In e-mail from a certain friend of mine, I often catch him writing loose when he means lose, as in:
Obama is certain to loose the election. (That’s not a real example, though he is a diehard Republican.)
He also once wrote me:
. . . when I traveled in the East Block . . .
He meant the Eastern Bloc.
He excuses such errors by saying he relies on spellcheck, but in cases like these, spellcheck isn’t enough. It won’t flag you on loose and lose, for example, because both are actual words in its dictionary. (If you’re not sure of the difference, look them up.) A really thorough grammar-checker might; the one on my version of Word doesn’t. You need to know the difference and be able to spot errors when you’re proofing your work.
Often the culprits are homonyms — words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. Look at the last phrase of my last paragraph: “. . . when you’re proofing your work.” You’re and your are homonyms — the contraction for you are and the possessive form of you, respectively — and you’re going to get in trouble with you professors if you get them wrong in your writing. A parallel case is it’s (it is) and its (possessive pronoun). And then we have their (possessive pronoun), there (adverb) and they’re (contraction of they are). So: They’re doing their interviews there.
Feet and feat (an act of skill, an achievement, an accomplishment, as in That’s quite a feat!) are homonyms. So are council (a group of people) and counsel (advice as a noun, advise as a verb). And then there’s consul, slightly different in pronunciation; early this semester, a student confused me for a moment when she said she had to go to the council when she meant the consul, her country’s representative in New York.
Sometimes we confuse words because they sound similar; a few weeks ago, another student wrote Traditionally, Russians don’t thrive for self-governance when she meant strive. New Yorkers wait on line for buses, tickets and just about everything else, but you post your blog online. (In the rest of America, we wait in line; the British queue.)