Bryan Garner on Words

Can you spot the wrong words in Bryan Garner's quiz?

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Bryan A. Garner

Bryan A. Garner. Photo by Winn Fuqua Photography.

Linguists call English an “analytic language,” meaning that it depends more on word order than on inflections to indicate grammatical relationships. The words man and fish don’t change their form, regardless of whether you’re writing Man eats fish or Fish eats man. But in Latin and Greek—which are known as “synthetic languages”—the nouns would change their form according to whether they’re the subject or the object. In English, we don’t have as many inflections and declensions.

So the tough thing about English isn’t grammar so much as word choice. There are so many homophones, or words that sound the same but mean completely different things and may be spelled differently. Think of rain/reign/rein or write/rite/right/wright. Or, as we see all the time in text messages and emails, think of the common confusion over there/they’re/their and your/you’re. When you’re (ahem) texting, your handheld device will sometimes prompt you to the correct word, but just as often it might quickly miscorrect you and substitute the wrong word.

In more formal contexts, though, expectations are higher. I was therefore mildly surprised to read recently in a law review that women “traditionally bare the brunt of caregiving responsibilities.” Wrong word. Bear the brunt is the set phrase. A brunt was originally a military assault or onslaught; it’s something one must bear (endure). The idea in the phrase has nothing to do with uncovering anything.

Seeing the mistake, though, reminded me that it might be time to collect a few word-choice gaffes for you from various legal publications. The following passages were all published within the past 16 years. Whether by fault of the author or the editors, the wrong word ended up in print. Let’s see whether you’d have made the right choice. If you’ve read a lot over the years and paid attention, you’ll do well here. Most of the choices don’t involve true homophones but instead similar-sounding words.

Any problems loading the quiz below? Head to ABAJournal.com/GarnerQuiz_FebMarch2024.

This story was originally published in the February-March 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Not-Right Writing: Can you spot the wrong words?”


Bryan A. Garner is a law professor, lexicographer, grammarian and author of more than 25 books, including Oxford University Press' 1,300-page Garner's Modern English Usage (5th ed. 2022).

This column reflects the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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