Easily Confused Words: Tear vs. Tar

Tear and tar 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.

Tear (pronounced “t-air”; rhymes with fair, care, bear) has multiple meanings.

  • As a verb, it means to rip apart, to split with one’s body parts: your teeth, your hands, your arms. The past tense is “tore.”
  • As a verb, figuratively, it means to verbally attack someone else or something else: “tear into.”
  • As a noun, it means the new state of the object that was torn: the tear in a piece of paper, the tears in fabric due to weathering or bad fit.
  • A related adjective, torn, describes an emotional state of feeling mixed emotions or feeling conflicted. If someone is relieved yet bitter, grateful yet mad, he/she is torn. Does he or she have a decision to make, and both alternatives are a mix of good and bad? That’s another example of feeling torn. Natalie Imbruglia had a pop song called “Torn” in the late 1990s; her persona in the song was disillusioned with a boyfriend.
  • The idiom, “on a tear”, describes someone else on a tirade, on a streak of making things happen, causing drama, or causing damage.

Tar (pronounced “tahr”; rhymes with car, bar, far) has multiple meanings.

  • As a noun, it means a thick, black substance used on roofs, roadways, and railroad ties. It can occur naturally as bitumen, like the La Brea Tar Pits, or it can be manufactured from petroleum, coal, or wood.
  • As a verb, it means to apply tar to a surface. Tarring and feathering was a means of public humiliation.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Tad had a difficult, exhausting job applying tar to the roofs of schools over spring break. On a particularly grueling day, he managed to tear his brand new designer jeans. He was really mad to lose all that money in a matter of a week. 

*Tear is a homograph with tear (rhymes with ear, fear, beer). Homographs are words that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, and have different meanings.

This post relates to another post: Easily Confused Words: Tier vs. Tear.





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