Column: Similar words are ripe for flouting


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Do you have a word that is your verbal kryptonite? A word that you can’t seem to use in the correct context? I don’t, because — after all — I’m the grammar guy.

I’m joking, of course! Certain words trip me up all the time. The usual suspects (for me) are the short ones that look alike and even sound similar to each other. Let’s get to the bottom of a few of these shifty short words.

Have you ever heard someone say, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it?” Flaunt is a word that means to show off or parade something. You might be tempted to say “flout” instead of flaunt, since the two words sound and look almost identical to each other. Flout means to show contempt for or mock something. Many people flout the “ten items or fewer” lane at the grocery store by bringing an entire shopping cart full of items.

Do you find it confusing when to use “rife” and when to use “ripe”? Rife connotes abundance while ripe suggests readiness. Rife is usually used with the word “with” afterward: My uncle’s Facebook updates are rife with conspiracy theories. Ripe is usually used with the word “for” after it: The pears on that tree are ripe for the picking.

Is something a sham or a scam? A sham is something that is a fraud or a pillow cover. A scam is a shady plan to take advantage of someone’s trust. Since both words involve deception of some sort, these two are easy to confuse.

Here’s an example of two words I hear mistaken all the time: riff and rift. A “riff” is a melodic phrase that gets repeated. The Edge from U2 is known for his catchy guitar riffs. A “rift” is a split, opening, or distance created between two things. This can be a rift in the ground or a rift in a friendship. The band developed a rift when the percussionist insisted on playing his cowbell during every song.

Let’s tackle squash and quash. To “squash” something means to physically squeeze or press down on something. To “quash” something means to halt or quickly bring to an end something in a nonphysical sense. You “quash” a rumor by revealing the truth about the situation in question. You squash a spider on your car’s dashboard because it makes you scream in terror during rush hour traffic.

What word pairings make you see double? Send me a message and perhaps we can quash any phonetic misconceptions.