Home Guide English Vocabulary How to Use Commonly Misused Words

How to Use Commonly Misused Words

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"Like," "As," "Such as," and "As though"
"Prone" and "Supine"
"Raise" and "Rise"
"Real" and "Really"
"Set" and "Sit"
"Shall, "Will," "Should," "Would"
"To," "Too," and "Two"
"Which" and "That"
"Who's" and "Whose"
"Hilarious" and "Hysterical"

"Affect" and "Effect"

Effect

  • "Effect" is a noun referring to something that happens as a result of something else, e.g., "The antibiotic had little effect on the illness."
  • "Effect" is also a verb meaning to bring something about, e.g., "I have decided to effect a change in the scope of this article."

Affect

  • The verb "affect" means to change something in some way, e.g., "His steady gaze affected my ability to breathe."
  • The noun "affect" is used fairly rarely. It refers to a display of an inner state of mind, e.g., "Her affect is subdued this evening."

 

"Anxious" and "Eager"

"Anxious" should refer to anxiety and not pleasant feelings such as enthusiasm or excitement. It should be followed by a gerund (the "–ing" verb form), not an infinitive ("to" and the verb). Use "eager" with the infinitive.

  • "He was anxious about becoming the President." (He had an uncomfortable feeling about it.)
  • "He was anxious to become the President."
  • "He was eager/ready to become the President." (He was happy about it.)
  • "He was waiting to become the President."

 

" Convince" and "Persuade"

You convince a person of the truth or validity of an idea; you persuade a person to take action. "Convince" is usually followed by "that" or "of" whereas "persuade" is followed by an infinitive.

  • "The teacher convinced her students that good grammar could aid in communication."
  • "The teacher persuaded her students to use good grammar."

"Could of" and "Could have"

Modals ("could," "would," "should," "may," "might," "must") use the auxiliary verb "have," not the preposition "of." The auxiliary can be contracted as "'ve" (as in "could've" and "couldn't've").

  • Incorrect: "She must of done it."
  • Correct: "She must have (or "must've") done it."

"Decimate" and "Devastate"

"Decimate", a great word from ancient Rome, means "kill one of every ten soldiers." Using creative license, you would be correct in saying that the flu decimated Larry's sixth grade class, if ten percent of the class were home sick. Remember that "decimate" is similar to "decimal," which refers to counting by tens.

Oftentimes, "decimate" is misused to mean "devastate," which means "overwhelm or lay waste to." Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, but did not decimate its population.

"Each other" and "One another"

"Each other" is used for two; "one another" is used for more than two.

  • "The two brothers helped each other study."
  • "These five businesses compete with one another."

"E.g." and "I.e."

These Latin abbreviations can add formality to your writing. Use "e.g." (exemplī grātiā) to mean "for example" or "such as" and "i.e." (id est) to mean "that is" or "in other words." Remember the "i" in "in other words" and the "e" in "for example." The comma after "e.g." or "i.e." is optional.

"Good" and "Well"

"Good" is an adjective or noun; "well" is usually an adverb. Say "I am doing good" only if "good" is a noun. For instance, charities can do good. Otherwise, use "well" with all verbs other than linking and be verbs. "I am doing good today" is incorrect (unless you are doing good things, like Superman) but you can say "I am good today."

  • Incorrect: "She cannot see good." (Use "well.")
  • Incorrect: "This car runs good." (Use "well.")
  • Incorrect: "This plan works real good." (Use "very well.")
  • Correct: "This plan sounds good." ("Good" follows the linking verb "sounds.")
  • Correct: "I am well today." ("Well" is an adjective showing my well-being and health.)

"Historic" and "Historical"

To help avoid confusion, use "historical" for things that happened in history or pertain to history; reserve "historic" for things that were important in history. "A historical character" is a character from history; "a historic character" is an important character from history. Note that "a" is usually the proper article for both "historic" and "historical." "An historic" and "an historical" are proper if you use the alternative pronunciation with a silent "h."

"If" and "Whether"

Use "whether" with verbs such as "know," "ask," or "learn" that refer to verifying something. Whether must be followed by "or." (e.g. She is going for a run whether or not in rains). If you are not sure which to use, try rewriting the sentence with the if-clause at the beginning. If the sentence does not make sense or it is not possible to move the if-clause, choose "whether."

  • "He did not know if they would arrive early."
  • "If they would arrive early, he did not know."
  • "He did not know whether or not they would arrive early."
    Occasionally, either "if" or "whether" is correct. In the sentences below, either "if" or "whether" can be used to show that he will inform us about their arrival.
  • "He will tell us if they arrive on Monday."
  • "He will tell us whether or not they arrive on Monday." (He will inform us regardless of whether they arrive or not.)
  • "If they arrive on Monday, he will tell us." (He will contact us only if they arrive on Monday.)

"Lay" and "Lie"

Use "lay" if you mean "put" or "place." Use "lie" if you mean "rest." "Lie" is intransitive and is thus used with prepositions such as "on" or adverbs such as "here." "Lay" is transitive and takes an object. The past tense forms are confusing. "Lay" is, in fact, the past tense of "lie," so you would say, "I lay in bed yesterday." Use "lain" with "to have": "I have lain in bed for two hours." If you mean "tell a lie," use "lied" in the past tense and with "to have." The "–ing" form for "lie" in either sense is "lying." For "lay," use "laid" in the past tense and with "to have."

"Like," "As," "Such as," and "As though"

In the written language, avoid using "like" for "as" or "such as." “Like” in these senses is nonstandard and can also be ambiguous. For example, the phrase “nineteenth century writers like Dickens” should refer to writers who a) produced works in the nineteenth century and b) are being compared with Dickens. If the writer is just talking about nineteenth century writers in general and is giving Dickens as an example, it is proper to write “nineteenth century writers such as Dickens.” Use “such as” if you can write “nineteenth century writers (e.g. Dickens).” “Like” for “as if” or "as though" is informal.

  • It’s like he never existed.
  • It is as though he never existed.

 

"Prone" and "Supine"

"Prone" means lying on your stomach (face down). "Supine" means lying on your back (face up).

 

"Raise" and "Rise"

"Raise" is the transitive verb; "rise" is the intransitive verb. Use "rise" to refer to getting up (including getting out of bed) or going up (e.g., a building rising). To say that something increases, you can use either "rise" or "be raised." It is not possible to use "rise" with an object. Note that "raise" is regular in all of its conjugations. For "rise," use "rose" in the past tense ("The prices rose") and "risen" with "to have" ("The prices have risen").

  • "Taxes rose."
  • "Taxes were raised." (This sentence uses "raise" in the passive voice.)
  • "The politician rose taxes." ("Rose" cannot take the object "taxes.")

 

"Real" and "Really"

Do not misuse "real" for "really." Remember that "real" is an adjective, and "really" is an adverb.

 

"Set" and "Sit"

"Sit" is almost always intransitive. Use "sit" if you can write "be seated." "Sit" is transitive in "He sat me down," which means "He made me sit down." "Set" can be transitive or intransitive. For example, "The sun sets" uses "set" intransitively. The sentence "I set the book on the table" uses "set" transitively. Because of the similar sounds of "sit" and "set," it is a common mistake to use "sit" in this sentence. You might just say, "I put the book on the table." "Set" is used in the past tense and with the verb "to have": "I set the book on the table yesterday" and "I have set the book on the table for you." For the verb "sit," use "sat" for the past tense and the verb "to have."

 

"Shall, "Will," "Should," "Would"

You usually use "shall" in the first person and "will" in the second and third person. It is proper to use "will" in the first person when you want to really emphasize a statement; this is known as the emphatic future. For instance, you would say, "I shall go to the grocery and buy some milk," but "I will retaliate!" The same is true for "should" and "would." If you are not sure whether to use "shall" or "will," just use a contraction. You can even form negative contractions such as "I'll not do it" and "I'd not do that if I were you." You could also use "I am going to" and "we are going to" in place of "I shall" and "we shall."

 

"To," "Too," and "Two"

Use "to" as a preposition. "To" is always correct if you are talking about direction and is also used with verbs such as "talk" and "listen." "To" is used to form the infinitive (e.g., "It is my goal to write one page today"). "Too" is always an adverb; "too" is correct if you can substitute "also." "Two" is always a number. You should almost always write out the word "two" rather than using the Arabic number. By the way, you should write "two-percent milk" (with the hyphen).

 

"Which" and "That"

Some writers mistakenly believe that “which” is inherently more formal, but “which” is grammatically incorrect where “that” is required. To decide whether to use “which” or “that,” try removing the relative clause from the sentence. If it still makes sense, use “which.” If it does not make sense or its meaning has changed, use “that.” “That” is necessary for clauses that identify which one. In general, use “that” unless you have used a comma. Also try deleting the relative pronoun. Only the pronoun “that” can be deleted in sentences. If you have used “which” and you can delete it, replace it with “that.”

  • "The book which I found in the library is an excellent reference."
  • "The book I found in the library is an excellent reference." (The pronoun can be omitted.)
  • "The book that I found in the library is an excellent reference." (Include the pronoun “that” in formal writing.)
    The pronoun “which” would be proper in this paragraph: "I finished reading The Elements of Style. The book, which I found in the library yesterday, is an excellent reference." Notice that it has been established that the book in question is The Element of Style. In the sentence “The book that I found in the library is an excellent reference,” the that-clause is used to identify which book.

 

"Who's" and "Whose"

"Who's" is the contracted form of "who is" and is suitable for use only where the uncontracted form would also be suitable.

  • Correct: "Who's coming to dinner?"
  • Incorrect: "People who's families are bilingual are at an advantage."

"Whose" is a possessive pronoun. It must be used to modify another noun: "Whose shoes are these?" "Anyone whose parents are here should thank them." In fairly informal speech, "whose" may occasionally appear alone as a question, but another noun that it modifies is always suggested. "We must take someone's boat. Whose [boat]?"

"Hilarious" and "Hysterical"

Hilarious means arousing great merriment; extremely funny.Hysterical means; of, pertaining to, or characterized by hysteria, uncontrollably emotional, irrational from fear, emotion, or an emotional shock.

Strictly speaking these two words have very different meanings despite the fact that many people use them interchangeably. While common usage may be changing if you wish to use the words perfectly then you must keep the distinction in mind. In other words "hysterical" should not be used as a synonym for "hilarious".

  • She's my favorite comedian, I think she's hilarious. correct
  • She's my favorite comedian, I think she's hysterical. incorrect