I am often perceived as a wild-eyed descriptivist, ready to embrace any utterance by a native speaker as valid. Not so! Geoff Pullum wrote an excellent Language Log entry going into detail about what it means for a speaker to make a mistake; as he says, “Speakers will sometimes speak or write in a way that exhibits errors (errors that they themselves would agree, if asked later, were just slip-ups).” I present for your delectation a fine specimen of such an error, hot off the presses of the august New York Times. A Murray Chass story, “Marlins Don’t Mind Being Rated as Underdogs in the N.L. East,” begins with a rather labored riff on the similarity of the names of Jeffrey Loria, owner of the Florida Marlins (a baseball team, for those of my readers not immersed in the minutiae of American sports), and Jeffrey Lurie, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles (a football team). The third paragraph ends: “Loria and Lurie have never met, never spoken. Once, they recalled, they were confused for the other.”

Now, that second sentence makes no sense whatsoever. You want to change it to “…they were confused for each other,” which would be perfectly grammatical, but turns out to be misleading, implying as it does that there was one occasion on which Loria was taken for Lurie and vice versa. It turns out, as Chass goes on to explain, that there were two separate incidents: ten years ago Loria, then in minor league baseball, was called by a reporter under the impression he had just bought the Eagles; this winter, Lurie was congratulated by a waiter under the impression his team had just won the World Series. As pointless as these recollections are, if you’re going to try to jam them into one sentence you have to do better than “Once, they recalled, they were confused for the other.” (For one thing, you can’t use “once” to mean “on two separate occasions” and “they were” to mean “each was.”) Off the top of my head I’d say “Each has recalled being confused for the other,” but I’m sure there are other possibilities. At any rate, what we have here is a stretch of words that begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, but it is not a valid English sentence.


  1. A. Once, they recalled, they were confused for the other.
    The construction in A seems to arise because each might well have said, at times before the uttering of A:
    B. Once, I recall, I was confused for [the other].
    I agree that A is aberrant, since the “once” does not transfer happily to A from the two instances of B; and neither do the two instances of the second “I” (in the two instances of B) happily coalesce into a “they”. LH, you suggest:
    C. Each has recalled being confused for the other.
    But “has recalled” in C seems unwarranted (or at least it seems to include a misplaced or gratuitous marking of aspect), if we want to preserve the tense and aspectual structure of A. And why omit “once”? Better perhaps is:
    D. Each recalled having once been confused for the other.
    E. Each recalled once being confused for the other.
    If these are seen as awkward (as the whole proposition is, anyway), I would suggest this:
    F. Each recalled that he had once been confused for the other.
    If the two people had been of different genders, and we wanted to use the common singular “they”, there would be a problem with the construction in F, since it would become:
    G. Each recalled that they had once been confused for the other.
    G looks, at a glance, almost as bad as A. So for mixed genders I would revert to D.

  2. Is “confused for” ok? I’d say “confused with.”

  3. It’s an honest misunderstanding, LH. The point is actually a philosophical one. At one point, you see, both Loria and Lurie were confused with the Other (L’Autre). This changed their baseball approach quite substantially.
    I hope this clears things up. If you’d like to express gratitude, you can give me a free lifetime subscription to the blog.

  4. Ha ha, Zachary.
    Betty, I myself thought that “mistaken for” or “confused with” would be preferable to “confused for”, but I thought commenting on that might only add to the confusion. I see it this way:
    Good: She confused A and B.
    Acceptable: She confused A with B.
    No good, really: She confused A for B.

  5. Noetica, you’d make a great copy editor if you aren’t one already. Your suggested emendation (D) is definitely superior to mine (which, I add in my own defense, was a first draft only, since the point was not to emend it but to point out its wrongness). I too thought about discussing “confused for” but decided it would muddy the picture.
    Zachary: Aha! You have, like the proverbial hot-dog vendor, made me one with Everything!

  6. Justin Neville says

    To me, to “mistake X for Y” suggests a straightforward though erroneous swap of identities. (I see X and think he is Y.)
    Whereas, to “confuse X with Y” means a more general mixing of the two identities, maybe combining some elements of one person with those of another person. (Such as when I see X I think of him by X’s name, but incorrectly think that he is married to the person who is actually Y’s wife and that he lives in the house that actually is owned by Y.)
    As for to “confuse X for Y”, this seems to me perfectly acceptable and is more similar to “mistake X for Y” than to “confuse X with Y”. In other words, a straightforward but mistaken swap of identities. The difference to me is that “to mistake X for Y” is more likely in a case where I have physically seen the person in question, whereas I could “confuse X for Y” simply in my thoughts or when hearing a reference to him by someone else.
    Or am I mistaken? Or confused? Or both?

  7. What if we accept that “they” is becoming, in common journalistic usage, a singular neuter pronoun? “Once, they recalled, they were confused for the other,” almost makes sense in that case.

  8. How’bout, “Each can recall having been taken for the other.” I think the “once” does not belong since the point of the sentence is really that such a thing has happened (to each of them) *at least* once. That’s how I read it any way. And I prefer “taken for” to “mistaken for” which seems redundant to my ear.

  9. LH:
    Thank you! I have done my share of editing, and will do more, if I am asked nicely. (And of course it is understood that you wrote what you wrote in haste.)
    To me, to “mistake X for Y” suggests a straightforward though erroneous swap of identities. (I see X and think he is Y.)
    Not a swap, surely. That would require also taking Y for X.
    Whereas, to “confuse X with Y” means a more general mixing of the two identities, …
    That seems right. If one confuses X with Y, quite plausibly it must also be the case that one confuses Y with X.
    Or am I mistaken? Or confused? Or both?
    In the case of your discussion of “confuse X for Y”, both (perhaps, a little), though I do like your distinction between cases of seeing on the one hand and cases of thinking about or hearing about on the other.

  10. Vaguely I recall a pun based on two distinct meanings of the statement, “I took him for a sandwich”.

  11. I can think of a third meaning: by “took him for a sandwich” you mean you agreed to raise him in exchange for a brown-bag lunch.
    “Take”, of course, can also mean an erotic conquest. I took him for a sandwich: he fed me, I efd him. A commoner transaction than we’d generally like to admit.
    Such simple pleasures, ambiguous sentences. I never tire of them.

  12. There’s one clear editorial response to a sentence like this: Delete it.
    After all, “the state of being confused one for another” really has no bearing on whether they’ve ever met or spoken.

  13. they were confused for the other
    I refuse to let anyone make me responsible for someone else’s confusion since I already have enough to do sorting out my own without worrying about someone else’s.
    Maybe he just means their identities were confused?

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