Should it be vain or vein? I thought borrowing a line from a famous Carly Simon song might help illustrate the difference between these two words.
When choosing between vain or vein, you’re dealing with homophones. They’re words that are pronounced the same way but have different spellings and meanings.
The English language seems to have a nearly endless supply of choices that are easily confused.
So let’s look at the two words.
The word vain is most often used as an adjective that has multiple meanings.
The first is conceit. Someone who is vain is a little too pleased with themselves or feels self-important.
Carly Simon’s song, “You’re So Vain” was released in November of 1972 and focused on a former lover who had too high an opinion of himself.
It features this lyric:
“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.”
That’s an ironic joke, of course, because the person is vain enough to assume it’s about him, but that’s exactly why it is about him.
The second meaning for vain refers to something fruitless or pointless. Consider this example:
The doctors worked in vain to save the shooting victim’s life.
The sentence means the doctors, though absolutely determined to keep the victim alive, weren’t able to do so. But you’ll note in the usage of in vain that it’s not necessarily referring to the goal of the action that is pointless, but rather the particular effort exercised toward achieving the goal.
The word vein is usually a noun and has multiple meanings as well.
The most common, as you can probably guess from the featured photo, is a particular type of blood vessel that’s designed to circulate blood through the body and back to the heart. A friend of mine is a body builder and has veins like those of the model in the featured image of this post.
A vein can also refer a layer of mineral deposits in rock.
What about a Vane?
There’s a third homophone worth mentioning here. A vane is a blade that is moved by air. It’s most commonly encountered in a weather vane, which points to the direction of the wind based on the direction the wind blows the vane itself.