I often edit books by authors who are not native English speakers. While generally these authors are good writers, as I specialize in scholarly editing in the humanities, sometimes quirky little errors pop up.

Today I came across the substitution of “oversight” for “overview.” It struck me that on the face of things, those words really have the same meaning. “Sight” and “view” are not semantically that different.

But of course, in practice, these two words have different meanings. “Oversight” refers to a sense of supervision (sight–vision) or control, while “overview” refers to a skimming over of something, a summary, a quick look.

In defining words for my children, I come across this same problem: how to get across the very subtle differences in words. In German we call this the sprachgefühl, the feeling for or intuitive grasp of a language. Recently we’ve been pondering the difference between “machine” and “tool.” Still pondering that one.


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