Pedalling bikes, peddling words

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English spelling is full of apparent idiosyncrasies – native speakers and learners alike grapple with doubling consonants, how to form plurals‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’’, and have to dodge umpteen other potential pitfalls. Another rich source of mistakes is the fact that English contains pairs of similar-sounding words (homophones). These words have different meanings and spellings but, when spoken, they sound exactly the same.

This means that people understand what you mean when you’re talking, but if you’re writing, it’s more problematic. Opt for the wrong spelling, and you’ll risk confusing or exasperating your readers. The key to using the correct spelling in every situation is to understand the meaning of the words in question. We’d like to help you to avoid any mix-ups by occasionally spotlighting some confusable pairs of words on this blog.

Pedal power

My home city of Oxford is a city teeming with cyclists, one of whom had a very close encounter with me yesterday. We were both on the pavement at the time: I was on foot while he was pedalling along hell for leather and narrowly missed mowing me down. After I’d composed myself, I thought that a blog on pedalversus peddle might be timely.

You don’t need to search very far to find plenty of slip-ups, mostly with peddlebeing used instead of pedal. Take the examples below, from UK and US newspapers:

X  He then grabbed the victim’s phone and peddled away.

X  Steve put his foot down on the peddle and we were off!

What’s wrong with these? Well, the context is clearly cycling in the first example and a foot-operated lever in the second, so pedalled and pedal would have been the correct choices.

As these sentences illustrate, pedal can be both a noun and a verb. As a noun, its main meaning is ‘a foot-operated lever’.  Like the words pedicurepedestal, and pedestrianpedal ultimately derives from the Latin noun pesped- ‘a foot’.  We use such foot-operated levers to propel bicycles, to brake, accelerate, or use the clutch of motor vehicles, and when playing some musical instruments such as pianos and electric guitars.

       √  The driver may have accidentally hit the accelerator pedal instead of the brakes.

       √  The distortion pedals aren’t used as much on their new album.

Pedal also crops up in compound words such as pedal pushers, pedal boat, and pedal bin, and it’s not surprising that people make mistakes in these cases too:

X  Grab your bobby socks and peddle pushers, and take a trip along a roadway themed with 1950′s nostalgia.

Back pedalling from errors

As a verb, ‘to pedal’ chiefly means ‘to move a bicycle by working its pedals’.

√ On what was the hottest day of our trip we pedalled along quite happily.

√ Begin moving your legs in a circular motion, as if pedalling a bicycle.

There’s an extra spelling point to watch out for here. In British English, you double the ‘l’ when you add the verb endings –ing and –ed, so:

  • she pedals; we were pedalling; I pedalled.

In American English, the verb is always spelled with just one ‘l’:

  • she pedals;  we were pedaling; I pedaled

The verb pedal also crops up in the compounds back-pedal and soft-pedal.  Instances of the misspelling back-peddle are common on the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) occurring in journalism, blogs, and online fiction. In fact, 28% of the spellings for back-pedal on that database are incorrect. I’m guessing that people just don’t make the mental connection with bicycles and foot-operated levers. This is understandable: while back-pedalling used to be a way of braking when riding a bike, today back-pedal is chiefly used metaphorically to mean ‘reverse your previous action or decision’:

√  I obviously have to do some back-pedalling after my positive review of the first volume.

X  Now he is clearly back-peddling because of that mistake.

soft pedal on a piano is one which is pressed to make the tone softer. As a verb,soft-pedal means ‘to play down the more negative or serious aspects of something’:

√  What’s remarkable is that the film doesn’t soft-pedal the real pain that her husband’s cheating causes Mary.

Again, many people fail to link this figurative meaning with the literal use of pressing a piano pedal. An analysis of the OEC evidence shows that 50% of the spellings for this verb are for the incorrect form, soft-peddle:

X  Film-makers don’t want to soft-peddle the very real oppression the average citizen faces on a day-to-day basis.

Peddling myths, not bikes

Moving on to peddle, the good news is that this word exists only as a verb. If it’s a noun you’re after, pedal is always going to be the correct spelling.  Althoughpeddle looks similar to pedal, it has nothing to do with feet: this verb actually has its origin as a back-formation from pedlar. To ‘peddle’ goods, therefore, is to go from place to place to try to sell them. Nowadays, we often encounter peddlein the context of the selling of illegal drugs or other illicit items:

√  Pushers peddle drugs hidden inside cigarette boxes spread out on the sidewalk.

Equally common is the figurative meaning of peddle, namely ‘to promote an idea or story widely or persistently’. People tend to use this sense of peddle in apejorative way – liesmyths, and propaganda are all typical objects:

√  The government endlessly peddles the myth that demographic trends make the state pension unsustainable.

Although we’ve seen that people mostly use peddle when they really should write pedal, there are a few instances on the OEC of the verb pedal being misused – remember that you can’t pedal drugs, goodslies, or myths:

X  After the shadow chancellor’s announcement, that lie can never bepedalled again.

Peddlers versus pedallers

Here’s hoping that I’ve managed to make the differences between pedal andpeddle a little clearer. Finally, let’s take a quick look at the distinction between the related words pedlarpeddler, and pedaller (or pedaler).

  • pedaller (or pedaler) is a person who rides a bike, and is related to pedal. It’s always spelled with one ‘d’. The double ‘l’ spelling is the one to use in British English and the form with the single ‘l’ is the American one.

With no lights on his bike, the mystery pedaller risked the wrath of the law.

  • The noun pedlar is now relatively rare and is typically found in British English. It has nothing to do with pedals (in fact, it probably derives from a dialect word, ped, meaning a wicker basket).  Pedlar is the source of the verbpeddle, and refers to a person who travels around selling small goods, or one who sells illegal drugs.
  •  A peddler is exactly the same as a pedlar: this spelling used to be encountered chiefly in American English, but is now becoming much more common in British English too:

Police have made a series of arrests across Bradford in a crackdown on drug peddlers over the Easter weekend.

I’ll be exploring some more commonly confused words over the coming months, but if you want a quick and handy guide to a whole raft of confusables in the meantime, why not check out this handy list?

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