Words Commonly Misused

Words Commonly Misused

Admit to is nearly always wrong. You admit a misdeed; you do not admit to it.

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.” It can also be used as a verb that means to bring about: “The speaker’s somber tone effected [brought about] a dampening in the audience’s mood.” Affect is usually a verb that means to have an influence on: “His loud humming was affecting [influencing] my ability to concentrate.”

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 versus alternative. Frost took the alternate route. Use alternative when a choice does not exist, when there is no alternative.

As far as is commonly misused, as here: “As far as next season, it is too early to make forecasts” (Baltimore Sun). 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 season, it is too early to make forecasts”) or to supply the needed verb (“As far as next season goes, it is too early to make forecasts”). 

Amid, among. Among applies to things that can be separated and counted, amid to things that cannot. Rescuers might search among survivors, but amid wreckage.

Among, between. Among should be applied to collective arrangements (trade talks among the members of the European Community) and between to reciprocal arrangements (a treaty between the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada).

And which. Almost always and which should be preceded by a parallel which (“The home run, which was his tenth of the month and which was the longest hit in the park this year …”). The stricture applies equally to such constructions as and that, and who, but which, and but who. 

Anxious comes from the word anxiety. It means fearful or fretful expectation, whereas eager refers to pleasant expectation. Unless you’re afraid of your friends, you shouldn’t say you’re “anxious to see them.”

Any. The verb must correspond to the complement. It is incorrect to write: “This paper isn’t very good, but neither is any of the others.” To correct the issue, you can write: “neither is any other” or “neither are any of the others.”

Anybody, anyone, anything, anyway, anywhere. Anything and anywhere are always one word. The others are one word except when the emphasis is on the second element (e.g., “He received three job offers, but any one would have suited him”). 

Appreciate has a slightly more specific meaning than writers sometimes give it. If you appreciate something, you value it (“I appreciate your concern”) or you understand it sympathetically (“I appreciate your predicament”). But when there is no sense of sympathy or value (as in “I appreciate what you are saying, but I don’t agree with it”) understand or recognize or the like would be better.

Aroma applies only to agreeable smells; there is no such thing as a bad aroma.

As … as. “A government study concludes that for trips of 500 miles or less … automotive travel is as fast or faster than air travel, door to door” (George Will, syndicated columnist). The problem here is what is termed an incomplete alternative comparison. If we remove the “or faster than” phrase from the sentence, the problem becomes immediately evident: “A government study concludes that for trips of 500 miles or less … automotive travel is as fast than air travel, door to door.” The writer has left the “as fast” phrase uncompleted. The sentence should say “as fast as or faster than air travel.”

Avenge, revengeAvenge indicates the redressing of an injustice, whereas revenge indicates retaliation taken for the sake of personal satisfaction.

A while, awhile. To write for awhile is wrong because the idea of for is implicit in awhile. Write I will stay here for a while (two words) or I will stay here awhile (one word).

Baited. Breath is baited, not bated

Behalf. A useful distinction exists between on behalf of and in behalf of. The first means acting as a representative, as when a lawyer enters a plea on behalf of a client, and often denotes a formal relationship. In behalf of indicates a closer or more sympathetic role and means acting as a friend or defender. “I spoke on your behalf “ means that I represented you when you were absent. “I spoke in your behalf “ means that I supported you or defended you. 

Bereft. To be bereft of something is not to lack it but to be dispossessed of it, to lose it. A spinster is not bereft of a husband, but a widow is. (The word is the past participle of bereave.)

Beside, besides. Beside is a preposition that means next to: “Stand here beside me.” Besides is an adverb that means also or in addition to: “Besides, I need to tell you about the new products my company offers.”  Besides not mean alternatively. It is incorrect to write: “The wound must have been made by something besides the handle of the gear-level.” Make it “other than.”

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. Three small problems to note:
Both should not be used to describe more than two things. Partridge cites a passage in which a woman is said to have “a shrewd common sense … both in speech, deed and dress.” Delete both. 

Sometimes it appears superfluously: “… and they both went to the same school, Charterhouse” (Observer). Either delete both or make it “… they both went to Charterhouse.”

Sometimes it is misused for each. To say that there is a supermarket on both sides of the street suggests that it is somehow straddling the roadway. Say either that there is a supermarket on each side of the street or that there are supermarkets on both sides. (See also each.)

Bohemian, as a proper noun, refers to a native or inhabitant of Bohemia, the West Czech Republic. In the lower case, it refers to an artist or writer, who lives and acts free of regard for conventional rules and practices. Not a barbarian.

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.”

Bring and Take. In order to employ proper usage of “bring” or “take,” the writer must know whether the object is being moved toward or away from the subject. If it is toward, use “bring.” If it is away, use “take.” Your spouse may tell you to “take your clothes to the cleaners.” The owner of the dry cleaners would say “bring your clothes to the cleaners.”

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 applies to what is possible and may to what is permissible. You can drive your car the wrong way down a one-way street, but you may not. Despite the simplicity of the rule, errors are common, even among experts. Here is William Safire writing in the New York Times on the pronunciation of junta: “The worst mistake is to mix languages. You cannot say ‘joonta’ and you cannot say ‘hunta.’ “ But you can, and quite easily. What Mr. Safire meant was that you may not or should not or ought not. 

Collisions can occur only when two or more moving objects come together. If a car runs into a stationary object, it is not a collision. 

Comic, comical. Something that is comic is intended to be funny (“a comic performance”). Something that is comical is funny whether or not that was the intention (“a comical misunderstanding”).

Comparatively. “Comparatively little progress was made in the talks yesterday” (Guardian). Compared with what? Comparatively should be reserved for occasions when a comparison is being expressed or at least implied. If all you mean is fairly or only a little, choose another word. 

Compare to, compare with. These two can be usefully distinguished. Compare to should be used to liken things, compare with to consider their similarities or differences. “He compared London to New York” means that he felt London to be similar to New York. “He compared London with New York” means that he assessed the two cities’ relative merits. Compare to most often appears in figurative senses, as in “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Compel, impel. Both words imply the application of a force leading to some form of action, but they are not quite synonymous. Compel is the stronger of the two and, like its cousin compulsion, suggests action undertaken as a result of coercion or irresistible pressure: “The man’s bullying tactics compelled us to flee.” Impel is closer in meaning to encourage and means to urge forward: “The audience’s ovation impelled me to speak at greater length than I had intended.” If you are compelled to do something, you have no choice. If you are impelled, an element of willingness is possible. 

Compendium. No doubt because of the similarity in sound to comprehensive, the word is often taken to mean vast and all-embracing. In fact, a compendium is a succinct summary or abridgment. Size has nothing to do with it. It may be as large as The Oxford English Dictionary or as small as a memorandum. What is important is that it should provide a complete summary in a brief way. The plural can be either compendia or compendiums. The OED prefers the former, most other dictionaries the latter. 

Complacent, complaisant. The first means self-satisfied, contented to the point of smugness. The second means affable and cheerfully obliging. If you are complacent, you are pleased with yourself. If you are complaisant, you wish to please others. Both words come from the Latin complacere (“to please”), but complaisant reached us by way of France, which accounts for the difference in spelling. 

Complement, compliment/complementary, complimentary. The words come from the same Latin root, complere, meaning to fill up, but have long had separate meanings. Compliment means to praise. Complement has stayed closer to the original meaning: it means to fill out or make whole. So a gracious guest compliments a host; an espresso after dinner complements a meal. In the adjectival forms complementary and complimentary the words retain these senses, but complimentary has the additional meaning of something given without charge: a complimentary ticket, for instance. 

Complete. Partridge includes complete in his list of false comparatives— that is, words that do not admit of a comparison, such as ultimate and eternal (one thing cannot be “more ultimate” or “more eternal” than another). Technically, he is right, and you should take care not to modify complete needlessly. But there are occasions when it would be pedantic to carry the stricture too far. As the Morrises note, there can be no real objection to “This is the most complete study to date of that period.” Use it, but use it judiciously. 

Complete and unabridged. Though blazoned across the packaging of countless audio books, the phrase is palpably redundant. If a work is unabridged, it must be complete, and vice versa. Choose one or the other. 

Comprise. Comprise is not a term of summation. It means to embrace or contain. The whole comprises the parts and not vice versa. The city comprises Irish, Italian, Africa American, Caucasion, and Mexican populations. The city ‘contains’ these populations; they do not ‘contain’ the city.

Conceived. “Last week, 25 years after it was first conceived …” (Time). Delete “first.” Something can be conceived only once. Similarly with “initially conceived” and “originally conceived.”

Condone. The word does not mean to approve or endorse, senses that are often attached to it. It means to pardon, forgive, overlook. You can condone an action without supporting it.

Contagious, infectious. Diseases spread by contact are contagious. Those spread by air and water are infectious. Used figuratively (“contagious laughter,” “infectious enthusiasm”), either is fine. 

Contemptible, contemptuous. Contemptible means deserving contempt. Contemptuous means bestowing it. A contemptible offer may receive a contemptuous response. 

Continual, continuous. Continual refers to things that happen repeatedly but not constantly. Continuous indicates an uninterrupted sequence. However, few readers will be aware of this distinction, and the writer who requires absolute clarity will generally be better advised to use incessant or uninterrupted for continuous and intermittent for continual. 

Contrary, converse, opposite, reverse. Contrary describes something that contradicts a proposition. Converse applies when the elements of a proposition are reversed. Opposite is something that is diametrically opposed to a proposition. Reverse can describe any of these. For the statement “I love you,” the opposite is “I hate you”; the converse is “You love me”; the contrary would be anything that contradicted it: “I do not love you,”“I have no feelings at all for you,” “I like you moderately.” The reverse could embrace all of these meanings. 

Convince, persuade. The words are not quite the same. You convince someone that he should believe, but persuade him to act. It is possible to persuade a person to do something without convincing him of the correctness or necessity of doing it. A separate distinction is that persuade may be followed by an infinitive, but convince may not. Thus the following is wrong: “The Soviet Union evidently is not able to convince Cairo to accept a rapid cease-fire.” Make it either “persuade Cairo to accept” or “convince Cairo that it should accept.”

Couldn’t of. “ ‘Couldn’t of got it without you, Pops,’ Parker said …” (New Yorker). As a shortened form of “couldn’t have,” couldn’t of does unquestionably avoid the clumsy double contraction couldn’t’ve, a form not often seen in print since J. D.  Salinger stopped writing. However, I would submit that that does not make it satisfactory. Using the preposition of as a surrogate for ‘ve seems to me simply to be swapping an ungainly form for an illiterate one. If couldn’t’ve is too painful to use, I would suggest simply writing couldn’t have and allowing the reader’s imagination to supply the appropriate inflection. 

Current, currently. When there is a need to contrast the present with the past, current has its place, but all too often it is merely an idle occupier of space, as in these two examples from a single article in Time magazine: “The Government currently owns 740 million acres, or 32.7% of the land in the U.S… . Property in the area is currently fetching $125 to $225 per acre.” The notion of currency is implicit in both statements, as it is in most other sentences in which current and currently appear. Currently should be deleted from both. (The second sentence could be further improved by changing “is fetching” to “fetches.”)

Decimate. Decimate literally means to “slaughter one tenth.”  Most people use it to mean “destroy entirely,” but it should be used to say “destroy in part.” It is incorrect to use decimate to denote annihilation. Equally to be avoided are contexts in which the word’s use is clearly inconsistent with its literal meaning, as in “Frost decimated an estimated 80 percent of the crops.”

Diagnose. She was diagnosed with cancer (incorrect). Her tumor was diagnosed as cancer (correct). Doctors diagnose diseases, not patients.

Different. Often used unnecessarily, as in “It is found in more than 250 different types of plants.” In such constructions it can nearly always be deleted without loss. 

Different from, to, than. This is a tough one. Words like “rather” and “faster” are comparative adjectives, and are used to show comparison with the preposition “than,” (e.g., greater than, less than, faster than, rather than). The adjective “different” is used to draw distinction. So, when “different” is followed by a  preposition, it should be “from,” similar to “separate from,” “distinct from,” or “away from.” e.g., My living situation in New York was different from home. There are rare cases where “different than” is appropriate, if “than” operates as a conjunction. e.g., Development is different in New York than in Los Angeles. When in doubt, use “different from.”

Dilemma refers to a situation involving two courses of action, both unsatisfactory. The prefix di- clues us in to dilemma’s correct usage. Dilemma refers to a double-bind, a situation that corners someone between two unfavorable options, forcing them to judge the lesser of two. Time constraints posed a dilemma for Max. If he waited for his supervisor to approve the logo when she returned to town, the proofs would miss their print deadline. If he kept the production schedule, though, he risked print costs in the likelihood that she could reject his work.

Discomfit, discomfort. “In this she is greatly assisted by her husband … who enjoys spreading discomfiture in a good cause as much as she does” (Observer). The writer here, like many before him, clearly meant discomfort, which has nothing in common with discomfiture beyond a superficial resemblance. Discomfit means to rout, overwhelm, or completely disconcert. Some dictionaries now accept the newer sense of to perplex or induce uneasiness, but I would submit that the distinction is very much worth preserving. If discomfort is the condition you have in mind, why not use that word and leave discomfiture for less discriminating users? 

Disinterested, uninterested. The first means neutral, the second not caring. A disinterested person is one who has no stake in the outcome of an event; an uninterested person is one who doesn’t care. As with discomfit, discomfort (see above), the distinction is an important one and worth observing.

Dos and don’ts. Not do’s.

Doubt if, that, whether. Idiom demands some selectivity in the choice of conjunction to introduce a clause after doubt and doubtful. The rule is simple: Doubt that should be reserved for negative contexts (“There is no doubt that …”; “It was never doubtful that …”) and interrogative ones (“Do you have any doubt that … ?”; “Was it ever doubtful that … ?”). Whether or if should be used in all others (“I doubt if he will come”; “It is doubtful whether the rain will stop”). 

Doubtless, undoubtedly, indubitably. “Tonight he faces what is doubtlessly the toughest and loneliest choice of his 13-year stewardship of the Palestine Liberation Organization” (Washington Post). Since doubtless can be an adverb as well as an adjective, there is no need to add -ly to it. Undoubtedly would have been a better choice still because, as the Evanses note, it has a less concessive air. Doubtless usually suggests a tone of reluctance or resignation: “You are doubtless right.” Undoubtedly carries more conviction: “You are undoubtedly right.” Indubitably is a somewhat jocular synonym for either. 

Due to. Most authorities continue to accept that due is an adjective only and must always modify a noun. Thus, “He was absent due to illness” would be wrong. Make it either “He was absent because of [or owing to] illness” or recast the sentence to give due a noun to modify, e.g., “His absence was due to illness.” The rule is mystifyingly inconsistent—no one has ever really explained why “owing to” used prepositionally is acceptable while “due to” used prepositionally is not—but it should perhaps still be observed, at least in formal writing, if only to avoid a charge of ignorance.

Each. When each precedes the noun or pronoun to which it refers, the verb should be singular: “Each of us was …” When it follows the noun or pronoun, the verb should be plural: “They each were …” Each not only influences the number of the verb, it also influences the number of later nouns and pronouns. In simpler terms, if each precedes the verb, subsequent nouns and pronouns should be plural (e.g., “They each are subject to sentences of five years”), but if each follows the verb, the subsequent nouns and pronouns should be singular (“They are each subject to a sentence of five years”). 

Each other, one another. A few arbiters of usage continue to insist on each other for two things and one another for more than two. There is no harm in observing such a distinction, but also little to be gained from it, and, as Fowler long ago noted, the practice has no basis in historical usage. The possessive form is each other’s, not each others’. 

Either. Either suggests a duality and is almost always better avoided when the context involves quantities of more than two, as in “Decisions on Mansfield’s economy are now made in either Detroit, Pittsburgh, or New York.” Often in such constructions, either is unnecessary anyway; delete it and the sentence says no less. A separate problem with either is seen here: “But in every case the facts either proved too elusive or the explanations too arcane to be satisfactory.” Either should be placed before “the facts” or deleted; for a further discussion, see both … and. For a discussion of errors of number involving either, see neither. 

Enormity does not, as is frequently thought, indicate size, but rather refers to something that is wicked, monstrous, and outrageous (“The enormity of Hitler’s crimes will never be forgotten”). If what you require is a word denoting large scale, try “immensity” or “vastness.”

Envy and Jealousy. The word “envy” implies a longing for someone else’s good fortunes. “Jealousy” is far more nefarious. It’s a fear of rivalry, often present in sexual situations. “Envy” is when you covet your friend’s good looks. “Jealousy” is what happens when your significant other swoons over your good-looking friend.

Every day is a noun and adverb: it happens every day; everyday is adjective, as in an everyday mistake.

Exception proves the rule. A widely misunderstood expression. As a moment’s thought should confirm, it isn’t possible for an exception to confirm a rule—but then, that isn’t the sense that was originally intended. Prove here is a “fossil”—that is, a word or phrase that is now meaningless except within the confines of certain sayings (hem and haw, rank and file, and to and fro are other fossil expressions). Originally prove meant test (it comes from the Latin probo, “I test”), so “the exception proves the rule” meant—and really still ought to mean—that the exception tests the rule. The original meaning of prove is preserved more clearly in two other expressions: proving ground and the proof of the pudding is in the eating. 

Facile is usually defined as easy, smooth, without much effort. But the word should contain at least a suggestion of derision. Facile writing isn’t just easily read or written; it is also lacking in substance or import. 

Farther, further. Far, farther, farthest of distances, otherwise further, furthest. The distinction involves involving literal distance and figurative distance. New York is farther from Sydney than from London and I can take this plan no further.

Fever, temperature. You often hear sentences like “John had a temperature yesterday” when in fact John has a temperature every day. Strictly speaking, what he had yesterday was a fever.

Few, less. Few is an adjective that means small in number. It is used with countable objects: “This department has few employees.” Less is an adjective that means small in amount or degree. It is used with objects of indivisible mass: “Which jar holds less water?”

Forbid, prohibit. The words have the same meaning, but the construction of sentences often dictates which should be used. Forbid may be followed only by to (“I forbid you to go”). Prohibit may not be followed by to, but only by from (“He was prohibited from going”) or by an object noun (“The law prohibits the construction of houses without planning consent”). Thus the following is wrong: “They are forbidden from uttering any public comments.” Make it either “They are prohibited from uttering …” or “They are forbidden to utter …” A small additional point is that forbid’s past tense form, forbade, has the preferred pronunciation for-bad, not for-bade. 

Forceful, forcible, forced. Forcible indicates the use of brute force (“forcible entry”). Forceful suggests a potential for force (“forceful argument,” “forceful personality”). Forced can be used for forcible (as in “forced entry”), but more often is reserved for actions that are involuntary (“forced march”) or occurring under strain (“forced laughter,” “forced landing”). 

Forego, forgo. The first means to precede; the second means to do without. One of the most common spelling errors in English is to write forego when forgo is intended. 

Fortuitous means by chance. It does not mean fortunate.

Gerunds are verbs made to function as nouns, as with the italicized words in “I don’t like dancing” and “Cooking is an art.” Two problems commonly arise with gerunds:

Sometimes the gerund is unnecessarily set off by an article and preposition, as here: “They said that the valuing of the paintings could take several weeks.” Deleting the italicized words would make the sentence shorter and more forceful.

Problems also occur when a possessive noun or pronoun (called a genitive) qualifies a gerund. A common type of construction is seen here: “They objected to him coming.” Properly it should be: “They objected to his coming.” Similarly, “There is little hope of Smith gaining admittance to the club” should be “There is little hope of Smith’s gaining admittance …”

Grisly, gristly, grizzly. Occasionally and variously confused. The first means horrifying or gruesome. The second applies to meat that is full of gristle. The third means gray, especially gray-haired, and is a cliché when applied to old men.

Hanged, hung. People are hanged; objects are hung.

Hopefully means full of hope, but we use it to address our doubt. Hopefully seems to be joining that class of words (truthfully, gladly, seriously) that we use not to describe a verb, which is the correct function of an adverb, but to describe our attitude toward the condition expressed.

If. Problems often arise in deciding whether if is introducing a subjunctive clause (“If I were …”) or an indicative one (“If I was …”). The distinction is straightforward. When if introduces a notion that is hypothetical or improbable or clearly untrue, the verb should be in the subjunctive: “If I were king …”; “If he were in your shoes …” But when the if is introducing a thought that is true or could well be true, the mood should be indicative: “If I was happy then, I certainly am not now.” One small hint: if the sentence contains would or wouldn’t, the mood is subjunctive, as in “If I were you, I wouldn’t take the job.”

If and when. Almost always unnecessary. Choose one or the other. 

Imply, infer. Imply means to suggest: “He implied that I was a fool.” Infer means to deduce: “After three hours of waiting, we inferred that they weren’t coming.”

In, into, in to. Generally, in indicates a fixed position (“He was in the house”) while into indicates movement toward a fixed position (“He went into the house”). There are, however, many exceptions (e.g., “He put the money in his pocket”). As so often with idiom, there is no describable pattern to these exceptions; it is just the way it is. 

Whether to write into as one word or two also sometimes causes problems. The simple rule is that in to is correct when in is an adverb, but the distinction can perhaps best be seen in paired examples: “He turned himself into [one word] an accomplished artist” but “The criminal turned himself in to [two words] the police.”

In the circumstances and under the circumstances. A useful distinction can be drawn between the two. In the circumstances should indicate merely that a situation exists: “In the circumstances, I began to feel worried.” Under the circumstances should denote a situation in which action is necessitated or inhibited: “Under the circumstances, I had no choice but to leave.”

Include indicates that what is to follow is only part of a greater whole. To use it when you are describing a totality (as in “The 350 layoffs include 200 in Michigan and 150 in Indiana”) is sloppy and possibly misleading.

Insure against risk. Aardvark wondered if the caterers were insured against loss. Ensure is something you do to guarantee an event or condition. To ensure there’d be enough food, Aardvark ordered twice as much food as last year. Assure is something you do to a person, a group of people, or an animal to remove doubt or anxiety. Squiggly assured Aardvark that he’d come to the party early.

Ironic, ironically. Do not use ironic when what you mean is strange, coincidental, paradoxical or amusing. Irony is the incongruity in a series of events between the expected results and the actual results. Coincidence is a series of events that appear planned when they’re actually accidental.

Irony, sarcasm. Irony is saying one thing and meaning another; the use of words to convey a contradiction between the literal and intended meanings. Sarcasm is very like irony except that it is more stinging. Where the primary intent behind irony is to amuse, with sarcasm it is to wound or score points. 

Kind, kinds. There should always be agreement between kind or kinds and its antecedents. “These kind of mistakes” should be either “This kind of mistake” or “These kinds of mistakes.”

Last, latest. Various authorities have issued various strictures against using last when you mean latest. Clearly, last should not be used when it might be misinterpreted, as in “the last episode of the television series” when you mean the most recent but not the final one. However, it should also be noted that last in the sense of latest has a certain force of idiom behind it, and when ambiguity is unlikely (as in “He spoke about it often during the last presidential election campaign”), a reasonable measure of latitude should be granted. 

Lay and Lie. In the present tense, you lie down on the sofa, and you lay down a book. Lay requires a direct object, something to set down. A way to remember this is to think of the phrase, lay it on me. Because lay is the past tense of lie, the correct usage is problematic for people.

Present Tense

Past Tense

Past Participle




Lay (requires a direct object)



The past tense of lie is lay. Last week, Steve lay down on the floor; The cat lay in the mud after it rained yesterday. The past tense of lay is laid. Last week, I laid the TPS report on your desk; Mary forcefully laid her ring on the table. The past participle of lie is lain. Steve has lain on the floor for days; The cat has lain in the mud for hours; He laid his books down and lay down on the couch, where he has lain for an hour. The past participle of lay is laid. I have laid the report on your desk; Mary has laid her ring on the table.

Liable, likely, apt, prone. All four indicate probability, but they carry distinctions worth noting. Apt is better reserved for general probabilities (“It is apt to snow in January”) and likely for specific ones (“It is likely to snow today”). Liable and prone are better used to indicate a probability arising as a regrettable consequence: “People who drink too much are prone to heart disease”; “If you don’t pay your taxes, you are liable to get caught.” A separate but common problem with likely is seen in this sentence: “Cable experts say the agreement will likely strengthen the company’s position.” Used as an adverb, likely needs to be accompanied by one of four helping words: very, quite, more, or most. Thus the sentence should say “will verylikely strengthen.” 

Like, as. Problems often arise in choosing between like and as. On the face of it, the rule is simple: as and as if are always followed by a verb; like never is. Therefore you would say, “He plays tennis like an expert” (no verb after like) but “He plays tennis as if his life depended on it” (verb depended). Except in the most formal writing, however, only a stickler would object to formations such as “She looks just like her mother used to” and “He can’t dance like he used to.” There is also one apparent inconsistency in the rule in that like may be used when it comes between “feel” and an “-ing” verb: “He felt like walking”; “I feel like going abroad this year.”

Limited means constrained, set within bounds. Unless there is the idea of a limit being imposed, the word is better avoided. It is reasonable enough to say that a special offer is available for a limited time, but to write that “there was a limited demand for tickets” is absurd when what is meant is that fewer customers than had been hoped showed up. 

Majority should be reserved for describing the larger of two clearly divisible things, as in “A majority of the members voted for the resolution.” But even then a more specific description is usually better: “52 percent,”“almost two-thirds,” “more than 70 percent,” etc. When there is no sense of a clear contrast with a minority (as in “The majority of his spare time was spent reading”), majority is always better avoided. 

Masterful, masterly. Most authorities continue to insist that we observe a distinction between these two—namely that masterly should apply to that which is adroit and expert and masterful to that which is imperious and domineering. Useful as the distinction might be, it has to be noted that no leading dictionary insists on it and most don’t even indicate that such a distinction exists.

May, Might. May asks permission and might expresses the possibility of something. They are not interchangeable. As well, may and can are not interchangeable. Can means ‘am able’. I can come is correct. I asked my dad and he said you can come is incorrect. I asked my dad and he said you may come is the proper phrasing.

Meticulous. Several usage books, though fewer and fewer dictionaries, insist that the word does not mean very careful, but rather excessively careful, which attributes a negative connotation to meticulous. Do not use the word in a positive context.

Moot. Contrary to common misuse, “moot” doesn’t imply something is superfluous. It means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot point for the council.

Most. Unless you are striving for an air of folksiness, most as an adverb should be confined to signifying the topmost degree (“the most delicious cake”) or as a synonym for very (“Your offer is most welcome”). As an alternative for almost or nearly (“He would eat most anything”) it is generally unwelcome in serious writing.

Mutual, common. Many authorities continue to insist, with varying degrees of conviction, that mutual should be reserved for describing reciprocal relationships between two or more things and not loosely applied to those things held in common. Thus, if you and I like each other, we have a mutual friendship. But if you and I both like Shakespeare, we have a common admiration. The use of mutual in the sense of common has been with us since the sixteenth century and was given a notable boost in the nineteenth with the appearance of the Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend. Most authorities accept it when common might be interpreted as a denigration, but even so in its looser sense the word is generally better avoided. It is, at all events, more often than not superfluous, as here: “They hope to arrange a mutual exchange of prisoners” (Daily Telegraph). An exchange of anything can hardly be other than mutual. 

Myself. Except when it is used for emphasis (“I’ll do it myself “) or reflexively (“I cut myself while shaving”) myself is almost always timorous and better avoided. In the following two examples, the better word is inserted in brackets: “Give it to John or myself [me]”; “My wife and myself [I] would just like to say …”

Nauseous means “sickening to contemplate.”  Nauseated means “queasy.”  I feel nauseous (incorrect, unless you suspect that you sicken others). I’m nauseated so I better pass on dinner.

Near disaster. “His quick thinking saved an RAF jet pilot from a near disaster.” Not quite. The pilot was saved from a disaster. A near disaster is what he had.

Neither. In neither … nor constructions, the verb should always agree with the noun nearest it. Thus, “Neither De Niro nor his agent was available for comment.” When the noun nearest the verb is plural, the verb should also be plural: “Neither the president nor his advisers were available for comment.” When neither is used on its own without the nor, the verb should always be singular: “Neither of the men was ready”; “Neither of us is hungry.” In short, more often than not a singular verb is called for—but that singularity is by no means invariable. Try to remember that neither emphasizes the separateness of items. It doesn’t add them together, at least not grammatically. 

Nonplussed means perplexed or bewildered, though it is often thought to mean the opposite—calm, unruffled, cool-as-a-cucumber. A common mistake is to think the word means not “plussed,” but no such word exists. Nonplussed originates from the Latin non (no) and plus (more, further), and means a state in which no more can be done—one is so perplexed that further action is impossible. “The lexicographer grew increasingly agitated and nonplussed by the frequency with which she noted the misuse of nonplussed.”

Nor. “Nor” expresses a negative condition. It literally means "and not." You’re obligated to use the “nor” form if your sentence expresses a negative and follows it with another negative condition. “Neither the men nor the women were drunk” is a correct sentence because “nor” expresses that the women held the same negative condition as the men. The old rule is that “nor” typically follows “neither,” and “or” follows “either.” However, if neither “either” nor “neither” is used in a sentence, you should use “nor” to express a second negative, as long as the second negative is a verb. If the second negative is a noun, adjective, or adverb, you would use “or,” because the initial negative transfers to all conditions. e.g., He won’t eat broccoli or asparagus. The negative condition expressing the first noun (broccoli) is also used for the second (asparagus).

Notorious does not mean famous. It means famous, or well known, for bad behavior.

On, upon. Although some journalists think there is, or ought to be, a distinction between these two, there isn’t. The choice is sometimes dictated by idiom (“on no account,” “upon my soul”), but in all other instances it is a matter of preference. 

One can be a grammatically tricky word. It takes a singular verb in straightforward constructions like “one out of every seven men is bald.” But when extra words are attached to it—one or more, one of those—it ceases to govern the verb and the sense of the sentence becomes plural. Thus the sentence “Inside each folder is one or more sheets of information” should be “are one or more” and “Nott is one of those rare politicians who doesn’t mind what he says” should be “don’t mind what they say.” A helpful trick to determine whether a singular or plural verb is needed is to invert the word order of the sentence: “Of those politicians who do not mind what they say, Nott is one.”

Only. In general, only ought to be attached to the word or phrase it is modifying and not set adrift, as here: “The A Class bus only ran on Sundays.”  Taken literally, the sentence suggests that on other days of the week the bus did something else—perhaps flew? The writer would better have said that the bus “ran only on Sundays” or “on Sundays only.”

Oftentimes, to be sure, clarity and idiom are better served by bringing only to a more forward position (“This will only take a minute,”“The victory can only be called a miracle”). And increasingly, it must be said, authorities are inclined toward leniency with regard to where only is permitted. Certainly it is always better to avoid an air of fussiness. But when, as in the example above, a simple repositioning puts the word in the right place without creating a distraction, there is no reason not to do it. 

Or. When or links two or more singular items in a sentence, the verb must always be singular. “It was not clear whether the president or vice president were within hearing range at the time” should be “was within hearing range.”

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.

Plethora is not merely a lot; it is an excessive amount, a superabundance. For a word that is often similarly misused, see spate.

Possible is wrongly followed by may in constructions such as the following: “It is possible that she may decide to go after all.”  Make it either “It is possible that she will decide to go after all” or “She may decide to go after all.” Together the two words are wrong and unnecessary.

Prevent often appears incorrectly in sentences such as this: “They tried to prevent him leaving.” It should be either “They tried to prevent his leaving” or “They tried to prevent him from leaving.”

Pristine does not mean spotless. It means original or primeval or in a state virtually unchanged from the original.

Proved, proven. In general proved is the preferred past tense form (“the accused was proved innocent”) and proven the preferred form for adjectival uses (“a proven formula”).

Proverbial. Unless there is some connection to an actual proverb, the word is wrongly used and better avoided. 

Provided, providing. Most authorities consider the first preferable to the second in constructions such as “He agreed to come provided he could get the day off work,” but either would be correct. “If “ is often better still. 

Purposely, purposefully. The first means intentionally. The second means with an objective in mind. “She purposely nudged me” means it was no accident. “She purposefully nudged me” means she did it to make a point or draw my attention to something.

Query, inquiry, enquiry. A query is a single question. An inquiry or enquiry may be a single question or an extensive investigation. Either spelling is correct, but inquiry is preferred by most dictionaries.

Reason … is because is a common construction that almost always points to an overwritten sentence. Consider an example: “The reason she spends less and less time in England these days is because her business interests keep her constantly on the move.” Remove “the reason” and its attendant verb “is,” and a crisper, more focused sentence emerges: “She spends less and less time in England these days because her business interests keep her constantly on the move.”

Reason why, like reason … is because (see above), is generally redundant. Consider two examples: “Grover said her contract had been terminated, but no one at the company would tell her the reason why”; “His book argues that the main reason why innercity blacks are in such a sorry state is not because whites are prejudiced but that low-skilled jobs near their homes are disappearing.” An improvement can nearly always be effected by removing one word or the other—e.g., “the reason” from the first example, “why” from the second. 

Regretfully, regrettably. The first means with feelings of regret (“Regretfully they said their farewells”); the second means unfortunately (“Regrettably I did not have enough money to buy it”).

Relatively, like comparatively, should not be used unless there is some sense of a comparison or relationship. Often it can be removed without loss from sentences like “The group has taken the relatively bold decision to expand its interests in Nigeria.”

Rise, arise. Generally, if something rises it moves upwards. If you rise, this is a rather formal way of saying that you get of out bed, get up or stand up: I needed to catch the 7.30, so I had risen early; He rose to greet me when I entered his office. 

When the sun and the 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: I hope to be out in the desert on my horse as the sun rises behind the Pyramids; The water in the river had risen to a dangerous level and everyone had to be evacuated from the village.

If an amount rises, it increases. If you get an increase in your wages or salary, this is also known as a rise. If you rise to a higher position in your organization, you become more successful or powerful: Industrial use of oil rose by over 200 % in the 1970s whilst industrial use of coal fell by the same proportion; At the age of 32, she has risen to the top of her profession.

Arise is mainly used in a more abstract way. If a situation or problem or something arises, it comes into being and people become aware of it: I don’t think the question of compensation will arise, but if it does, just give a vague reply; I shall certainly go to Scotland next year, if the opportunity arises; A problem has arisen with the TV that I bought last week. 

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 in this sense. Note that when a knighthood is bestowed in Britain, the monarch touches the recipient’s shoulders with a sword and then says, e.g., Arise, Sir William!  (meaning that he, William, may now (a)rise from his kneeling position as a knight of the realm)

Sadly, they hired someone else for the job. The use of the modifier is incorrect if I’m saying that I’m sad they hired someone else. Sadly is correct in the previous example only if I’m writing that they, in sadness, hired someone else for the job.

Since and Because. “Since” refers to time. “Because” refers to causation. e.g., Since I quit drinking I’ve married and had two children. e.g., Because I quit drinking I no longer wake up in my own vomit. A common error with "since" is seen here: “Since April the company stopped giving discounts to students.” Since indicates action starting at a specified time in the past and continuing to the present. The verbs in sentences in which it appears must also indicate action that is continuing. Make it either “In April the company stopped” or “Since April the company has stopped.”

Sneaked, snuck. The day may come well when snuck supersedes sneaked—it probably already has done so in speech—but it is worth bearing in mind that many authorities continue to regard it as nonstandard. Use sneaked instead.

Sometime, some time. Most often it is one word: “They will arrive sometime tomorrow.” But when some is used as an adjective equivalent to a short or a long or an indefinite, it should be two words: “The announcement was made some time ago.”

Three considerations may help you to make the distinction:

  • Some time as two words is usually preceded by a preposition (“for some time,” “at some time”) or followed by a helping word (“some time ago”). 
  • Some time can always be replaced with an equivalent expression (“a short time ago,” “a long time ago,” etc.); sometime cannot.
  • When spoken, greater stress is placed on time when some time is two words. 

Stalemate is a permanent deadlock—one so intractable that no further action is possible. A chess match that reaches stalemate is not awaiting a more decisive outcome; the stalemate is the outcome. Standoff, deadlock, or impasse are all better words if remedial action is still possible.

Substitute should be followed only by for. You substitute one thing for another. If you find yourself following the word with by or with or any other preposition, you should choose another verb.

Surrounded means completely encircled. To say that something is “surrounded on three sides” is a poor use of the word.

Than. Three small but common problems need noting. 
In comparative constructions than is often wrongly used, as here: “Nearly twice as many people die under 20 in France than in Great Britain” (cited by Gowers). Make it “as in Great Britain.”

It is wrongly used after hardly in sentences such as this: “Hardly had I landed at Liverpool than the Mikado’s death recalled me to Japan” (cited by Fowler). Make it “No sooner had I landed than” or “Hardly had I landed when.”

It is often a source of ambiguity in sentences of the following type: “She likes tennis more than me.” Does this mean that she likes tennis more than I do or that she likes tennis more than she likes me? In such cases, it is better to supply a second verb if it avoids ambiguity, e.g., “She likes tennis more than she likes me” or “She likes tennis more than I do.”

That (as a conjunction). Whether you say “I think you are wrong” or “I think that you are wrong” is partly a matter of idiom but mostly a matter of preference. Some words usually require that (assert, contend, maintain) and some usually do not (say, think), but there are no hard rules. On the whole, it is better to dispense with that when it isn’t necessary. 

That, which. To understand the distinctions between that and which it is necessary to understand restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive, or nondefining, clause is one that can be regarded as parenthetical: “The tree, which had no leaves, was a birch.” The italicized words are effectively an aside and could be deleted.  The real point of the sentence is that the tree was a birch; its leaflessness is incidental. A restrictive, defining clause is one that is essential to the sense of the sentence. “The tree that had no leaves was a birch.” Here the leaflessness is a defining characteristic; it helps us to distinguish that tree from other trees. In correct usage that is always used to indicate restrictive clauses and which to indicate nonrestrictive ones. Restrictive clauses should never be set off with commas and nonrestrictive clauses always should. 

Tortuous, torturous. Tortuous means winding and circuitous (“The road wound tortuously through the mountains”). When used figuratively it usually suggests deviousness (“a tortuous tax avoidance scheme”). The word is thus better avoided if all you mean is complicated or convoluted. Torturous is the adjectival form of torture and describes the infliction of extreme pain.

Try and, as in constructions such as “We’ll try and come back next week,” is regarded as colloquial by many authorities and thus is better avoided in serious writing. Use “try to” instead.

Tumult, turmoil. Both describe confusion and agitation. The difference is that tumult applies only to people, but turmoil applies to both people and things. Tumultuous, however, can also describe things as well as people (“tumultuous applause,” “tumultuous seas”).

Ultimate means last in a series. The ultimate destination, then, isn’t the best destination but the last stop on a travel itinerary. It could also indicate the furthest or farthest point (hence, last in a series) and refer to the ultimate point in a journey (the farthest location from the origin). Ultimate can also mean conclusive, in that it references the end of a discussion or study. Similarly, ultimate authority doesn’t identify the most powerful authority but the one with the last word on a topic.

Very should be made to pay its way in sentences. Too often it is used where it adds nothing to sense (“It was a very tragic death”) or is inserted in a futile effort to prop up a weak word that would be better replaced by something with more punch (“The play was very good”).

Via, meaning “by way of,” indicates the direction of a journey and not the means by which the journey is achieved. It is correct to say “We flew from London to Sydney via Singapore,” but not “We traveled to the islands via seaplane.”

Viable does not mean feasible or promising, senses in which it is frequently used. It means capable of independent existence. A fetus is viable if it can live outside the womb.

Whether and If. Many writers seem to assume that “whether” is interchangeable with “if." It isn’t. “Whether” expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives. “If” expresses a condition where there are no alternatives. e.g., I don’t know whether I’ll get drunk tonight. e.g., I can get drunk tonight if I have money for booze.

Which. The belief that which may refer only to the preceding word and not to the whole of a preceding statement is without foundation except where there is a chance of ambiguity. The impossibility of enforcing the rule consistently is illustrated by an anecdote cited by Gowers. A class in Philadelphia had written to a local paper’s resident usage expert, asking him what was wrong with the sentence “He wrecked the car, which was due to his carelessness.” Notice how the authority hoists himself with the last three words of his reply: “The fault lies in using which to refer to the statement ‘He wrecked the car.’ When which follows a noun, it refers to that noun as its antecedent. Therefore in the foregoing sentence it is stated that the car was due to his carelessness, which is nonsense.”

Who, whom. “Who” is a subjective — or nominative — pronoun, along with "he," "she," "it," "we," and "they." It’s used when the pronoun acts as the subject of a clause. “Whom” is an objective pronoun, along with "him," "her," "it", "us," and "them." It’s used when the pronoun acts as the object of a clause. Using “who” or “whom” depends on whether you’re referring to the subject or object of a sentence. When in doubt, substitute “who” with the subjective pronouns “he” or “she,” e.g., Who loves you? cf., He loves me. Similarly, you can also substitute “whom” with the objective pronouns “him” or “her.” e.g., I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York. cf., I consulted him.

Would like. “I would have liked to have seen it” is a common construction and may be excused in conversation, but in writing it should be “I would like to have seen it” or “I would have liked to see it.”

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist