A Word, Please: 7 words even smart people get wrong

A poolside Scrabble game at Ruby Montana's Coral Sands Inn in Palm Springs.
A poolside Scrabble game at Ruby Montana’s Coral Sands Inn in Palm Springs.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

In our tricky language, certain words are out to trick you. Sometimes, they succeed. It doesn’t matter how grammar-savvy you are or how many degrees you have in English lit. Some misused words can and will pop up in your writing. Vigilance won’t save you, but it can help. So watch out for these seven words that even smart people get wrong.

Lead. You may know all about the verb “to lead.” You may know that in the present tense it has an “a” but in the past tense it doesn’t: “He led them astray.” That knowledge is worthless if you let your guard down. The metal, “lead,” is lurking in your subconscious waiting to ambush your sentence. It’s spelled just like the verb’s present tense, but it’s pronounced just like the verb’s past tense. That’s why so many people who know better use the wrong form, as in “He lead me astray.” That should be “led.”

Sneak peak. In any other context, “peak” isn’t a problem. Most people know not to say, “I peaked out the window.” But, true to its name, “sneak” is trying to pull a fast one here. The human brain has a thing for patterns — and shortcuts. So when we see with our eye the spelling s-n-e-a-k and we hear in our mind the “eek,” our brain goes on autopilot and repeats the spelling at served us so well in our last “eek” sound, causing us to write “peak” instead of the correct “peek.”

Eek. Speaking of “eek” sounds. Someone who narrowly escapes defeat doesn’t “eek out” a win. The correct spelling is “eke”: You eke out a win.

Reign. “He only calls into cable news interviews where he’s most likely to have the floor and free reign,” a BBC reporter tweeted recently. I’m a firm believer we should let most people off the hook for misspellings on Twitter. But when it comes to “free reign,” the medium probably isn’t the problem. Few people seem to know that they’re making reference to the reins on a horse. The expression means to stop pulling back on the reins so the horse can run free. “Reign” means to rule, like a king. Extra points if you noticed “into” in this tweet. “Calls in to” would be better than “calls into” since “call in” is a phrasal verb with a meaning distinct from “call.”

Disperse. Here’s another word from the This One You Just Gotta Know file: You don’t disperse funds. And you don’t disburse a crowd. The one with the p means to cause something to spread out or break up: disperse the crowd. The one with the b means to make a payment: disburse the funds.

Forego. You may think you have use for this word, but you don’t. Not in the present tense, anyway. After all, how often do you need to say, “Let me forego you here in this buffet line, Betty”? “Forego” with an e means to go before. If you’re using it, you probably mean “forgo,” which means to do without — which does without an “e.” To forego rarely comes up except in the past tense in the expression “a foregone conclusion.”

Who’s. “Who’s umbrella is that?” It seems so logical that this would be correct. After all, most possessives are formed by adding an apostrophe and an S. The man’s umbrella. But pronouns are different. You don’t write “That’s he’s umbrella.” It’s “his” umbrella. You don’t write “That’s our’s umbrella.” You don’t write “The dog wagged it’s tail.” “Whose” works the same way. The possessive term is “whose.” The term with the apostrophe “who’s,” is a contraction of “who is” or “who has.” Who’s there? So “who’s umbrella” is wrong and “whose umbrella” is correct.

The writer is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at

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