Easily Confused Words

Easily Confused Words: Poise vs. Porpoise

Poise and porpoise 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.

Poise (pronounced “poyz”; rhymes with boys, toys, noise) has multiple meanings.

  • As a noun, it means a state of balance or equilibrium, or displaying a state of calm confidence and stillness in the presence of others.
  • As a verb, it means balancing an object, or holding a tool, weapon ready for striking or casting.
  • As a verb, it means standing ready to act, literally or figuratively.
  • As a verb, it means to hover, or fly in place, like a bird.

Porpoise (pronounced “pohr-puhss”) has multiple meanings.

  • As a noun, it means a small toothed whale with a blunt nose found in coastal waters around the world. Porpoises are smaller than dolphins. Here is a video about porpoises.
  • As a verb, it means to burst through the water’s surface and fall again (like a porpoise) with a boat or other marine vehicle.
    • It can also refer to an overloaded car repeatedly lurching forward as it rides down the street.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Porter watched the porpoises playing in the waters in the harbor. A member of the Coast Guard, he and his team were poised to respond to any suspicious activity or badly operated vehicles on the water. So far, nothing unusual was happening today in the Gulf.


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