Category Archives: Commonly Confused Words

No, It’s Called “Dressing”: 3 Thanksgiving Vocabulary Arguments You Can Win This Year

On the last fourth Thursday of every November,* American families gather together to half-watch football, complain about airports, and eat foods covered in baby marshmallows. Most people’s goal, apart from stuffing themselves silly, is to avoid conflict. But there are a few brave individuals out there who will risk getting sent to their old childhood bedroom with no pumpkin pie: sticklers.

These foolhardy souls are more concerned with being right than being popular. They hear a term used incorrectly, and they just can’t stop themselves from piping up about it, damn the social consequences. It is for this group of impolitic pedants that I present the answers to three common Thanksgiving vocabulary arguments. Correct at your own risk.

1. Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams

The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, originated in Latin America. It shares a genus with the morning glory and is distantly related to actual potatoes.

The yam, a name for numerous species in the Dioscorea genus, originated in Africa and Asia. The most common species, Dioscorea rotundata (a.k.a. white yam), is a staple food in West Africa.

The two foods have a similar look, but yams are starchier and sweet potatoes are sweeter. The Thanksgiving food is sweet potatoes.

2. Cranberry Jelly vs. Cranberry Sauce

There are two options for your canned cranberry side dish: the sliceable kind and the chunky kind. Ocean Spray, the leading brand, calls them Jellied Cranberry Sauce and Whole Berry Cranberry Sauce, but that’s too wordy to catch on.

“Could you please pass the whole berry cranberry sauce?”
“What is wrong with you?”

The easy way to get someone to pass you the right kind is to call it “cranberry jelly” when it’s slices of gelatinized juice on a platter and “cranberry sauce” when it’s gooey berries in a bowl.

3. Stuffing vs. Dressing

The mix of crumbled bread and spices that is one of Thanksgiving’s most important side dishes has a bit of an identity crisis. Is it called “stuffing” or “dressing”? That depends on where you’re from.

To make a sweeping generalization, in the South, the dish is usually made with cornbread, and it’s called “stuffing” when it’s cooked inside the turkey and “dressing” when it’s cooked separately. In most of the rest of the country, stuffing is stuffing, regardless of whether it’s actually stuffing the bird or not, and it’s usually made with wheat bread.

The regional differences are not exact, though, as you can see from this handy guide to where each term is more common:

This argument can be a tricky one to win because it depends on location and tradition. If you see that the dish is made with cornbread, go ahead and smugly make the distinction between stuffing and dressing. If it’s made with wheat bread, you can try to argue that the portion cooked in the Pyrex is called “dressing,” but you’re not likely to make any converts.

I hope this guide wins you many debates. Please remember to take a long enough break from patting yourself on the back to enjoy some pie. Happy Thanksgiving.

* This post has been updated to reflect the fact that . Hat tip to my friend Shane, a true Thanksgiving pedant, for correcting me on this one.

Required Wikimedia Commons attributions:

Turkey: By Jamain (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sweet potatoes: “Ipomoea batatas 006” by Llez – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Uncommon Words, Commonly Confused—Part II

I promised that I have a long list of homonyms (words that sound or look like other words) wherein one of the words in the pair is used rarely, so it’s easily mistaken for the word that’s used frequently. Let’s examine some more!

The definitions below are from my dictionary of choice, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Words between brackets are mine.

And be sure to peruse the original post on these uncommon words that are commonly confused with common ones.

Uncommon Word Common Homonym
Aweigh: Raised just clear of the bottom—used of an anchor. [Anchors aweigh!] Away: From this or that place. In another direction. Absent from a place. Distant in space or time. [And many others.]
Eke: To get with great difficulty. [Eke out a living.] Eek: Used to express surprise or dismay. [Eek! A mouse.]
Forebear: Ancestor, forefather; also precursor—usu. used in pl. Forbear: To hold oneself back from esp. with an effort.
Gage: A token of defiance; a glove or cap cast on the ground to be taken up by an opponent as a pledge of combat. Gauge: A measurement (as of linear dimension) according to some standard or system. [Railroad gauge or shotgun gauge.]
Mantle: A loose sleeveless garment worn over other clothes: cloak. A figurative cloak symbolizing preeminence or authority (accepted the mantle of leadership). Something that covers, enfolds, or envelops. Mantel: A beam, stone, or arch serving as a lintel to support the masonry above a fireplace. The finish around a fireplace. A shelf above a fireplace.

Can you think of any other words that belong on this list? Post them in the comments.

Uncommon Words, Commonly Confused

There are commonly confused words—let’s and lets, for example, or it’s and its. Everyone uses these words in everyday writing, and learning to distinguish them is a worthwhile pursuit. But today, let’s talk about a different kind of commonly confused words: words we use rarely that sound like words we use often.

Maybe you’ve only ever heard these words in conversation or in a movie. Maybe you’ve seen them in print but haven’t noticed the spelling. So when you pull one of these words out of the back of your memory, you automatically go with the spelling of the word’s homonym (the word it sounds and looks like). Totally natural; happens all the time.

Let’s look at a few of these commonly confused, uncommonly used words. The definitions are from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Uncommon Word Common Homonym
Censer: A covered incense burner swung on chains in a religious ritual. Censor: A person who supervises conduct and morals.
Gambol: To skip about in play. Gamble: To play a game for money or property.
Humus: A brown or black complex variable material resulting from partial decomposition of plant or animal matter and forming the organic portion of soil. Hummus: A paste of pureed chickpeas usu. mixed with sesame oil or sesame paste and eaten as a dip or sandwich spread.
Raze: To scrape, cut, or shave off. To destroy to the ground. Raise: To cause or help to rise to a standing position.
Whither: To what place. [“Whither goest thou?”] Wither: To shrivel from or as if from loss of bodily moisture.

Stay tuned for more of these rarely used but easily misused words; I have a long list of them. And if you have ideas for words that fit into this category, please share them in the comments.

Let’s vs. Lets

Since the name of this blog is Let’s Just Be Clear, I figured I should start by highlighting a commonly confused pair of words: let’s and lets.

Let’s is a contraction of let us, an imperative phrase that people use to make or respond to suggestions. The apostrophe is there to indicate that some characters have been omitted (in this case, the space and the u).

Let’s go to the movies.
Let’s pretend we’re kangaroos.
Let’s eat breakfast food for dinner.

Lets is a verb that usually means allows or permits.

He lets his dog sit on the couch.
Jacob works hard all week, but on the weekends he lets it all hang out.
The judge lets criminals off easy.

I have a few tricks for figuring out whether to use let’s or lets. The first thing to check is where the word appears in the sentence. Let’s usually starts a sentence, and lets usually comes later, as in the examples above. This is not a foolproof test, though; there are exceptions both ways:

Don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves.
Lets his lawn grow for months without cutting it, does he? That’s not very neighborly.

Another test to try is to plug in let us and see if it works. I like to imagine it in my snobbiest accent:

Let us adjourn for the day.
Let us imagine we could start all over again.
X My roommate just let us the dishes pile up.

You can also try substituting allows [… to]:

✓ Some people handle rejection well, but Sophia allows it to get to her.
✓ Our boss allows us to leave early on most Fridays.
X “Should we get started?” “Yes, allows to.”

Whenever you are unsure of whether to use let’s or lets, try these tests, and you’ll probably quickly find the correct spelling.

Knowing when to throw in an apostrophe and when to leave it out is hard for many people, and I’ll address the broader issue and other examples in future blogs.

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