Words that easily confuse us

Words that easily confuse us
Mainly About Books
by the books editor


The other day I was reading a publisher’s announcement of a new book about 1916 (yes, another one, too late in the day we would have thought, with the centenary of the first Dáil upon us). In the article I came upon on a striking error.

The author, writing about the aftermath of the Rising, remarked that: “The attitude of the general public, many of whom had been disinterested, dispirited and even hostile to the rising up to now, changed quickly to admiration, and the actions of the insurgents came to be seen by many as heroic.”

The comment is a sound enough description of the aftermath. Except that the people, especially of Dublin, were uninterested, not disinterested.

Uninterested means they had no interest in the Rising. Disinterested means something entirely different.

It means to act in a matter without self-interest. To donate a large sum of money to a charity, without wishing for any return for one’s self, that is to be disinterested.

This is an astonishingly common error, imported of course from the US. The confusion arises from such words as disinclined, not to be inclined to do something. People hearing this think that, on that model, disinterested must mean not interested. But, as I say, it means no such thing.

Writers, in so far as they are professional people, should have an exemplary care for the meaning, context and history of words. A writer cannot rely just on what they learnt at school or university.


In these times of informality there is less care taken, it seems, to get words right. Ultimately it seems people don’t think it matters. Everyone says it, so people will know what I am trying to say.

No, they won’t.

In this case the word is not just wrong, it is also leading to the extinction of the impulse towards altruism. It is obliterating a mental concept and a moral imperative. And that does matter.

Errors in speech and in writing are easy to understand. It is easy for children, for instance, to confuse principle and principal. This is like other sound alike words: discrete/discreet, advice/advise, allowed/aloud. They will sort this out in time; just as children learn to distinguish the different meanings of bark, and pen, and so on.

The style of writing used in emails and text messages is often abbreviated and homonymous. But slack use of language does not do on more formal occasions.

Take the preparation of a CV, an abbreviated form for curriculum vitae. These often present personnel officers, or rather ‘human resource managers’, as they are called these days, with problems.

CEOs often complain that young people seem to give little or no thought to what they are putting down. “Ah, he will sort it out, she will know what I want to say.” They won’t of course. And that is why you won’t get the job.

CEO’s often recommend that applicants run a spell checker over their texts. But this can be tricky advice.

Unless one specially selects English or Irish English, one may end up using US spellings. This form of English dominates Google Spellchecker. It can manage straightforward words, but Irish place names seem to defeat it as do many words names and titles imported from other languages.

The assumption in Silicon Valley is that every one must read, write and think in US English, which includes all those billions of Indians and Chinese people…

As this writer is slightly dyslexic, spelling is often not his thing. When I was a small boy my father reassured me. The problem, he said, was that really intelligent people learnt to read early. They quickly learnt to see only the “outside” of a word, not its “inside”. They know what it means, but don’t often focus on the letters that make it up. Hence of course the letters get jumbled

His maxim was that bad spelling was a sign of intelligence. It is a thought that that still comforts me.

But this is not the same as confusing uninterested with disinterested. That kind of cultural rot should be stopped now.