top 10 is any use of “impact” that does not involve a car accident or a meteor.

    “Due to” also makes me cringe.

    “Lose/loose” is another favorite. “Our team is ahead, but I still think we’re going to loose.”


    • Impact is both a noun and a verb per my dictionary and standard usage. I do not see use as an error. Am missing something?

      Likewise ? issue with “due to” – as in “caused by” or “attributable to” (“do to” would be incorrect)

    • “Impact” has become cheap-speak to avoid using affect-effect. Horrid horrid word. Cars impact (or better yet hit) walls and meteors leave impact craters.

      Poor profits impacting the positive impact of the prevalent paradigm negatively impacts the company’s ability to create positive impact on the bottom line. This is impactful.


    • (and my previous comment had a hilarious, almost Freudian typo)

      My tech writing teacher hated the phrase “due to” like fire. Also called it “cheap-speak” of someone trying to sound smart.

      If a paper came in with it in the text, it was circled in red and returned to be replaced with “because of.”

      The other forbidden phrase was “utilize” instead of “use.” She advocated and required us to write our tech papers and assignments with the clearest and simplest words available. It stuck with me.

  9. Date rope vs. a raped-off crime scene.
    And don’t forget to watch those prepositions. A student of mine failed to do so: in his essay he described how seeing his father’s ghost “put the fear of God up” Hamlet. I wrote in the margin: “cosmic hemorrhoids–as if the poor guy doesn’t have enough on his mind!”

  10. As an English professor, I feel your pain. I don’t know how many times I get “nowdays” or “now-a-days” instead of “nowadays” or “passed” instead of “past” or “all intense of purposes” instead of “all intents and purposes.”

  11. Recently a student wrote “to know a fail” on a paper. I had to read it out loud to realize that “to no avail” was what was meant. Often when students use phrases that they have only heard, and don’t really understand, they make this kind of mistakes.

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