Before You Hit Publish, Week 3: Common Word Misuse

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Want to know something funny? I have a BA in English and worked as a copy editor for 3+ years (as well as freelancing before and after that time span). My husband has his master’s and most of a PhD in Math, teaches Math, IS math.

You know which one of us is better at Scrabble, crossword puzzles, and those dang Pogo games where you have to unscramble the letters?

He is.

It’s terribly infuriating. But he is quite well-read and insists most of those games are based on patterns. So, it may have something to do with the fact that I’m fairly sure I have no left brain at all.

On top of all this, Mr. V gets great pleasure in perusing my Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, mostly when he wants to prove me wrong about something. His favorite victory is finding that, despite protests, “used to could” is an accepted phrase “not limited to those of little education but … common in the casual speech of educated Southerners.”

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage

Today’s hot topic comes straight from the pages of that usage dictionary–the misuse of loose and lose.

LOSE (v.)
1 a : to bring to destruction
2 : to miss from one’s possession or from a customary or supposed place
3 : to suffer deprivation of : part with especially in an unforeseen or accidental manner
4 a : to suffer loss through the death or removal of or final separation from (a person) b : to fail to keep control of or allegiance of
5 a : to fail to use : let slip (2) : to undergo defeat in  c : to fail to catch with the senses or the mind
6 : to cause the loss of
7 : to fail to keep, sustain, or maintain
8 a : to cause to miss one’s way or bearings b : to make (oneself) withdrawn from immediate reality …
11 : to free oneself from : get rid of

LOOSE (adj.)
1 a : not rigidly fastened or securely attached b (1) : having worked partly free from attachments (2) : having relative freedom of movement  d : not tight-fitting
2 a : free from a state of confinement, restraint, or obligation

While loose can also be a verb, it only means “to let loose, to free from restraint.”

Why are these two so often mixed-up? The Dictionary of Usage claims “the real problem … is simply spelling. The verb lose rhymes with choose, and the urge to spell it with an extra o sometimes proves irresistible.”

When you are writing, it’s likely you almost always mean LOSE. You lose weight. You lose your car keys. You lose a loved one to cancer.

Your clothes are loose if you lose weight. Your book came loose from its binding. Really, there aren’t that many reasons to use loose. 😉

The Washington State University Web site adds the helpful hint to say the intended word aloud. “If it has a voiced Z sound, then it’s ‘lose.’ If it has a hissy S sound, then it’s ‘loose.’ ”

If you can’t remember, you can always do what I do: check on or Y’all would not believe how often I check a spelling or hyphenation on those sites. And I am an editor! There’s no shame. (And as a P.S., I would NEVER try to shame you at all. I simply want us all to be better writers.)

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Reading Like a Writer: Want a short read? Try The Thanksgiving Visitor by Truman Capote. It’s a short story told from the point-of-view of a very young Capote (“Buddy”), but the language is fresh and the metaphors are excellent. He’s doing what we all, as bloggers, hope to do: tell our stories in an interesting and perplexing way. Trust me on this one! Read it.


4 thoughts on “Before You Hit Publish, Week 3: Common Word Misuse

  1. Really? I didn't even realize this one tripped so many people up! I'm glad to see you doing this series, though. I think it's important for all of us to brush up on some of these common issues!

  2. Another good one!

    I am thrilled to learn that "used to could" is acceptable proper Southern vernacular. I'm fixin' to shout, y'all!

  3. I'm too much of an uptight Northerner to accept "used to could" without a fight.

    Love – did you know they have an iphone/itouch app that is resident on the device (no need to have a wireless connection to use it)? That has come in handy on a number of ocassions.

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