The Little Book of Confusables

Sarah Townsend (Sarah Townsend Editorial Limited, 2022), 335pp, £11.95
ISBN 978 1 916 37153 8

Reviewed by Jenny Warren

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I like to imagine that even the most experienced editors have a weak spot or two, including a word that they always check, even if they intuitively know they have it right. This little book offers an A to Z of easily confused words and short phrases, with brief definitions and hints or tips to help the reader determine the correct choice for their project. It encompasses homophones, homographs, homonyms and malapropisms, among others – all in British English. There are certainly a few favourites here that we will all recognise from our work: advice/advise, coup/coop, alter/altar and tenant/tenet. It also has possibly my favourite eggcorn: damp squid rather than damp squib. It’s a straightforward design, nicely put together and easy to access. This would be an attractive gift for newbie authors, corporate writers and students.

I wasn’t sure how valuable this would be for editors – most of us have online dictionary subscriptions or huge reference tomes at our elbows, after all. But I’ve got this sitting on my desk and will sometimes reach for it when I need a quick check of a word that I’m fairly confident about but want to be sure of. I won’t need to confirm the difference between bored, board(n) and board(v), but it might clarify the use of contagious versus infectious or verify that, yes, I did get bated breath right. We all have days when even the word ‘word’ looks wrong, and a handy resource like this could be a timesaver. I think it would be a good investment for entry-level editors. However, it has its limitations, as the author acknowledges; for example, it explains the difference between affect(n) and effect(n) but doesn’t venture into the use of effect as a verb, and the definitions are by necessity short. From my perspective, one of the best things about this paperback is the large, clear typeface; my poor beleaguered eyes are grateful!

The CIEP has a fact sheet on easily confused words. It includes tips for remembering the differences and choosing which word to use, plus keyboard slips: a paired list of words that look very similar but mean different things. This is a public resource, so it’s free to download and use or share with clients.

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