I’ve written about the all-too-common mistake of substituting a homonym for the intended word. (And if “homonym” isn’t triggering enough brain cells, it refers to those words that sound alike, but are spelled differently.)
Now, I don’t consider using the wrong version of a homonym a mortal sin – except when it’s done by someone in the media. Professionals should know better. During coverage of the recent flooding near my home, I saw several examples of writers and reporters referring to a barrier that holds back water as a “levy.” (At least they didn’t misidentify a dike as a “dyke.” We won’t even go there.)
Of course, they meant to write “levee,” which refers to an earthen wall designed to confine floodwaters (as in “drove my Chevy to the levee”). Used as a noun, a levy refers to a tax assessment, as in “the Town Council increased the levy for property taxes.” It can also function as a verb: “the Town Council will levy a higher tax this year.”
I was going to point out one such misuse on the Indianapolis Star’s comment board, but someone beat me to the punch and bemoaned the lack of copy editors at today’s newspapers. That may be one explanation for these missteps, but I think the bigger reason is the rush to post stories online before they’re fully vetted.
To some, matters like these may sound minor and hardly worth mention, but language that’s more precise is infinitely more powerful (not to mention more accurate).