In reference to our previous “Ask Dr. Boli” feature about the longest word in the English language, our correspondent “tom” suggests,

I think one’s talents would be better employed in finding the wrongest word in the English language.

It might be difficult to meet both criteria of “wrong” and “in the English language,” since we could argue that if it is flat-out wrong, it is not in the English language. Perhaps the word “rhyme,” which came from the French “rime” but was corrupted by pedantic association with “rhythm,” would be the wrongest accepted word in the English language. The efforts of nineteenth-century counterpedants to restore the spelling to “rime” came to nothing, and we seem to be stuck with the longer and more awkward spelling.

In a decade or so, “rhyme” will have competition for the wrongest standard word in the English language from “reigns” for the straps that control a horse. “No need to pull the reigns that hard or fight the horse.” (From a book published this year by the two-century-old academic publisher John Wiley and Sons, in which the word is consistently spelled that way.) As Dr. Boli has remarked before, there is a strong pedantic tendency for the more complex spelling of two homophones to displace the simpler one. Indeed, in the metaphorical use, we must consider the battle already lost. The search engine Mojeek finds 4,516,979 results for “free reign” and 2,126,951 for “free rein.” (We turn to Mojeek because Google tries too hard to give us the results we really meant to look for, even if we put the search terms in quotation marks.) There are enough counterpedants in the world that this spelling is still considered wrong by linguistic authorities, but how long can authorities like Merriam-Webster, with its dogma of description not prescription, stand firm against the obvious fact that the wrong spelling is more than twice as common as the right one?

Of course, language changes because people make mistakes in usage, and the mistakes stick. The question in a literate culture is how long we mean to resist the mistakes. Dr. Boli has decided that he will resist the obvious errors like “reign” for “rein” or “your” for “you’re” only as long as he himself lives, and after that you’re all on your own and will have free rein to do what you like with the language.

Incidentally, we thought we might use an artificially intelligent image generator to come up with an illustration for this article. We asked for a picture of “King James I of England with the face of a horse,” which we planned to caption with some very clever pun on the word “reigns.” The intelligence in the box gave us a picture of King James I of England with the face of King James I of England. Our robot brains may be developing a sarcastic sense of humor.


  1. Occasional Correspondent says:

    When it comes to imposing our will on horses, it is by reins that we reign (but also by carrots and apples and sugar cubes).

  2. mikeski says:

    I claim the wrongest English words are those borrowed from Welsh, that have “w” as their only vowel.

    A “cwm” is a glacial valley.

    If we have to not only break spelling and phonetic rules, but mess with the very definition of our alphabet, the word is quite wrong.

  3. Mary says:

    There’s always “transgressive”

  4. KevinT says:

    My vote goes to the use of “it’s” as the possessive form of it.

  5. markm says:

    “Breaks” for “brakes”.

    “Literally” when it is used figuratively – which it is so often these days that if you use “literally” correctly, you will be misunderstood.

    And a dishonorable mention for the synonyms “inflammable” and “flammable”. Unusually, in this case it’s the historical word that is fouled up, and the neologism is a clear improvement.

  6. markm says:

    Also, “flaunt” used in place of “flout”. That makes me wonder if the user just mistook the word, or is too foggy-minded to separate the concepts.

  7. Occasional Correspondent says:

    I am annoyed by the use of “pantograph” when the speaker means “Punky Brewster”.  It is one of the least frequent errors of English usage.

  8. Brat Farrar says:

    It seems like I’m alone in this, but I nominate the use of “decimate” to mean “mass destruction” rather than “reduce by ten percent”. Seems like this use/misuse has been cropping up all over the place the last few years, and it’s turned into quite a pet peeve of mine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *