Each issue of "Acu-Write" includes discussion of a confusing word pair, such as those below. The second part of each issue addresses another question of word use, punctuation, capitalization, or sentence structure.
This pair of words has all of the components for confusion: the
words look alike, they sound alike, and they have similar
meanings. In their most common meanings they have to do with
change. "Affect" is usually a verb, meaning "to act on; to
influence or change":
Effect, usually a noun, means "result":
Each of these words has several meanings. The other one that is
likely to cause confusion is "effect" used as a verb meaning "to
Are you wondering where "alot" is? That is one of those spellings you should never use.
Even as two words, "a lot" is considered "informal." To find it
in the dictionary, you might need to look under "lot." "A lot"
means "a great many" or "a great deal":
"Allot" is a verb meaning "to divide, apportion, or parcel out":
"Already" means "previously" or "so soon":
"All ready" means "completely prepared":
"Altogether" is an adverb meaning "wholly, completely, entirely;
with everything included":
"All together" is a phrase meaning "in a group":
There is little similarity of meaning between these nouns.
Employing the "anti-" prefix, which means "against," "antidote"
means "a medicine or other remedy that counteracts a poison,
disease, or something else with ill effects":
An anecdote is a short, often amusing, story about a particular
Sometimes you might see the adjective form, "anecdotal":
Are those of you who have not studied Latin wondering about the
common meaning that shows up in these two words as "dote"? It is
from the Latin "didonai," meaning "to give":
The common error with these words is to substitute "antidote" for "anecdote," probably because it is easier to pronounce and perhaps because it is more familiar.
"Appraise" is a verb meaning "to estimate the value of":
"Apprise" means "to inform or advise":
"Awhile" is an adverb meaning "for a short time":
"A while," on the other hand, is a phrase comprising an article
and a noun. It is usually used after the preposition "for":
The most common error involving these words is to use "for awhile." There are two things wrong with this: First, the preposition "for" has no object (it is followed by an adverb); second, since "for" is included in the meaning of "awhile," you are actually saying "for for a while."
Generally, "between" (from "by twain") is used when two people
or things are involved; "among" is used when more than two are
"Between" should be followed by a plural noun or pronoun, or by
nouns and/or pronouns joined by "and":
Lest this rule be too easy for us to apply, the "grammar gurus"
add a confusing stipulation: When more than two things are
involved but each is individually related to the others,
"between" is preferred to "among":
Correct use of "bring" and "take," like that of "come" and "go," depends upon the direction of the action in relation to the speaker. "Bring" or "come" indicates movement toward the speaker. You would say, "Come here," not "Come there." A parent might say, "Be sure to bring your gym clothes home so we can wash them." A teacher might say, "Be sure to bring your signed permission slip back to school tomorrow." Both the parent and the teacher want things brought toward them.
"Take" and "go," on the other hand, indicate movement away from the speaker. A teacher -- or student -- might say, "Take those smelly gym clothes home and get them washed!" A parent might say, "Remember to take your signed permission slip to school tomorrow." In both cases things are being taken away from the speaker.
"Capital" has many meanings, among them "a city that is the seat of government," and "wealth used to fund a business." The word is used in expressions such as "capital letter," "capital punishment," "capital crime."
"Capitol," on the other hand, has only one principal meaning: "the building where a law-making body meets." It is capitalized when it refers to the Capitol in Washington, DC, where Congress meets. It is sometimes capitalized when it refers to buildings where state legislatures meet as well. The expression "Capitol Hill" also has this spelling since it is named for the hill where the Capitol building sits, not merely for a hill in the capital city.
Notice these correct examples:
Both "compliment" and "complement" can be either nouns or verbs. Each can also attach the "-ary" adjective suffix.
"Compliment," the more common word, has to do with saying
something good about someone:
In addition to "expressing a compliment," "complimentary" can
mean "given free as a courtesy":
"Complement" has to do with adding a part that is needed to make
Another meaning of "complement" is "full quantity needed to make
One way to remember which meaning goes with which spelling is to associate "complement" with its synonym, "complete." Both words have an "e" as the critical sixth letter.
These words seem to be misused in public writing more often than they are used correctly.
"Every day" is two words meaning "each day":
"Everyday" is an adjective meaning "ordinary; not special." It
could describe such things as clothes, dishes, or events:
Since the most common error involves substituting "everyday" for "every day," check your usage by trying "each day" in your sentence. If this substitution works, you need to be sure to use "every day" rather than "everyday."
"Everyone" is an indefinite pronoun meaning "every person":
"Every one" simply means "each one"; the "one" may or may not
refer to a person. If the "one" is a person, using "every one"
places the emphasis on individual members rather than on the
group. Before a prepositional phrase beginning with "of," you
should use "every one," not "everyone":
If you are using the expression "each and every one," be sure to
use "every one" as two words. "Each" needs a word to modify, and
here that word is "one":
It is worth noting that "everyone" is a singular pronoun. At
first this may seem to defy logic since you would use the word
"everyone" to refer to more than one person. Notice the second
word in the compound though: "one" -- clearly singular.
"Everybody," "anyone," "anybody," "someone," "somebody," "no
one," "nobody" -- all are singular. This seldom creates a
problem with subject-verb agreement; few of us would be tempted
to say "Everyone are . . . ." The problem occurs when another
pronoun is used to refer to "everyone":
"Farther" and "further," which can be used as either adverbs or adjectives, are comparative forms of "far" (used to compare two things). The superlative forms (used to compare more than two things) are "farthest" and "furthest."
The distinction that used to be drawn -- and still is among
staunch grammarians -- is that "farther" is used to denote
physical distance and "further" is used more abstractly or
metaphorically. Notice these examples:
The difference between these words is, in fact, disappearing; some dictionaries would show "farther" and "further" to be interchangeable in the preceding sentences.
A couple of substitutions of "farther" for "further" would be
considered nonstandard, however. If the meaning is "in addition"
or "moreover," "further" should be used:
"Further" should also be used if the word is used as an
adjective meaning "additional; more":
"Fewer" and "less" are adjectives (they describe nouns). Like
most other adjectives, they have various forms to indicate
degree. Most adjectives make their comparative and superlative
forms by adding the "-er" and "-est" suffixes or by using the
words "more" and "most":
A few adjectives, however, are compared irregularly (just as some verbs have irregular forms). That's where problems are likely to arise -- and do with this pair of words. "Few" is a regularly compared adjective: few, fewer, fewest. "Less" is the comparative form of "little" (meaning "small amount"): little, less (or lesser), least.
The trick to using these words correctly is to determine whether
the noun being described is singular or plural. Usually we don't
have to consider this when selecting an adjective. In this case,
though, forms of "few" would be used to describe countable
things; forms of "little," to describe amounts of one thing.
Notice these correct examples:
The common error here is to use "less" with a plural noun:
Of course, we know that a flounder is a fish and a founder is a person who establishes an organization or a company. As nouns, these words do not create a problem. As verbs, however, they are often misused. Perhaps the confusion occurs because both foundering and floundering can occur in water -- or because floundering often precedes foundering.
The basic meaning of "founder" is "to sink." A ship can founder; a house on a sinkhole can founder; a project can founder -- if its backers run out of money or ideas. ("Founder" has some other meanings peculiar to veterinary medicine.)
"Flounder" means "to move clumsily; to stumble or thrash about."
A non-swimmer might flounder in the water -- and then founder.
Floundering needn't be a physical struggle; for example, a
person could flounder in any new situation, such as a visit to a
country where he or she does not speak the language. Here is a
Both "imply" and "infer" are verbs that have to do with meaning
that is suggested rather than stated. A speaker or writer might
imply or "hint at" something; a listener or reader would infer
or "draw a conclusion." Notice the following correct uses:
"It's" is a contraction for "it is."
"Its" is a possessive pronoun showing that something belongs
to an object or animal:
Remember: If you're trying to decide whether one of these words should have an apostrophe, try substituting "it is." If they work in your sentence, the contraction is correct. If they don't work, though, you probably need to use the possessive pronoun.
"Lie / lay" is arguably the most confusing of verb pairs -- and with good reason: The past of "lie" is "lay," even though "lay" is a verb in its own right with its own past tense.
Few of us can trust our instinct to use these words correctly; analysis of each situation is required.
The first step is to determine which meaning you need. "Lie" means "to recline or rest." You lie on the sofa; a city lies on the coast; clothes lie on the floor; snow lies on the ground.
"Lay" means "to put or place." It usually takes a direct object.
"Lay" means "to cause to lie." Once you lay something, it lies there. We will see more about how this works after we examine the principal parts of each verb.
After you have determined which meaning your situation requires, the next step in your analysis is to decide which *form* of the word you need for the proper tense. Here are the principal parts from which tenses are built:
(Also note the correct spelling of forms of "lay." "Layed" is never correct.)
The following correct sentences show various forms of both
Sylvia always lays the mail on her desk.
Once he lays his clothes on the floor, they lie there. (present)
Remember: First determine the meaning you want. If you can substitute "put," use a form of "lay." Then determine which form you need for the appropriate tense.
People often use "nauseous" when they mean "nauseated." The substitution is not acceptable in standard English.
"Nauseous" means "causing nausea; sickening; disgusting, loathsome, revolting, abhorrent, despicable, offensive." Think twice before you say, "I'm nauseous." Things that could accurately be described as nauseous include fumes, odors, spoiled food, a repulsive-looking creature, a display of power or wealth, etc.
"Nauseated" means "affected with nausea; sickened; disgusted."
Notice the following correct uses:
To distinguish between these words, look at their roots. After
all, that is where they differ. "Due" is most commonly used as
an adjective meaning "owed; scheduled for payment":
The less common meanings are more likely to create a question
about spelling. Here are some correct uses of "due":
The dictionary fills nearly a column with meanings for "do,"
many of them idioms. "Do" is most commonly used as a verb
meaning "to perform, as an act or duty":
Here are some other correct uses for "do":
Now back to our target words for this week: The "over-" prefix
means "to excess; past the limit." If something is overdue,
then, it is past its scheduled or expected time; it is late:
"Overdo" means "to do to excess; to go beyond proper limits":
Since "overdo" is a verb, it can have various tenses, and its
participle can be used as an adjective:
Although "due" and "do" can function as several parts of speech, "overdue" is always an adjective, and "overdo" is always a verb.
What a difference a single letter can make! These words have no similarity of meaning. Nevertheless, that "r" often shows up in the wrong word.
"Prostrate," not a frequently used word, can be a verb or an
adjective. Most of its meanings relate to "lying face down on
the ground in an attitude of submission or honor":
Other meanings of "prostrate" can be seen as carrying this first
meaning to a figurative level. These meanings have to do with
"overthrowing or reducing to helplessness; reducing to physical,
mental, or emotional weakness or exhaustion":
The familiar term "heat prostration" indicates being overcome by the heat, "knocked flat" in a sense.
"Prostate," on the other hand, is "a muscular, glandular organ that surrounds the base of the urethra of males." The prostate produces some of the seminal fluid. As men age, the prostate can become enlarged, causing difficulty with urination. The prostate is also the most common site of cancer in American men. You are likely, therefore, to hear the terms "enlarged prostate" or "prostate cancer."
How to keep the "r" out of words where it doesn't belong (and prevent the behind-the-hand snickers that are likely when an error is made)? One trick is to associate "prostrate" with other words that include an "r": "prone," a synonym of "prostrate," and "front," also related in meaning. Knowing the origin of "prostate" can also help: It comes from "pro" + "stat," meaning "standing before." "Standing" certainly is not "lying flat." Another word with a related root (though from Latin rather than Greek) is "statue." A statue (without an "r") is often of a man, and a man has a prostate (also without an "r" in the "stat" syllable).
"Who's" is a contraction for "who is."
"Whose" is a possessive pronoun showing that something
belongs to someone, often someone of unknown identity:
Remember: If you're trying to decide whether one of these words should have an apostrophe, try substituting "who is." If they work in your sentence, the contraction is correct. If they don't work, though, you probably need to use the possessive pronoun.
"You're" is a contraction for "you are."
"Your" is a possessive pronoun showing that something belongs
to a person who is addressed:
Remember: If you're trying to decide whether one of these words should have an apostrophe, try substituting "you are." If they work in your sentence, the contraction is correct. If they don't work, though, you probably need to use the possessive pronoun.