Easily Confused Words: Utter vs. Otter

Utter and otter are easily confused words.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It’s suggesting what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions are pretty off base. They don’t help you out, but they do make you laugh.

Otter (pronounced “awturr”) is a noun. It means a large aquatic mammal covered in thick fur. It has a large nose, small eyes, small ears, webbed feet and very long, round tail. There are freshwater and oceanic species of otters. Both eat fish and shellfish for their diet.  [Otter is sometimes used in puns, replacing “utter” or “oughta” because it sounds similar to those words.]

Utter (pronounced “uh-terr”) has multiple forms.

  • As an adjective, it’s more of a qualifier to other words than a descriptor, like “very.” Popular phrases include utter nonsense, utter failure, utter joy, utter happiness.
  • As a verb, to utter means to say something in a low, soft spoken, barely audible voice.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Ursula was in utter happiness watching the baby otters at the zoo learn to swim and play with each other. 


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