Easily Confused Words: Watt vs. What

Watt and what 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.

Watt (pronounced “wawts/waughts”) is a noun. This is a scientific term relating to electricity. It means a unit of power (abbreviated W) equaling volts times amps (V x A.) It is equal to one joule per second.

Any electrical appliance or lightbulb on sale to the public lists its watts on the packaging and the product. People staying in motorhomes have to carefully manage their electrical usage because it isn’t like a ordinary house or condo. Attempting to use too many appliances at once can cause a blowout.

What (pronounced “wuht” UK: “wawt”) has multiple meanings.

  • As a pronoun, it’s used to inquire about people, places, or events, and typically, it starts the statement. What’s the problem? 
  • As a noun, it means an unknown thing: Journalists seek the whats, the whens, the wheres and the hows. 
  • As an adjective, it modifies things: I need to ask Molly what clothes to bring on the trip, Mom told me what windows need cleaning.
  • As an interjection, it indicates the speaker didn’t hear what was said, or can’t believe what was just said and wants it repeated.
  • As an adverb, it modifies a verb or preposition: to what end? for what purpose? 

The following story uses both words correctly:

Willow went to the store to replace a bulb that had burned out. It was her first time living away from home, and she knew nothing about household maintenance. A salesperson approached her and asked, “Can I help?”

Willow explained she needed to replace a bulb.

“Do you know what shape it is, and what watts you need?”

“I have no idea, but I brought the burnt out one with me. Here.” Willow handed her the bulb.

“Okay, it looks like it says 40 watts.” 

“It does? Where?”

“Yes, right here on the base, beneath the edge of the glass. And it’s spherical with a small base. So the replacement is right…here.” The salesperson pulled one bulb box off the shelf and handed it to Willow. 

Crisis averted. 

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