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.
allude, elude: There are two things to note about the usage of allude. First, a person can only allude to something indirectly. To allude is to hint at something rather than make a direct reference. Therefore, it is not correct to use allude as a synonym for refer. Second, don’t confuse allude with elude. To allude is to refer to something indirectly. To elude is to evade detection or capture.
allusion, illusion: Allusion is the noun form of allude (see above.) As such, an allusion is an indirect reference, especially to a literary work, mythological subject or cultural referent. An illusion is something that tricks the mind or senses, a misperception, as in an optical illusion.
a lot: two words. Always. There is no “alot.”
amount, number: To decide which to use, apply the “countability” test. As the sentence is written, is the quantity countable or not? If it is, use number; otherwise, use amount. For example: The zoo has a large number of elephants who consume an enormous amount of food. You can’t count “food” – you could count bananas, or buckets of food, but that’s not the way the sentence reads. You can, on the other hand, count elephants.
and etc.: The abbreviation “etc.” stands for the Latin phrase et cetera, which includes the Latin word for “and” (et). Consequently, you don’t need to write “and” when using this abbreviation.
angry at, angry with: In standard American English usage, use the preposition “with” in this case. You are angry with someone, not at him or her.
anxious, eager: Anxious has a negative connotation – it means worried, unsure, apprehensive. If you are anticipating a positive event, then, don’t use anxious. Instead, use eager. I am eager to hear about the job’s compensation package.
anyone, anybody: Although often mistaken for plural, these pronouns are singular. The following sentence is correct: If anyone wants to ask a question about his or her paper, he or she should stop by my office. It would not be correct to use “they” in the previous example, because “anyone” is singular.
anyone, any one: Anyone is a pronoun (see above.) It means “any person” and is non specific. Any one, in contrast, is specific: it refers to any one of a particular group. Anyone who orders tonight’s dinner special may choose any one side item from the menu.
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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