One Letter Makes All the Difference

2 min read

As if different pronunciations for the same spelling (read/read) weren’t tricky enough, there are many sets of words in the English language that are different by just one letter. These words typically have different meanings, but often sound the same. Take “peal” and “peel” — “peal” is used to describe a loud ringing of bells, while “peel” is something you do to an apple before baking it. Though ever-so-slight, this one-letter change completely alters the meaning of the word.

Stationary/Stationery

Which would make for better exercise equipment — a “stationary” bike or a “stationery” bike? The first option will get you in shape, the second option might be better suited for a mail carrier. “Stationary” with an “a” describes something that is not moving. “Stationery” with an “e” can be used interchangeably with writing paper, envelopes, and other writing materials. Try this memory trick: A capital “A” looks like someone standing firm on both legs, just like they would if they were “stationary.”

Bases/Basis

Whether describing the trunks of trees in the backyard or the checkpoints on a baseball diamond, the word “bases” is the correct choice. “Bases” is the plural form of “base,” used most commonly to describe the lowest part of something. “Basis” has a somewhat similar meaning, but the words are not interchangeable. “Basis” refers to the underlying foundation for an idea, or can be used to describe how often something must be done (e.g. “on a regular basis”).

Decent/Descent

It’s no wonder the English language can be confusing at times. The phrase, “He had a decent descent,” makes perfect sense but could describe two completely different situations — either a hiker enjoying their journey down a mountainside, or a moral ancestry.

“Decent” is best described as “acceptable” or “satisfactory” but can also be used to say that a person has moral behavior (e.g. “a decent person”). “Descent” also has multiple meanings. It describes heading on a downward slope, or lineage in ancestry (e.g. “of French descent”), or even an attack on something (as in “descent on”).  

Altar/Alter

A soon-to-be-bride will “alter” her wedding gown before she meets her partner at the “altar.” An altar is a type of structure significant in religious worship, whether for burning incense or reciting wedding vows. To alter something is to change it.

Vain/Vein

Some might remember the story of Narcissus in Greek mythology. In Greek mythology, the hunter Narcissus, known for his beauty, fell in love with his reflection and pined away until he died and turned into a flower. Narcissus was “vain,” just as in the popular Carly Simon song, “You’re So Vain.” “Vein” with an “e” is used in biology to describe the tubes that carry blood through our bodies. The “e” word is also used to describe fractures in rocks that contain minerals.

Faun/Fawn

To see a “fawn” running through a meadow is normal, but to see a “faun” would be pretty improbable. From Roman mythology, a faun is half-human and half-goat, similar to the Satyrs of Greek mythology. A fawn is a name for a baby deer during its first year of life. Fawn is also a light yellow-brown color.

Featured image credit: Kubra Cavus/ iStock

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