Question: How can I clarify words that are frequently confused?
Answer: In this issue of "Q & A on Writing," I clarify the meanings of confusing words beginning with M and N: mantel/mantle; meddle/mettle; media/medium; militate against/mitigate; millennium; neither/neither nor; none; notorious/noted.
With each item, I attach a "Scale of Distraction," a measure of how many readers are likely to be distracted by mistakes:
* Who cares?
** Some people you respect will be distracted by the mistake.
*** Many educated people will be distracted by the mistake.
"Mantel" = shelf; "mantle" = cloak. (**)
"Meddle" = interfere; "mettle" = courage.(**)
"Media" = plural; "medium" = singular. (***)
"Militate against..." (work against); "mitigate" = ease, soften: "...mitigate her suffering." (**)
Millennium" = 1000-year periods (for your information). Spelling is also a concern. Two "n's." Remember to double the consonant if the accent is on the second syllable.
"Neither...is"/"Neither...nor": "Neither of them is going" (singular verb); "Neither train nor plane is leaving" (singular verb); "Neither train nor planes are leaving" (plural verb). A plural subject ("planes") on the other side of "or" and the verb must be plural. If the expression sounds ugly, write around it: "No trains or planes are leaving." Or, "No plane or train is leaving." (**)
"None of them is...." ("None" = "Not one"). On this one, I disagree with the NYT Manual of Style and Usage and Fowler's, which say (while recognizing a strong inclination for "none" as singular) that "none" is accepted as plural. Not me. I think I am just in the habit of using "none" as singular. No big deal. (**)
"Notorious, notoriety" = well-known unfavorably; "noted"= well-known and praiseworthy. (***)
All the best. RayS.