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Misused Words—Common Writing Mistakes

on January 11th, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on February 1, 2011

You’ve probably seen many lists of misused words. These are a few of the words I’ve found that confuse writers or that friends who write have shared. Consider this an evolving article—I’m sure I’ll add other words over time.

And I’ll apologize ahead of time for the length of this post.

While you may not learn everything about a certain word or pair of words in this article, I hope to give you enough information that you can use these words correctly. Keep in mind that rules are there for good reason, but remember that rules can be broken for equally valid reasons. Write well and write clearly. But don’t be afraid to write creatively as well.

That is, communicate clearly by using correct words and by following the rules of good grammar and punctuation. But don’t be so worried about getting every jot and tittle perfect that you feel straitjacketed, unable to express your creative side. You can always edit to correct words and grammar and punctuation. Yet while you’re creating, don’t ever feel you can’t write with abandon. (A friendly reminder in case this list has you wondering (not wandering) why you’re even bothering to work through the minefield of writing.)

———-

It’s/its
It’s
is a contraction for it is or it has. It’s been [it has been] a tough day here at Sam’s Auto Shop. It’s [it is] hard to spin gold from straw.

Its, with no apostrophe, is the possessive form of the pronoun it. He laid the book on its side. The hybrid rose had a fragrance all its own.

———-

They’re/their/there/there’re
I have the suspicion that misuse of they’re, their, and there is due more to typing error rather than a misunderstanding of their meanings. But just in case…

They’re is the contraction for they are. They’re [they are] my friends.

Their is the possessive for they. Their house [the house belonging to them] was on fire.

There is an adverb of place—He promised to be there in 25 minutes;
a pronounThere is something I need to tell you;
a noun of place—Put it there, on the couch.

There’re is the contraction for there are. There’re too many books to count.

———-

Your/you’re
Your and you’re are other words I suspect fall victim to typing error rather than definition error.

You’re is the contraction of you areYou’re [you are] the worst driver I’ve ever ridden with.

Your is the possessive form of the pronoun you. I’ve already given the letter to your brother. Your shows belonging.

———-

All right/alright
Alright
is not a word. The phrase all right is always two words. You may use a phrase such as, “Awright! I aced my finals” in dialogue if your character pronounces the word as awright. But never, not even in dialogue, use alright.

———-

A lot/alot
Alot
is not a word. When you want to say there are many of some thing, use a lot, two words. We need a lot of sugar to sweeten this mess.

Allot, with two LLs, means to parcel out or allocate. The settlers on Avalon 5 were allotted one horse and two dozen grain bags.

———-

Bring/take
You bring something to where you are now, take something to a place other than where you are now. Bring me that magazine, Nan. You want Nan to move the magazine, which is not near you, to your location. It could be across the room or in another city—Nan, bring that magazine with the Elvis cover with you when you come.

Use take when the object is not coming to you where you now are. I’ll take my skis when I head to Vail. [I'm not in Vail.] Did you want to take the cookies home with you? [You are not home.]

Will you bring Samantha to me [where I am] or take her home [where I am not as I speak these words]?

There are a few variations for bring and take, but these examples should give you what you need to use the words correctly.

———-

Come/go
Come
and go operate on the same principle as bring and take. Come to where I am now; go to a place where I’m not as I say these words. Come over for dinner tonight. Let’s go to the beach tomorrow.

There are seeming exceptions for both bring and take and come and go. I’ll bring the magazine when I come to visit. In this case, the speaker speaks as if she’s already where the other person is. But she might tell another friend, I’ll be taking the Elvis magazine cover when I go visit my friend. Both sentences are correct. As is, Come to the beach house with me tomorrow. In this, the speaker is projecting himself to the beach house.

English certainly has its oddities.

———-

Past/passed
Passed
is the past participle of the verb to pass. Pass is both transitive and intransitive. That is, it can take an object—He passed the ball to his receiver—or not take an object—Time passed with increasing speed. (Passed can also be an adjective—a passed ball in baseball.)

Remember to use passed when you mean the verb.

Past is a nounIt’s a joke to say the past is always behind us;
an adjective meaning former—Her past mistakes threatened her future;
an adjective meaning done with—His glory days are long past;
an adverb meaning to go by—The taxi flew past my waving hand but stopped for Tom’s twenty;
a preposition meaning beyond—Geraldine was up way past her bedtime.

———-

Fewer/less
Use fewer to modify items you can count and plural nouns, less to modify singular nouns and items that can’t be counted.

I have fewer bruises than my brother. The census reported fewer residents in Pakasaw County.

There was less joy in the last announcement than in the three previous ones.  I wanted less time with my husband as the marriage wore on.

But, There were fewer joys to be had as age crept up on me. And, I spent fewer hours with my husband when his drinking increased.

———-

Effect/affect
Effect
is a noun meaning a change caused by something, a result (among other meanings). The effect of the oil embargo was to raise the price of consumer products.

Affect is a verb meaning to make a difference to or move emotionally. I’m always affected by Sinatra’s ballads.

The affect (wrong) you have on my heart also effects (wrong) my brain.
This should read, The effect you have on my heart also affects my brain.

To confuse matters, affect can be used as a noun and effect as a verb, but those are very specific uses. Affect (accent on the first syllable), when used as a noun, is a psychology term. Effect, when used as a verb, means to create a result.

The doctor concluded that the patient’s affect was flat.

The new laws effected little change in behavior.

———-

Further/farther
Use farther for distanceShe ran farther than Mary.

Use further for more or when the distance is not a physical one—We needed further information to make a decision.

The lines between further and farther are blurring with repeated use of one for the other. But you’d never be wrong in following this rule.

———-

Then/than
Then
is an adverb that makes reference to time. First you boil the water, then you add the pasta.

Than is often used in a comparison. His slice of cake was larger than mine.

———-

That/which
That and which have many uses, but they’re often misused when the writer doesn’t understand the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Both clauses modify nouns.

Use that for introducing restrictive clauses—clauses that define a noun by answering the question, Which.

The swan that turned toward us was not the one we sought.

The truck that stopped short of the line was the loser.

The knife that dripped blood was most likely the murder weapon.

Which was the swan we sought? The one that turned.

Which was the losing truck? The one that stopped short of the line.

Which knife was the likely murder weapon? The one that dripped blood.

Use which for introducing non-restrictive clauses (and commas to set off the clause)—these are non-defining clauses because the reader already knows the answer to the question, Which. While the non-restrictive clause doesn’t define which of something it is, it does give more information about that something. Yet the meaning of the basic sentence is clear without that extra information.

The swan, which was black, was not the one we sought.

The truck, which belched smoke and needed a new muffler, stopped short of the line.

The knife, which had been stuffed into the drawer, was the murder weapon.

The swan, the truck, and the knife had all been mentioned before.  Perhaps—

A swan paddled toward us. The swan, which was black, was not the one we sought.

A truck careened out of control. The truck, which belched smoke and needed a new muffler, stopped short of the line.

Something sharp, either the carving knife or kitchen scissors, had killed Tom. The knife, which had been stuffed into the drawer, was the murder weapon.

A comparison. Which do you think Lance would prefer?

The diamonds that came from the Rainger Mine were Lance’s inheritance.

The diamonds, which came from the Rainger Mine, were Lance’s inheritance.

In the first case, all the diamonds from the mine were Lance’s. In the second, all the diamonds we’re talking about are also Lance’s. Yet, in this second case, we are speaking about specific diamonds. And there may be only two.

Note: British English accepts the use of both which and that in restrictive clauses.

———-

In/into/in to
Use in for inside or within. He was running in the hallway. She was in the zone.

Use into to show movement from one place to another. He ran into the library from the hallway. Or to show transformation. While I watched, the frog changed into a prince.

He hid the key in his pocket.
But
He dropped the key into his pocket.

Use in to, two words, when the word before in is linked to in, to give the two words a meaning they wouldn’t have by themselves. Sally gave in to the kidnapper’s demands. Or when in to means in order to. He opted in to receive the discount. She stayed in to win the prize.

———-

Every day/everyday
When every modifies day, it’s a determiner—it qualifies the noun day. It answers the question, how often. He checks his tire pressure every day. Each can be substituted for every and the meaning would be the same.

The single word everyday is an adjective that modifies a noun. Everyday means daily or ordinary. A fantastic sunrise is an everyday event in Hawaii.

He gets up everyday is incorrect. He gets up every [each] day is correct.

———-

Impact
Most writers and readers have no trouble with impact as a noun. But when it’s used as a verb, watch out. The objections fly.

Impact as a verb with the meaning of hitting another object forcefully or pressing into something has been around for hundreds of years. It’s the newer usage—to have an effect on—that is questioned.

The Oxford Dictionary of Current English lists one definition as have a strong effect.

So…do you use impact as a verb meaning to have an effect on? My wife’s spending choices have greatly impacted my ability to make choices for the family. The answer depends on your audience. It’s become acceptable in many circles, including business, politics, and advertising. Commercial fiction? The use would probably be accepted, unless your editor objected. Literary fiction or formal writing for a scientifc or educational institution? Perhaps in those instances you would be wise to choose another verb.

———-

Comprises/comprised of/composed of
Comprise
means to contain, not made up of. So… My notebooks comprise my thoughts on life. Never, My notebooks are comprised of my thoughts on life. And certainly not, My thoughts comprise my notebooks.

Something larger contains its parts—The whole comprises the parts.

Composed means to make up a whole. If you want to say that the parts make up the whole, then, Our office is composed of workers of many nationalities.

Never use comprised of for composed of, which would be saying something is contained of. (Of course, this rule has been argued by language lovers for a long time. There are those who say the use of comprised of has been around for a long time and so it should be accepted. Others say it should never be accepted. Language does change. Yet, until the alternative gains full acceptance, you’d be safe to follow the rule and not write comprised of.)

———-

Him and his/he and his and her and her/she and her
The words him and his and her and her are either correct or incorrect, depending on how they’re used. I hear this error much more often than I see it in print.

I took the treasure chest to him and his brother. This is correct since the words him and his brother are the objects of the sentence.

Him and his brother were happy with the spoils. This is not correct—the subject of the sentence should be he and his brother.

She and her mother [compound subject] wanted to see the new musical down at the playhouse. This is correct. (Never her and her mother as the subject.) However, I was happy to recommend the play to her and her mother, is also correct. The words her and her mother are the object of the sentence.

How to decide whether to use him or he, her or she if you don’t remember the rules about subjects and objects?

Drop the second person:
She wanted to see the new musical.
He was happy with the spoils.
I took the treasure to him.
I was happy to recommend the play to her.

———-

Hopefully
Hopefully is one of those words that can get you into a fast argument and/or get you branded as ignorant.

Traditionally, hopefully has meant in a hopeful way or manner. I prayed hopefully for my son to survive the battle. In this sentence, hopefully describes the manner of prayer. Substitute other adverbs such as fervently or repeatedly and you get the idea for what hopefully means when used this way.

But popular usage has seen hopefully used to mean I am hopeful or I hope. Hopefully, my prayers will be answered. This usage is still disputed and often hotly debated.

What if you said, Hopefully, the day would end in peace? Who is hopeful here? Hopefully is used in this case as a sentence adverb.

Sentence adverbs are accepted for many other words, but hopefully is not so easily accepted. So, what should you do?

  • Refrain from using hopefully to mean I hope or as a sentence adverb.
  • Know your audience and make your decision based on that knowledge.
  • Claim creative license and write what your story demands.

Just be prepared to fight for your choice.

———-

Historic/historical
Use historic to refer to a meaningful event from history. Using historic denotes there is significance to the event. The time of the historic Wars of the Roses was a volatile one for England.

Use historical to refer to something from the past, from history, that is not necessarily of importance as a significant event. Think of historical as the more general term. The historical record is thin in the so-called Dark Ages.

———-

Accept/except
Accept
is a verb meaning to agree to receive or do something. I plan to accept the first job I’m offered. Except is a preposition that means not including. I love all bread except rye.

Note that there is a verb form of except that means to exclude: Everyone pays the toll, present company excepted, of course.

———-

Conscious/conscience/consciousness/conscientious
Conscious
means both aware of and responsive to your surroundings and deliberate. I’m quite conscious of my responsibilities, thank you very much. He consciously chose the Uzi over the Glock.

Conscience is a noun denoting a person’s moral sense of right and wrong (and often showing preference for choosing right over wrong). My conscience wouldn’t let me keep the wallet, even though I needed the money and the former owner was dead from his injuries.

Consciousness is the noun form of conscious, the state of being conscious. Regaining consciousness, coming as it did with headache and nausea, had little to recommend it.

Conscientious means careful and thorough, and wanting to do what’s right. Most volunteers are conscientious, but Maureen is the most diligent of all.

———-

Hung/hanged
Both hung and hanged are past participles of hang. Use hanged for a person who was executed by hanging—They hanged him for his crimes—and hung for hanging other objectsShe hung the portrait above the fireplace.

———-

Complimentary/complementary
Complimentary
means praising, admiring or approving, and to be given free of charge. The diva’s words were complimentary [admiring], but I didn’t believe that she’d suddenly become an admirer. The tickets were complimentary [free], so I took three for my friends.

Complementary means combining to form a complete whole or to improve, and to contribute extra features to. Also mutually supplying what each other lacks. Our life plans are complementary, so we might as well get married.

———-

Nauseous/nauseated
Nauseous
is an adjective describing something that causes a feeling of sickness or nausea. Daisy’s most recent attempt at a meal—cornflakes with coconut and sour cream—was truly nauseous.

Being nauseated is to feel sick. Timothy was nauseated by the relentless bad news from the war zone.

Can you say, I’m nauseous without meaning that you cause nausea in others? Plenty of people, writers included, do use the phrase to mean just that. And because of common usage, most readers will understand the meaning, that you feel sick or nauseated. But you’d never be wrong to keep the words and meanings separate.

———-

Continual/continuous
The lines are becoming blurred by usage, but there is a difference between continual and continuous. Use continual for something constantly or frequently occurring. The continual road repairs took a toll on the city’s commuters. Use continuous for something happening without interruption. The continuous drip from the bathroom faucet kept Marie tossing and turning all night.

———-

Disburse/disperse
Disburse
means to pay out money. The old miser disbursed funds to his children twice a year. Disperse means to scatter, to go in different directions or over a wide area, to thin out and disappear. At the sound of gunshots, both the crowd and the flock of birds dispersed.

———-

Discreet/discrete
Discreet
means careful and prudent, keeping silent about something of a delicate or potentially embarrassing nature. The President trusted his chief of staff to be discreet. Discrete means separate and distinct. The corporation was composed of four discrete divisions.

Note that discretion, the noun form of discreet, has only one e.

———-

Disinterested/uninterested
This is another pair of words where one is often used for the other, though they are different. Disinterested means impartial, though in common usage it’s often used to mean not interested. Martin, a disinterested observer, was able to call the plays without favoring either team.

Uninterested does mean not interested or concerned. Raul was not only uninterested in Marta’s day, he tuned out her words to concentrate on the latest weather report.

———-

Flout/flaunt
Flout
means to openly not follow a rule or law or custom or practice. When Sam gave his son a book of driving laws, Sam Jr. proved eager to flout every one. Flaunt means to display in an obvious manner. Margaret arranged her jewelry in cases in the living room, eager to flaunt her wealth when her sister-in-law came to visit.

———-

Imply/infer
Imply
means to suggest something. Peter was punched in the eye when he implied his best friend’s wife was fat. Infer means to deduce from evidence or reasoning (it’s not a knowledge from facts). From Wilbur’s tone and sneer, I inferred he thinks I’m as valuable as dirt.

Memory trick—The person doing the speaking implies something. The person hearing infers something from what the other person says.

———-

Purposely/purposefully
Purposely
means deliberately. I purposely lost my shoe when I ran from the ball. Purposefully means having or showing determination. The veteran firefighter ran purposefully into the burning building.

———-

Irregardless
There is no such word. Use regardless to mean in spite of circumstances or conditions.

———-

Peruse
Contrary to common usage, peruse means to read or examine thoroughly and with attention to detail. It does not mean scan quickly. To peruse leisurely means to read without hurry.

———-

Prescribe/proscribe
Prescribe
means to recommend and permit the use of, especially medicine or medical treatment, or to recommend with authority. Both doctors prescribed penicillin, even though I told them it made me sick.

Proscribe means to condemn or forbid. His prison sentence proscribed contact with his former associates.

———-

Free rein/reign
Reins
are used for guiding animals, particularly horses. Reign, in its noun form, is the period of time a king or queen rules.

The phrase free rein means freedom of action. Lancet the Bold was given free rein over the peoples of Saint Sebastian. The phrase is never free reign.

———-

Noisy/nosy/noisome
Noisy
is an adjective meaning to make a lot of noise or be full of noise. The classroom of active first graders was noisy and warm.

Nosy (also nosey) is an adjective meaning inquisitive (to a great degree) of the business of others. It has a negative connotation. Abe’s neighbor was nosy, always looking out his window, checking out Abe’s visitors.

Noisome is an adjective meaning to have a highly unpleasant smell. It can also be used in reference to other things unpleasant. It comes from annoy and has nothing to do with sound. The noisome odors from the dump didn’t waft through the air; they stormed through it, knocking senseless everything in their path.

———-

Literally/figuratively
Literally
is an adverb meaning in a literal sense, actually or exactly. The soldier literally bled to death in front of me. It is often used to show that something actually happened as stated, in case the hearer/reader were to doubt the truth of the claim.

Figuratively is an adverb meaning non-literal, using figures of speech, metaphorical. He spoke figuratively, exaggerating the needs in order to tap into the emotions of his audience.

The problem. While literally means actually, for many years both writers and speakers have been using literally to exaggerate, to add emphasis, and to substitute for figuratively: I would literally die if Jenny told Michael I had a crush on him; He quite literally blew a gasket when he heard that his ex-wife was getting remarried; Dr. Franz gave up his life’s work, literally thumbing his nose at the scientific community and Dr. Medlin. Our narrator won’t actually die, the man didn’t blow a gasket—people aren’t constructed with gaskets—and Dr. Franz, while he might have shot Dr. Medlin the bird, most likely didn’t actually thumb his nose at him.

Common usage is changing the definition of literally. Is this change accepted by everyone? Not by a long shot. Can you use the word literally and not mean actually? If the word comes out of a character’s mouth, you can say pretty much anything. If you’re writing for a literary magazine? I wouldn’t try it. Anything in between, I’d say know your audience. Know why some won’t ever accept a use of literally other than to mean actually. Know why the misuse of literally may cause your readers to mistrust your word choices. Know why some readers will understand exactly why you’ve used literally and will accept that use for what it is.

———-

Different from/different than/different to
While there are many opinions, there’s no concensus on this one. I’ve read the experts and the forums and the opinions. Conclusion? Use different from most of the time and always when comparing nouns, when saying that one is not the same as the other.

Max is different from Thomas.
Elevated trains are not really different from those that travel underground.

Different to is peculiar to British English and may be used for different from in spoken English, in informal situations, or in certain areas of the UK.

This letter is different to that one.

He looks different to the way he looked before.

While American English doesn’t use different to in this manner, it does accept different to in a case such as this—He looked different to me.

Different than is peculiar to American English and is often used for different from. This is not an accepted use in formal writing.

Max is different than Thomas. X

Different than is accepted if a clause, rather than a noun, follows it.

The result was different than I’d expected.

He’s different than he used to be.

These can’t be written, The result was different from I’d expected or He’s different from he used to be.

But, these are correct—The result was different from the result I’d expected and He’s different from the man he used to be.

So… there are situations that call for different from, different than, and different to. Be wary of those who’d call for a blanket ban of any of the three.

———-

Circle around
Circle around is redundant. Simply use circle as the verb (or say something such as go around).

Circle the block.

Go around the block.

But not, Circle around the block. X

You can use circle around for emphasis.

The plane circled around and around while the pilot searched for a landing spot.

———-

Merge, blend, combine, or mix together
Adding together to the verbs merge, blend, combine, or mix is redundant. The verbs alone are sufficient.

The baker mixed the ingredients.

The two highways merged north of La Jolla.

We combined our efforts for the best result.

The paints were mixed, but the color was not what we’d expected.

———-

Coffin/casket
A coffin is a box used to hold human remains, whether for burial—above or below ground—or for cremation. A coffin typically has six or eight sides (and a bit of a tapered look).

A casket in much of the English-speaking world is a box, often small, used for a variety of purposes. In the United States, the term casket has become a substitute for coffin. It often refers to the rectangular-shaped display box used at funerals, a box with a split lid that can be opened for viewing. Remains may be buried in caskets, or the casket may be used only for the public display at funerals.

———-

Waved/waived
The verb wave means to move your hands (or something in your hands) to and fro. Jennifer waved to her friends from her car.

The verb waive means to choose not to insist on a right or a claim. Maxwell waived his right to an attorney and told the detective everything he’d done.

The noun form of wave is wave. The noun form of waive is waiver.

Waver is also a verb. It means to flicker or be indecisive. Margot wavered between the two choices her mother gave her.

———-

Gambit/gamut
Gambit, a noun, is a means of gaining an advantage. A gambit is an action or remark, a ploy. Nico’s gambit was nothing new; he simply planned to lie to his wife.

Gamut is a noun that refers to the full range of something. The medical team ran through the gamut of known communicable diseases.

———-

Callous/callus
Callous is an adjective meaning cruel, insensitive. Her callous attitude won few admirers.

Callus is a thickening of the skin. Tim developed a callus under his ring from the tools pushing against it, but he’d promised Alice he’d never take it off.

———-

I’ve identified the problem areas for these words, but have not given all definitions and uses of each word.  For full definitions and more information, see a dictionary. Preferably a current one since our language is ever changing.

Bill Bryson’s written a book of problem words that would serve as a great resource for any writer or editor—Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting it Right.

***

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7 Responses to “Misused Words—Common Writing Mistakes”

  1. Peter says:

    I appreciate the information that you have posted on your site. I am not an editor, but one needs to be careful defining absolutes in English when words such as “alright” are used frequently enough to become part of the language. For one, alright has a distinct meaning that (oh my, did I use that correctly) is different from “all right.” I personally don’t like it when a concatenation takes on a different meaning than its root phrase, but it is a reality of our fluid language.

    A counterexample to disqualifying alright:
    “Misused words–common writing mistakes” Misused is a concatenation of “miss” and “used,” so it must be improper.

    The line between when they are “improper” and “acceptable” is vague, and it is the time of transition where the most conflict arises. I suppose that alright is in its transition phase.

    I am not an etymologist; but altogether, already, nevertheless, and a host of other words are concatenations of commonly paired (or more) words. The reason that they are acceptable today is simply because of their transition to common usage at one point in time. In language, just because we are taught something at one point in time, doesn’t make it forever true. Otherwise, we should all be speaking King James English.

    Peter

  2. Or we might be speaking a language from even farther back. Good point, Peter.

    It’s true; our language evolves. And there are differences between what we teach and what we accept. Plus, there’s what’s acceptable in formal written English and what’s acceptable in informal, what works for business or science and what works for narrative and what we’ll accept in dialogue. Acceptance of new words or of new forms of words doesn’t come at the same time for each type of writing.

    Language is ever fascinating. But I’ll still argue that alright hasn’t quite made it to acceptable yet. And it seems to be taking a long time to gain acceptance. Just look at the speed at which electronic mail became e-mail became email. Alright is a bit slow in comparison.

    Thanks for your comment, Peter. Please share at any time.

  3. jeff says:

    This is a great list! :)

    I recently got this one wrong, and caught it:
    Bass = low tone, opposite of treble
    Base = support for something, opposite of acid, etc. etc.

  4. Jeff, it’s so easy to miss them, even when we know better. I think sometimes they’re simply typos.

  5. Ken Davies says:

    “Different than” is incorrect because “than” suggests degrees of comparison, e.g. “bigger than”, while things or concepts can differ without gradation. Use “different from” instead.

  6. Ken, as mentioned in the article, different from is the accepted wording in most situations and when there’s a need to be grammatically correct. Still, in fiction, the rules are a bit different. If a character would think or say different than or different to, that’s what a writer should go with. Also, there are those phrasings where different from simply doesn’t work. A tricky sentence could always be rewritten, of course, but if we want our fictional characters to sound real, their thoughts and speech should reflect how people think and speak. And sometimes—many times—people don’t speak with rules in mind.

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

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