Usage in Writing Part III

If anxious meant eager there’d be no use for Prozac, and if peruse meant to skim, people would have a lot of time on their hands.

AFFECT, EFFECT. Effect is usually a noun that means a result or the power to produce a result: “The sound of the falling rain had a calming effect, nearly putting me to sleep.” Affect is usually a verb that means to have an influence on: “His loud humming was affecting my ability to concentrate.” Note that effect can also be a verb meaning to bring about or execute: “The speaker’s somber tone effected a dampening in the general mood of the audience.”

AGGRAVATE. Irritate means to inflame, and aggravate means to worsen. To blame someone for aggravating you confesses that you were already irritated. The cast on Meg’s broken arm irritated her skin, but scratching aggravated her itch.

ALL RIGHT. It’s not all right to use alright.

ALTERNATE, ALTERNATIVE: Use the latter only when a choice does not exist. No alternative. (Frost took the alternate route because he had alternates to choose from.)

AS FAR AS is commonly misused, as here: “As far as next year, it is too early to predict the outcome.”  The trouble is that “as far as” serves as a conjunction and as such requires a following verb. The solution is either to remove the conjunction (“As for next year, it is too early to predict the outcome.”) or to supply the needed verb (“As far as next season year…”).

ANXIOUS comes from anxiety. It means fearful or fretful anticipation, whereas eager refers to pleasant expectation.

Breath is BAITED, not BATED.

BLAME. Blame the culprit, not the consequence. When you use blame as a verb, follow it with for, not on. Doug blamed his frustration on his colleagues’ insensitivity (incorrect). Doug blamed his colleagues for his frustration (correct).

BOTH … AND … . “He was both deaf to argument and entreaty” (cited by Gowers). The sentence needs to be recast, either as “He was deaf to both argument [noun] and entreaty [noun]” or as “He was deaf both to argument [preposition and noun] and to entreaty [preposition and noun].” The rule holds true for other such pairs: “not only … but also,” “either … or,” and “neither … nor.”

BURGEON does not mean merely to expand or thrive. It means to bud or sprout, to come into being. For something to burgeon, it must be new. Thus, it would be correct to talk about the burgeoning talent of a precocious youth, but to write of “the burgeoning population of Cairo” is wrong. Cairo’s population has been growing for centuries.

CAN, MAY: Can indicates capability or possibility (I can come to the party). May is used when in reference to permission (May I come to the party?).

CITE, SITE, SIGHT: You cite the author in an endnote; you visit a Web site or the site of a crime, and you sight your friend on the horizon.

COMPRISE: Comprised of is always wrong. Comprise means to contain, consist of, or be composed of.  The whole comprises the parts and not vice versa. A house may comprise seven rooms, but seven rooms do not comprise a house—and still less is a house comprised of seven rooms. Six members do not comprise the board. The board comprises six members.

EVERY DAY is a noun and adverb: it happens every day; EVERYDAY is an adjective: an everyday mistake.

INSURE, ENSURE, ASSURE: Insure against risk. Ensure, or guarantee, an event or condition. Assure, comfort, a person or group of people to remove doubt or anxiety.

LESS with singular; FEWER with plural.


The verb lay requires a direct object. The verb lie does not.

  • You lay an item down. (the item is the direct object)
  • You lie down in bed. (no direct object)

Once you know which verb you want, memorize or double check its irregular conjugation to write the correct verb tense.


ONE of the most: a threadbare word package you should avoid using.

PROVED (v), PROVEN (adj)


PERUSE. It is a losing battle no doubt, but perhaps worth pointing out that peruse does not mean to look over casually. It means to read or examine carefully.

REGRETTABLE, REGRETFUL: Regrettable describes something that is unfortunate or deserving of regret. (Regrettably, I won’t be able to make it to your party; not regretfully.) Regretful is full of regret; sorrowful because of what is lost, gone, or done. (The misuse is similar to the misuse of hopeful.)

RISE, ARISE: Generally, if something rises it moves upwards. If you rise, this is a rather formal way of saying that you get out bed, get up, or stand up. When the sun and moon rise, they appear in the sky. If the water in a river rises, it becomes higher. If the wind rises, it blows more strongly. If an amount rises, it increases. Arise is used in a more abstract way. If a situation or problem or something arises, it comes into being and people become aware of it. We can also use arise to mean to get up, get out of bed or stand up, but it is even more formal than rise.

THAN: make sure no essential words are missing (Closer to my mother than to my father… more like a pigeon than like a seagull.)

THIS: check at beginning of sentences to make sure it carries the load of the previous sentence.

WHO, WHOM: Who and whoever are subjects.  (Who is calling at this hour? Whoever needs help will have to wait. ) Whom and whomever are direct objects. (I don’t care whom you ask. The food is served for whomever is hungry.)

“None of who” is never correct. Of is a preposition that requires an object. None of object, some of object, all of object, etc.  Whom is the objective case. You would write, “None of whom”.

WOULD: unnecessary in routines that state when. (Every morning they washed themselves.)

To find more commonly misused words, visit the Writer’s Desk Reference.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist