Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

A grisly error

with 13 comments

Grizzly Bear Anchorage Alaska

Image via Wikipedia

Just bear with me and paws for a second to look at the following:  

It wasn’t just the horror-film plot and effects – the grizzly zombies busting out of graves were literally groundbreaking… (Guardian online)  

When we arrived a grizzly scene confronted us for the plane had blown up… (Telegraph online)  

In the past, there has been a grizzly voyeurism about coming before the physical reality of MacGowan. (Telegraph online)  

Guy Keleny explains the confusion in The Independent’s Errors & Omissions column:  

Bear necessities: Brian Clarke writes in from Kent to point out the following, from a travel piece in last Saturday’s Magazine, about San Diego, California: “It can trace the growth which turned it into America’s eighth-largest city to the Second World War, when a generation of young men passed through its port en route to the grizzly theatre of the Pacific.”  

That should be “grisly”. The words are pronounced the same, but their origins and meanings are different. Grisly means causing fear and horror. Grizzly means grey – as in grizzled hair. It is rarely encountered except as the name of the fierce bear of North America.  

Also, see Oxford Dictionaries on this.  

‘Grizzly’ can also be used to refer to a child who is crying fretfully: A grizzly baby.  

Commonly confused and just plain wrong


13 Responses

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  1. This is commonly confused? Pardon me, it’s time to bang my head on the wall…

    – OK, I’m back. Even used properly, the word grisly distorts a proper description by excessive amplification. It’s an overreaction, like adding “filthy” when something is merely dirty.

    Invisible Mikey

    15/02/2011 at 1:08 pm

    • Hi Mikey – that’s a very interesting point you make about ‘grisly’ very often being a superfluous adjective, and not one I’d fully considered. I think you’re absolutely right.

      Interestingly, Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, also points out that the word ‘gristly’ (describing meat that has too much cartilage) sometimes gets confused with ‘grisly’. He cites the following example from the Boston Globe:

      …when residents were shocked and frightened by a series of gristly murders.


      15/02/2011 at 1:54 pm

      • I’d say absolutely, he’s entirely right. Even though those are adverbs.

        Michael Farrell

        16/02/2011 at 2:13 am

  2. Probably wrongly, I pronounce the S in grisly and the Z in grizzly. To make it more confusing, a “grizzled veteran” is a grey-haired one — which instead looks as though it should follow the “grey” in “grisly.”

    Michael Farrell

    15/02/2011 at 2:23 pm

    • Yes, I’m not sure about the pronunciation. Keleny seems to think they are pronounced the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English gives guidance on how to pronounce ‘grisly’ but not ‘grizzly’ – I’m not sure why that is.


      15/02/2011 at 2:44 pm

      • The pronunciation of grizzly is self-evident, and I’ve always pronounced grisly the same way (the ODE rather generously agrees, for a wonder!).

        Gristle, when I were nobbut a lad, in’t north, was invariably pronounced grissle, the “t” being mute, with which the ODE also concurs.

        Hey, I’m on an ODE roll!


        15/02/2011 at 10:40 pm

        • Hi Ron – thanks. I pronounce grisly and grizzly the same way — and ‘gristle’ the same as you. I don’t know if anyone would pronounce the ‘t’ to rhyme with ‘crystal’, for example? I’ve never heard it pronounced that way.


          16/02/2011 at 6:49 am

          • I have heard, increasingly, the “t” in gristle pronounced. And it grates.

            But, in recent years there does seem to be a growing tendency among people below, say, about 30-35, to over-emphasise the letter “T”, thus giving us pronunciations like “bott-ul” for bottle, and similar abominations.

            I saw a theory – in the Guardian, I’m pretty sure, though it was a few years ago – that the general over-emphasis of consonants, in this way (a dragged-out terminal “S” is equally annoying), was an attempt, by the speakers, to sound more intelligent than they actually are.

            If true, it’s not working. Quite the opposite, in fact.


            16/02/2011 at 9:12 am

            • Hi Ron — yes, I’ve heard the ‘bott-ul’ type pronunciation. The often spurious association of a particular type of accent with intelligence is an interesting topic. Not enough people pay attention to the actual words rather than the way in which they are pronounced (imnsho).


              16/02/2011 at 10:27 am

              • Just heard another one on the radio – didn’t rendered as didden’tt.

                What’s wrong with these people? It was in a song, and the aural jolt was like stepping onto a stair that wasn’t there when you think there’s one more.


                18/02/2011 at 10:35 pm

                • Hi Ron — I like your stair analogy. I hope your radio is still in one piece.


                  19/02/2011 at 11:37 am

  3. This same error appeared on Yahoo where the writer described a “grizzly incident” that didn’t involve a bear, just a lawn mower.


    24/02/2011 at 3:22 pm

    • Hi Laura – welcome!

      Yes, it’s an amazingly common error. I now have a picture in my head of a grizzly mowing the lawn, which is somehow preferable to that of a grisly incident with a lawnmower.

      Many thanks for taking the time to share that example.


      24/02/2011 at 4:06 pm

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