“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain
Words and idioms are often learned in a verbal context – we hear something we don’t know, we figure it out in our heads, and we add it to our own vocabulary. Unfortunately, English is full of homonyms, so what we hear may not be what was actually said.
Moot vs. Mute
In the phrase “the point is moot”, moot means “of little practical value.” If you don’t know that word, it may seem that the point is mute, because it has no say in the outcome. It’s a stretch, since they don’t even sound the same (think coot and cute), yet it’s a common error, and you should avoid it. If the point doesn’t matter, it’s moot.
Flesh Out vs. Flush Out
To flesh out an idea is to keep adding so that it takes shape, getting closer to the desired result, yet it’s sometimes mistaken for flush out, which presumably means to get rid of the junk and make the idea cleaner. I can see how that might make sense, but it’s not right. Go with flesh out.
Deep-Seated vs. Deep-Seeded
Deep seeded makes sense – something with strong roots – but the correct phrase is deep-seated, meaning it is fixed firmly in place. In this case, “seat” is a verb; it has nothing to do with chairs, and even less to do with gardening.
Bald-Faced vs. Bold-Faced
Bald-faced means obvious or brazen, making no effort to hide. If you heard that spoken, the context might imply bold-faced, as in standing out or obvious. But boldface applies to text and nothing else, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar. Even if they have a beard.
Toe the line vs. Tow the line
Toe the line means to step into place, to do what is expected. It sounds just like tow the line, which could easily mean to help the cause, to do your part. But it doesn’t mean that, because the right phrase is toe the line.
There are also words that both legitimate words that have different meanings yet are used interchangeably:
Hone vs. Home
Some sources say that hone in on and home in on are synonyms, which seems odd considering they have different meanings. To hone is to sharpen (to hone one’s skills), while to home is to move toward a goal (to home in on a target.) Similar? Yes. Same? No.
Foundered vs. Floundered
Foundered (to fall apart or fail) and floundered (to struggle or flail helplessly) have subtly different meanings, but aren’t these nuances the joy of language? These are worth getting right – though their scarcity makes me think most folks just jump to a synonym to avoid the wrath of word nerds.
Careered vs. Careened
I was ready to make this distinction, until I read that Patricia T. O’Conner, NY Times editor and author of the enjoyable Woe is I, said, “I deliberately omitted careen-vs.-career from my (book) because I felt that it had become almost pedantic to insist on a distinction that most people and dictionaries no longer recognize.” Oh. I had planned to say that careen means to tilt or move with a side-to-side manner, while career means to move headlong at high speed, which isn’t the same thing. But I don’t want to be pedantic, so do what you will – I won’t correct you.
(Your own linguistic pet-peeves are welcome in the comments. Thanks.)