Stay ahead of the curve, but curb your enthusiasm (and your dog)

“Do I want to use curb or curve?” Do you ever find yourself asking this question?

It’s a sad fact that this problem is on many lists of “most common errors.” It shouldn’t be, but it’s true. I suspect part of the reason is because these two words sound so much alike and – despite both being simple and common – most of us don’t write either one very often. It’s easy to get them wrong once in awhile, no matter how well you know the distinction, simply because you’re not paying close attention.

I see this error in print more than I expect to, most recently in a newspaper reference to the curve still needing to be finished in a road construction project. They meant curb (and there’s no chance I’ve misinterpreted it: I know the street; it’s short and straight as an arrow).

A curb is that thing separating a street from a sidewalk, a raised edge of stone or other material (there are still a few old-timey steel-edged curbs in my neighborhood). It’s sometimes spelled kerb (apparently still the preferred spelling in the UK). There are numerous other specialized definitions of curb, but this one is the most common.

A curve is an arc, or a portion of a circle, or “a line that deviates from straightness in a smooth, continuous fashion” (AHD);  it’s a curved line, or a part of a curve (it’s difficult to give a simple definition without being self-referential). It’s something with a curvy or curved nature. Bent, but only in particular ways. (I wanted to place a nice, simple link here for visual reference, but between the Blackberry Curve and Curves – the women’s workout chain – searching for this on the Internet has been entirely corrupted.)

Writers shouldn’t ever get curb and curve wrong in print, except maybe in early unedited drafts. A few common expressions (in noun and verb form) where errors crop up:

You curb your enthusiasm (or your appetite, or your hunger), you don’t curve it.

It’s a learning curve (or a bell curve), not a learning curb.

Likewise, when you’re out in front you’re ahead of the curve, not ahead of the curb.

People step off the curb (or kick something to the curb, or curb their dogs); they don’t step off the curve, kick it to the curve, or curve their dogs.

And so on. I recognize that many of these confusions could, in theory, be used as puns or for other humorous effect. But that’s a dicey proposition, as your meaning and jest had better be crystal clear or else you’ll simply look ignorant when you write out the ‘wrong’ form.

Getting one of these wrong can be considered an eggcorn (a topic I’ll discuss at some point). That’s when people write a word (or phrase) incorrectly, based on what they think they’ve heard, often creating an unintentionally funny new word or phrase. Eggcorn, for instance, is a miswriting of acorn; circus-sized is a badly misinterpreted form of circumsized.

Steer clear of eggcorns and keep your curbs and curves straight. Or, perhaps better to say keep your curbs straight and your curves bent.

Additional Note: If this whole curb/curve thing is too simple for you, feel free to confuse yourself further. One of the obscure definitions of curb actually is “a curve, an arc,” from the French courbe. Absolute clarity is for the timid.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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2 Responses to Stay ahead of the curve, but curb your enthusiasm (and your dog)

  1. Dennis says:

    I followed the link to eggcorn out of curiosity, and as examples the AHD listed using “free reign” instead of “free rein”. I get that the saying may have started as “free rein”, but I think that “free reign” makes just as much sense, or near enough that it should be an acceptable alternative.
    Any thoughts on this?

    • When I (eventually) get to a full post on “eggcorns” this will be something I try to cover.
      Part of the idea with an eggcorn is that the new form you get (“free reign” instead of “free rein”) actually makes a certain kind of sense. So, for example, while “acorn” is the real word, “egg corn” sounds plausible to the uninformed because an acorn is both ‘sort of egg-shaped’ and it’s also ‘sort of an egg for a tree.’
      Another suggested eggcorn I’ve encountered is “old-timers disease” instead of “Alzheimer’s disease.” If someone didn’t know that “Alzheimer’s” is the word, they could make the mistake of thinking that they’d heard “old-timers” – and they’d still have a phrase that actually made a certain kind of sense. Get it?
      “Free reign”/”free rein” is one that I wouldn’t personally quibble over, except in the most formal situations. “Free rein” might be the original and strictly correct use (think of horses), but “free reign” is pretty well entrenched in modern usage. In fact, if a quick Google search is any indication, “free reign” is actually the more common form these days. At least on “teh interwebs.”

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