A news assistant at The Boston Globe was working the phones. She took a call from someone looking for a particular reporter.
“Oh, no, sir, he’s not in the office,” she said in a voice loud enough to be heard across the newsroom. “He only comes in spasmodically.”
The newsroom politely stifled its laughter. We shared a spontaneous vision of the reporter walking in, his body jerking uncontrollably in spasms as he made his way to his desk. That’s what spasmodic means — “having the character of a spasm; convulsive,” according to the Free Online Dictionary (from which all definitions in this post are quoted). The assistant meant sporadically — “occurring at irregular intervals.” Thirty years later, a Globe buddy and I still giggle when we hear the word spasmodically. (We promise not to laugh at your copy.)
Remember close but no cigar, from The idiom box? Last week I saw several instances in student assignments: words that were close to what the writers meant in spelling or sound, but had entirely different meanings. Non-native English-speakers may confuse them because they don’t hear the sounds distinctly, as in this example:
A stout bold man started smoking right in front of us.
His behavior certainly was bold (“confident and courageous”), but I couldn’t help wondering if the writer meant bald (minus hair) instead. She did. Bald and bold are very close in sound, so her mistake is understandable. But a reader would be confused.
Later in the same piece:
With his face turning pink under the piercing looks of other passengers, he started convulsively looking for a place to extinguish his cigarette.
Convulsively means “having the nature of convulsions.” (See spasmodically.) The writer meant compulsively — “caused or conditioned by compulsion or obsession.”
From another student:
He said he would accept any reconciliation but a military intervention.
We figured out that she meant resolution — “a course of action determined or decided on,” to end the problem. Reconciliation means the re-establishment of a relationship. If, for example, you break up with your significant other but later get back together, that’s a reconciliation. If there is a resolution of the chemical weapons situation, there may be a reconciliation between the United States and Syria.
“How do we learn these?” that student asked. Answer: you have to study them. Build your vocabulary by reading and listening, with a dictionary handy for quick reference. Or simply make the mistakes, let yourself be corrected and say thank you.