Insider 9-20-2011

Welcome back to my ongoing series about how words work. Today, I have a few more examples to add to your list of ones that are commonly confused for each other. This list is still far from comprehensive, so don't panic if the word pair/group that is your personal nemesis isn't here. There's plenty of time for us to get to it! In the meantime, let me know if there are any words you find particularly tough to use or spell correctly, and I'll see if I have any tricks that might help you keep them straight.

capital/capitol

This word has several meanings, but most of them are spelled the same way. To refer to the actual building where a state government meets (or to the hill the building sits on, though that uses a capital "C"), spell the word with an "o." All other uses are with an "a."

Trick of Remembering: Think "o" as in the dome often placed on capitol buildings.

Blackwater may be one of the most infamous ports of Cryx, but Skell is the Nightmare Empire's capital. Looking for the capitol while you're there wouldn't be such a capital idea, though, as no amount of capital can guarantee your exit.

council/counsel

A "council" is an assembly or advisory body. "Counsel" is the advice they give you (or, as a verb, the act of them giving the advice).

Trick of Remembering: Because a "counselor" is a person who gives counsel, look to that word to help you remember which spelling to use.

The original Council of Eleven at the Corvis Treaties never managed any more useful counsel than "Turn it up!"

ensure/insure/assure

"Ensure" means to make sure something will (or won't) happen, in general. "Insure" has to do with insurance and is what you do for your house, your car, your life, and so on. And just to keep things interesting, there's a third voice in the trio that sounds close enough to confound: "assure" means to state with confidence.

Trick of Remembering: When you want the word that means "make sure," just look at the letters. "Make sure" uses "e" but no "i"—so you should, too. "Ensure" is what you need.

To ensure you are covered, it would be wise to insure the new gun mage training facility against damage. Then you could rest assured you'd done what you could to protect yourself against financial ruin.

its/it's

What a difference an apostrophe makes! Every possessive has one, right? Well, not quite. It's true that the possessive forms of nouns—including names, which are proper nouns—have apostrophes: an animal's offspring, the soldiers' blood, Sorscha's mentor. The possessive forms of pronouns don't have apostrophes, though: his dream, her sword, their scheme, its chassis. So what's the deal with "it's"? "It's" is short for "it is" and is an instance when an apostrophe doesn't signal possession but stands in for something that's been taken out—in this case, the "i" from "is."

Trick of Remembering: Think of the apostrophe in "it's" as a nod to the dot of the "i" in "it is."

It's never good when a warpwolf gets its nose out of joint—and even less so when a player gets his nose out of joint.

whose/who's

Apostrophes like to step in for letters that are dropped when two words shrink into one, called contractions. "Who's" is short for "who is" and is another case when an apostrophe doesn't signal possession but stands in for something that's been taken out—in this case, the "i" from "is." The other word, "whose" is a pronoun, like "his" or "hers."

Trick of Remembering: Just as with "it's," think of the apostrophe in "who's" as a nod to the dot of the "i" in "who is."

He's the one who's saying you're a terrible shot, not me! So he's the one whose hat you should have shredded with your rifle.