Terrible Twins

We’ve all had our run-ins with these words that I call the ‘terrible twins’ – those words that are pronounced the same or similar, but are spelt different and mean different things. Sometimes the meanings are very close while at other times they are almost opposites. And there might be just one letter difference between their spellings. Not to mention that both words are sometimes closely related with one deriving from the other. Here is a list (not total) of those ‘terrible twins’ and brief meanings (some have many related meanings, so I have put the main one).

access –  to gain admittance

assess – estimate officially the value of …

bare – without covering or clothing

bear – to hold up, support or carry (also an animal) There were 27 definitions in the Macquarie Dictionary!


biaannual – twice a year

biennial – every two years

born – brought forth into independent being or life

borne – past participle of the verb bear. To confuse matters, the spelling born was also used up until recently.

broach – to mention or suggest for the first time

brooch – clasp for ornament for a dress (derives from broach)

calendar – any of various systems of reckoning time

calender – a machine in which cloth, paper, or the like is smoothed, glazed, etc., by pressing between revolving cylinders

cannon – a large gun for firing heavy projectiles

canon – an ecclesiastical rule or law enacted by a council or other competent authority

canvas – closely woven, heavy cloth of hemp

canvass – to solicit votes, subscriptions, opinions etc.

coarse – composed of relatively large parts or particles

course – the path, route or channel along which anything moves

compliment – expression of praise, commendation or admiration

complement – something that completes or makes perfect

chord – a string of a musical instrument

cord – a string or small rope

councillor ­– a member of a council

counsellor – an adviser

currant – a small seedless raisin

current – flow, as in a river, or belonging to the time actually passing

desert – an area that supports only sparse or no vegetation

dessert – the final course of a meal

discrete – detached from others; separate; distinct

discreet – wise or judicious in avoiding mistakes or faults

dual – two parts

duel – a prearranged combat between two persons

faint – lacking brightness, vividness, clearness, loudness etc. Also to lose consciousness

feint – a movement made with the object of deceiving. Also, the lightest weight of line used in printing ruled paper (var. of faint)

grill – a barbecue

grille – a lattice or openwork screen, such as a window or gate

groin – fold or hollow where the thigh joins the abdomen

groyne – small jetty built out into the sea or river in order to prevent erosion of the beach or bank

lead – a heavy metal

led – past tense and past participle of lead (pronounced leed) … to show the way

loose – free from bonds or restraint

lose – to come to be without and not know the whereabouts of

male – as in the male gender (men) of animals and humans

mail – letters, packages sent by post. Also flexible armour of interlinking rings

meat – flesh of animal

meet – to come into contact with

metal – any of a class of elements, as gold, silver, copper etc.

mettle – the characteristic disposition or temper

meter – an instrument that measures

metre – a metric  unit of length (except US and Canada where the spelling is meter)

naturalist – someone versed in or devoted to natural history

naturist – nudist

palate – roof of the mouth

palette – a board or tablet used by painters to lay and mix colours on

pallet – movable platform on which goods are placed for storage or transportation

A terrible triplet!


peak – the pointed top of anything

peek – to have a quick look at something

pique – to wound (pride, vanity etc.) or to excite (interest, curiosity etc.)

another triplet!

personal – individual, private

personnel – the body of persons employed in any work, undertaking, or service

plain – clear or distinct to the eye or ear or a large area of flat country

plane – a flat or  level surface, or an aeroplane

principal – first or highest in rank

principle – an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct

prise – to raise, move, or force as with a lever

prize – a reward of victory

queue – a file or line of people, vehicles etc.

cue – a hint, an intimation, a guiding suggestion. Also a stick used in billiards.

quiet – making no noise or sound

quite – completely, wholly or entirely (adverb)

root –  underground part of a plant

route – a way or road taken or planned for passage or travel

stationary –  not moving

stationery – writing materials

storey – a complete horizontal section of a building

story – a narrative, either true or fictitious

straight –  without a bend, direct

strait – a narrow passage of water connecting two large bodies of water

tail – hindmost appendage of an animal

tale – a story

tea – a refreshing hot drink

tee – something you put a golf ball on to tee off

team – persons associated in a joint action

teem – to abound or swarm

their – possessive form of they

there – in or at that place

throes – any violent convulsion or struggle

throws – the act of hurling a projectile through the air

tic – sudden, painless, muscular contraction

tick – slight, sharp recurring click or beat. Also a blood-sucking mite-like animal

timber – wood used in building

timbre – quality of a sound

turbid – opaque or muddy

turgid – pompous; or swollen; distended

waive – relinquish

wave – disturbance of the surface of a liquid body

This is just a sample of those terrible twins and triplets. Some I left out because their spellings are interchangeable dependent on the style used by particular publishers and media. The ones highlighted in red are ones I have noticed writers mix up quite often. These are also words that a spell checker on a computer will not pick up. All spellings are in Australian English with reference from the Macquarie Dictionary.

What the!

I have a big blog post planned about the ‘Terrible Twins’ – those words that are pronounced the same or similarly, and can often confuse people. But in the meantime, and feeling rather poorly, I decided to say a few things about that often overused punctuation mark, the exclamation mark. How many writers have I seen who try to communicate their excitement about something by adding the exclamation mark – in fact, they sometimes add a plethora of them for good measure!!!!

Alas, it is a poor prop for lazy writing to do so (letter writing and some informal texts excluded). If you must resort to frequent use of exclamation marks, then that shows that the writing is not powerful enough on its own to show the reader its power on its own. However, the exclamation mark does have its place, particularly in dialogue where the force of the speaker cannot be shown any other way. For example: ‘Oh, shut up!’ he snapped. But a sentence like ‘There were as many as 300 wild horses on the property’ is powerful enough on its own without needing an exclamation mark.

Something to think about.

Dialogue attributions – More than he said, she said …

Dialogue can be tricky business, and it can make or break a story. The attribution – that part that follows or even precedes the dialogue itself – is more than a mere he said or a she said, although a smatterings of  ‘saids’  is still necessary. The most adept authors will use a mix of methods to create a natural flow as well as creating the mood and the setting without being obvious or awkward about it.

I am going to share some of the tricks established authors use to provide a good flowing dialogue through the skillful use of attributions, and in some cases, leaving the attribution out altogether.

Rather than cite a relatively unknown such as myself, let’s look at some of the work of J.K. Rowling in her book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I happen to be of the opinion that she doesn’t merely ride on the popularity of the films that came out of her Harry Potter series, but the skillful prose that has captured the imagination of children (and adults) the world over. I have just selected some random dialogue sections to illustrate the points I wish to make, and perhaps help other writers develop their craft.

Rowling manages to keep the pace moving with a combination of short, sharp dialogue with no attributions along with using attributions to describe actions and moods of the characters. Look at the following examples:

‘Same as  usual,’ said Harry, as Hermione perched herself on the edge of the bed. ‘They didn’t talk to me much, but I like it better that way. How’re you, Hermione?’

‘Oh, I’m fine,’ said Hermione, who was scrutinising Harry as though he was sickening for something.

First of all, notice that the dialogue is not formal but natural, just like young people would talk to each other. People don’t speak in perfect sentences. They often use phrases as with the first example with Harry speaking.

Now look at the attribution. Fine, Rowling uses a simple said Harry but that is immediately followed with a statement that paints the picture of Hermione sitting on the end of the bed, or rather ‘perched’ which describes the manner in which she sits on the bed. The reader now has a picture of what is happening. The dialogue is also split up, indicating a pause as Harry continues to talk before asking Hermione informally, how she is.

Rowling again uses said Hermione  as she replies to Harry, then followed by an action of her scrutinising him and the manner of her scrutiny. She isn’t merely looking at him; the action suggests much more in her ‘look’ that shows she notices something about his manner. Notice that all this is done without using any awkward adverbs, although Rowling does use a smattering of them also in her books.

Here is another example:

‘Oh … is she here too?’ Harry croaked.

‘No, no, silly boy,’ said Fleur with a tinkling laugh, ‘I mean next summer, when we – but do you not know?’

Her great blue eyes widened and she looked reproachfully at Mrs Weasley, who said, ‘We hadn’t got around to telling him yet.’

Okay, some interesting techniques here. In the first piece of dialogue, Rowling uses ellipses (the three dots …) to indicate a hesitation in Harry’s speech. And in the attribution he is not talking normally, as he croaked, indicating something about his mood or condition. Fleur replies with a tinkling laugh, which describes the type of laugh she had, and thus makes her more real to the reader. Again the attribution serves to pause the dialogue for a moment as Fleur continues talking. An en dash is then used to suddenly cut the dialogue mid-sentence as one would experience in natural speech.

In the next sentence, the attribution introduces the speech instead of going after it. This is another trick to learn. It is far better here to describe the reaction of the character, Fleur, which then takes the reader to Mrs Weasley, who responds to Fleur’s reaction. In one sentence, Rowling has slipped in a description of Fleur’s eyes and the manner in which she looked at Mrs Weasley. Yes, an adverb has been used here – reproachfully – but Rowling gets away with it because it is the best fit for this occasion.  She doesn’t go overboard with her adverbs, rather using them to their best advantage. If she used an adverb in every attribution, it would soon be noticed and grate on the reader.

As you can see in these few examples, dialogue attributions can be applied in various ways and say a lot about the characters as well as setting the mood of the story.


You can tell a lot about some words by knowing about the prefix, which is a one to three letter ‘code’ placed at the front of many words to modify the meaning of the base word. For example, take the word prefix itself, which takes its own prefix pre– meaning before, therefore ‘to fix before’. Here are a few common prefixes and their meanings:

ex– out of; dis– away from; a– or an– not, without; anti– against, opposite; auto– self; bio– life, living;  hyper–  over, above; hypo– less than, below; in-, im– not; inter– and intro– between; mal– bad, badly; micro– small; multi– many; neo– new; omni– all; peri– around; re– back, again; sanct– holy; sub– under, below; tele– distance, from afar; trans– across; un– not; vita– life.

This is just a small sample of the prefixes in our language. You can also compile a list of suffixes, which are appended to the end of base words. Often a word will comprise both prefixes and suffixes and parts that are used within the words. To complicate matters further, suffixes can be noun, verb or adjective suffixes according to the usage of the word. Some common suffixes include: acy = state or quality; –ism = doctrine or belief; –ness = state of being; –ship = position held; –ate = become; –able or –ible = capable of being; –al = pertaining to; –ful = notable for; –ive = having the nature of; –less = without; –y = characterised by.

How many words do you know that use the above prefixes and suffixes? Why not make a list of as many words as you can think up and see how well you go. Knowing your prefixes and suffixes can also aid in spelling words. Do a Google search on prefixes and suffixes, and you will find lists that will demonstrate just how many words in English use these helpful little hangers-on.