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TWTS: Confusing “wont” with “want” is a wont nobody wants

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As language nerds are wont to do, they get curious about words like “wont” and its relationship with “want.”

Such is the case with listener Barb Radtke.

“I was recently reading an article in The New Yorker and read the phrase ‘as is his wont.’ Whenever I heard this phrase, I thought it was ‘want.’ Was I always mishearing? Are the words related?” asks Barb.

They’re not related, but given that for many of us, “want” and “wont” sound almost, if not exactly, the same. It’s no wonder that we sometimes see “want” substituted in for “wont.”

As Barb points out, “wont” can be found in expressions like “as is his wont” or “my wont.” You can also find “wont” in adjective form, as in, “She’s at the YMCA swimming, as she is wont to do.”

We love this example from Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park: “He might have more good qualities than she had been wont to suppose.” In other words, that wasn’t the way she was used to thinking about him.

“Wont” goes back to an Old English verb that meant “to dwell” or “to stay habitually.” From there, it extends to habits in a more general sense. That’s how the past participle “wont” as an adjective came to be mean “to be accustomed to something.”

So, that’s the story of “want” and “wont.” Since it’s a new year, we decided to hit the ground running this week and cover two listener questions. To hear our discussion on “resilience” vs. “resiliency,” listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.