Writing Power is proud to present the following compendium of tips on proper usage. This is a list of some of the most commonly misused words and phrases in the English language. In order to compile it, I consulted some of my favorite writing handbooks: Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference, John Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
Why would you want to consult lists like these? Because by and large, spell check programs won’t catch these errors. These words are not misspelled; they are misused in context. Want to punch up your writing’s sophistication and accuracy quickly and easily? Pull up this list the next time you’re wondering which word you should use.
a, an: These are both indefinite articles. When do you use each one? The rule is actually pretty straightforward: a goes before a consonant sound, while an goes before a vowel sound. A writer, an essay. Notice that I said consonant or vowel sound, not consonant or vowel letter. For example, even though the word honest begins with the consonant h, the h is silent. Thus, the word begins with a vowel sound: an honest day’s work. Since words in which an initial h is pronounced begin with a consonant sound, they would use a, as in a hopeful look.
accept, except: This is the first of many sound-alike word pairs that can play havoc with a writer’s mind. Accept, which is a verb, means “to get, approve, or receive.” Except means “exclusive of, excluding, or but.” I will accept all forms of payment except personal checks. Caution: in more formal parlance, except can be used as a verb meaning “to exclude.”
adverse, averse: Both are negative, but they are quite different words. Adverse means “unfortunate, unfavorable, unlucky,” while averse means “opposed to, against, loath.” I am averse to sailing in these adverse weather conditions.
advice, advise: What a difference a letter can make: these words are two different parts of speech. Advice is a noun, as in a piece of advice. Advise, however, is a verb, as in please advise me.
affect, effect: One of the biggest usage nightmares in English. Each of these words can be used as a noun or a verb, so instead of two meanings to distinguish between, we have four to wrestle with. Here goes:
affect: as a verb, it is pronounced a-FECT. It means “to have an effect on, to influence.” Another meaning of this verb is “to pretend or feign.” Reilly’s poetry doesn’t affect me emotionally, though I affect academic interest in it.
affect: as a noun is pronounced AFF-ect. It means “emotional response or reaction.” Sociopathic individuals often exhibit reduced affect.
effect: most often used as a noun meaning “an influence, result, or reaction.” One effect of increased energy efficiency is a lower heating bill.
effect: as a verb, it means “to cause, to bring about.” I plan to effect change in my company’s management practices.
aggravate, irritate: Aggravate is not a synonym for annoy, although it is often (mis)used that way. (Example of misuse: Your nagging is starting to aggravate me.) Aggravate means “to make worse, to exacerbate. Your indifference aggravates the problem. Irritate, on the other hand, is a synonym for annoy.
agree to, agree with: The meaning of agree shifts depending on the preposition you use. With to, it means “to approve something, to give consent.” I agree to your terms. When you use with, it means “to share an opinion, to reach an accord.” I agree with your assessment.
all ready, already: All is a usage chameleon. When in doubt, check a reference like this one. All ready means “totally prepared,” while already means “before, previously.” Because of careful planning, I’m all ready for summer already even though it’s only March.
all right, alright: Unlike the examples above and below, there is no proper usage for alright. Strike that quasi-word from your memory banks. Whenever you want to use alright, use the correctly-spelled all right instead.
all together, altogether: Like all ready and already, these have legitimate, though distinct, meanings. All together means “everyone in the same place.” Altogether means “wholly.” We were all together in the kitchen. I was altogether delighted with my test results.
I will add to this usage dictionary a bit at a time, working through the alphabet. In the meantime, if you have any usage questions that you’d like me to research, just leave me a note in the comments.
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