Frequently Misused Terms
ability vs. capacity
Ability is the state of being able to do something. Capacity is the potential for accommodating or containing.
About is more imprecise than approximately. Approximately means close to exact.
Accept means to receive willingly. Except means excluding. access vs. excess Access means ability to approach. Excess means surplus.
This word has come into common misuse in business. It’s strictly a legal term, an adjective that means giving cause for legal action or a lawsuit. It should not be used in business writing unless the writing refers to legal matters.
Advice (noun) means opinion about what could or should be done. Advise (verb) means to offer suggestions.
Affect (verb) means to influence or change. Effect means to bring about (verb) or result (noun).
That movie affected me quite a bit.
The effect of that movie was powerful.
Alternate means substitute (adj.) or a substitute (noun). Alternative means offering a choice (adj.) or a situation offering a choice of two or more possibilities (noun).
Between introduces two items; among introduces more than two.
I am deciding between a red couch and a blue couch for the lobby.
I think the tan couch is my favorite among the choices.
Amount refers to the quantity of something that cannot be counted in individual units (sugar, money). Number refers to something that can be counted in individual units (packages of sugar, dollars).
The amount of help we received was unprecedented. The number of people who helped was unprecedented.
Anyone is used as an indefinite reference. Any one is used when singling out a person or thing in a group.
Assure means to guarantee or convince. Ensure mean to make secure or certain. Insure also means to make secure or certain but is used in the sense of securing the value of life or property. Generally, things (lives, homes, autos) are insured; events are ensured; and people are assured.
Awhile is an adverb meaning for a short time. A while is a noun meaning a period of time.
Bad is an adjective. Badly is an adverb. I feel bad is correct if you mean you feel sad, guilty, or in ill health. I feel badly is incorrect unless you mean your sense of touch is impaired.
That little boy is bad.
That little boy behaved badly.
Biannual means twice during the year; semiannual. Biennial means every other year.
Can refers to ability. May refers to possibility or permission.
I can attend the meeting if necessary.
She may attend the meeting as long as she keeps quiet.
Capital means financial assets or the city that is the seat of government. Capitol is the actual building in which a legislature meets.
Censor means to ban something considered objectionable (verb) or the person who does such banning (noun). Censure means to find fault with.
Climactic refers to the point of greatest intensity. Climatic refers to weather conditions.
Complacent means self- satisfied. Complaisant means marked by an inclination to please.
Compose means to make whole by the combination of parts. Comprise means to include.
Connote means to imply or suggest indirectly. Denote means to serve as a mark of.
Council is a governing body. Counsel (noun) is advice or the lawyer or consultant giving it. Counsel (verb) is to give advice.
Defective means faulty. Deficient means lacking or incomplete in some essential way.
Both mean free from ambiguity, but definitive refers to something more authoritative and final.
Deprecate means to play down or make little of. Depreciate means to decline in value.
Desert (noun) is an extremely arid land. Desert (verb) means to leave. Dessert is the final course of a meal.
Use different from unless what follows is a clause.
Her culture is different from ours.
Her culture is different than I expected.
Discreet means tactful or prudent in behavior. Discrete means separate, distinct.
Both mean a thin, flat plate. Use disk when referring to computer-related items; use disc for everything else.
Disinterested means impartial. Uninterested means indifferent, having no interest.
Each, as a singular noun, takes a singular verb. It can also be used as an adjective.
Correct: Each of the products has its serial number. (Each – not products, which is the object of a prepositional phrase – is the subject of the sentence. Each is singular and therefore takes a singular verb.)
Incorrect: Each of the products have their serial number.
Latin abbreviation for for example. Avoid; write out for example instead. (If e.g. is used to introduce an example, however, it should be in italics, followed by a comma.)either/or, neither/nor Either goes with or; neither goes with nor.
Correct: Neither the radio nor the television is working.
Correct: I knew either the radio or the television was working.
Incorrect: Neither the radio or the television is working.
Eligible means qualified to participate or be chosen. Illegible means unreadable.
Eminent means standing out, prominent. Imminent means ready to take place, impending.
The preferred meaning of enormity is great wickedness or outrageous crime. Enormousness means of tremendous size.
Latin abbreviation for et cetera, meaning and so forth or and others. Should not be used with and (redundant) or when a list has already been introduced with for example or such as. Also, use only when it’s clear what the next item will be (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. One, two, three, etc.)
Use etc. to mean and other things. Use et al. (abbreviation for the Latin et alii meaning and others) to mean and other people. Italicize et al.
Exceptionable means objectionable. Exceptional means rare or better than average.
I cannot complete the project with fewer than six team members.
Our car uses less gas than the competing model.
Fiscal means of or relating to financial matters (including taxation and public revenues). Monetary means of or relating specifically to money.
Nouns: Flounder is a kind of fish. Founder is a person who originates something. Verbs: Flounder means to struggle ineffectually. Founder means to fail or collapse.
Gamut means an entire range or series. Gantlet means a literal or figurative flogging. Technically, gauntlet means a glove. It is usually used in the phrase throw down or take up the gauntlet (throw down or take up a challenge).
Garnish means to decorate or adorn. Garnishee means to take by legal authority.
Gibe means to utter taunting words. Jibe is a sailing term that means to shift forcefully from one side to the other. Informally, jibe means to be in agreement or harmony with.
Good is an adjective (good things) or a noun (do good in the community). Well is generally used as an adverb (Things are going well.) or a noun (in the well). Well can also be used to mean in good health (I feel well).
Correct: I feel good.
Correct: I feel well.
Incorrect: He performed good.
Correct: He performed well.
Correct: He gave a good performance.
Historic means having great and lasting importance. Historical means happening in the past.
Latin abbreviation for that is. Avoid; write out that is instead. (If i.e. is used to introduce an explanation, however, it should be in italics, followed by a comma.)
Illegal means prohibited by law. Illicit means prohibited by law or custom. (Illicit behavior is not necessarily illegal.)
Impassable means incapable of being passed or crossed. Impassible means incapable of feeling. Impassive means showing no sign of feeling or emotion.
Imply means to suggest without stating directly. Infer means to assume or conclude.
She implied in her statement that she had won.
He inferred from her statement that she had won.
Use in to indicate location. Use into to indicate movement.
He stayed in the house.
He went into the house.
Indiscreet means lacking in prudence or tact. Indiscrete means unable to be divided into parts.
Ingenious means marked by cleverness and originality. Ingenuous means showing childlike or innocent simplicity and candor.
It’s is a contraction for it is. Its is a pronoun indicating possession (meaning belonging to it), just like his, hers, yours, and ours. Even the best writers inadvertently swap the two, so every time you use it’s or its, double check your meaning.
It’s going to take a long time to photocopy this whole packet.
The copy machine has a mind of its own.
Judicial means of or pertaining to the judicial (legal) branch of government. Judicious means characterized by sound judgment.
Lay means to place something on a surface. It must be followed by an object. Lie means to recline or rest on a surface. It does not take an object.
You can lay your coat on the bed.
You’ll feel better after you lie down for a while.
Led is the past tense of to lead (which means to direct). Lead is the present tense of to lead.
Like means similar to. It is used with a noun or pronoun that is not followed by a verb. As means in the same way or manner. It is used before clauses, which contain verbs.
She looks like her mother.
He did as he said he would.
Like introduces an item that is similar to something else. Such as introduces an item that is an actual example of that thing.
Use I as the subject of a sentence; use me as an object. Do not use myself as a replacement for either me or I. Myself should be used only as a reflexive pronoun – meaning the same person does and receives the action – or as an indication of emphasis.
I injured myself when I fell down the stairs (reflexive).
I myself will deliver the documents (to give emphasis).
Moral means of or relating to the principles of right or wrong. Morale means the mental and emotional condition of an individual or group.
Naval means of or relating to a navy. Navel means bellybutton or a type of seedless orange.
On means supported by or in contact with. It implies a state of rest. Onto, in contrast, means movement to a position on. It implies movement up and on.
The position of only in a sentence frequently determines the meaning of the entire sentence. Notice the change in the meaning of the sentence when only takes various positions, emphasizing different elements of the sentence:
Only she told me that she saw him. (Nobody else told me.)
She only told me that she saw him. (She may not have told the truth.)
She told only me that she saw him. (She told no one but me.)
She told me only that she saw him. (She didn’t tell me anything else.)
She told me that only she saw him. (Nobody else saw him.)
She told me that she only saw him. (She didn’t hear him or talk to him.)
She told me that she saw only him. (She didn’t see anyone else.)
Passed is the past tense of to pass. Past means having occurred in a time before the present.
Peak means the highest point. Peek means to steel a glance at. Pique means to arouse a person’s feelings, usually in anger or resentment.
Percent means per hundred and is usually used in place of the % symbol. Percentage means a more general portion or part of a whole.
Persecute means to harass or hunt down. Prosecute means to bring legal action against.
Perspective means angle of vision or point of view. Prospective means likely to come about.
Personal means individual, private. Personnel means a group of people employed by an organization.
Phenomenon is the singular form of the word meaning either an observable thing or a rare and significant fact or event. Phenomena is the plural form.
Practicable means feasible or possible. Practical refers to something that is both possible and useful.
Premier is an adjective meaning first in rank or quality. Premiere is a noun meaning a first public performance or exhibition.
Prescribe means to dictate or lay down as a guide (used in reference to medical prescriptions or therapy). Proscribe means to prohibit.
Principal means most important (adjective) or person in a leading position of authority (noun). Principle means a basic truth or rule.
Prove, proved, and proving are forms of the verb to prove. Use proven only as adjective.
Raise means to elevate or to pick something up. It must be followed by an object. Rise means to move from a lower to a higher position. It can also mean to increase in amount or value. It does not take an object.
She can raise her head slightly and eat solid food
I am sure she will rise quickly in the company.
The use of the word reason with the word because does not make sense. Reason already implies causation.
Incorrect: The reason she was fired is because she was late all the time.
Correct: The reason she was fired is that she was late all the time.
Correct: She was fired because she was late all the time.
Respective is an adjective that means pertaining to two or more things separately. Respectively is the adverb form of respective. It means separately, in the order designated.
Seasonable means suitable to the season or circumstances. Seasonal means varying in occurrence according to the season.
Set means to put or place somewhere. It is almost always followed by an object. Its past tense is also set. Sit means to be seated or located. It does not take an object. Its past tense is sat.
You can set the papers on the chair for now. Would you like to sit on the sofa or in the chair? She sat on the board for almost 10 years.
Some time means a period of time. Sometime means an unknown or unspecified time. Sometimes means occasionally.
It will be some time before she arrives.
She will arrive sometime tonight.
She sometimes stops by in the evening.
A suit is a set of clothes. A suite is a group of things, such as software, pieces of furniture, musical movements, or rooms.
Than means in comparison to. Then means at that time or soon afterward.
He is a faster typist than I am. Learn to type correctly, and then concentrate on speed.
Which refers to things, and who refers to people. That can refer to people or things, but use that sparingly when referring to people. Use who instead.
In introducing a nonessential clause, which should be used only to begin a description that could be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Yesterday’s board meeting, which started at 3 p.m., ran for two hours.
Which started at 3 p.m. is a phrase that is not essential to the sentence’s main meaning. Yesterday’s board meeting ran for two hours makes sense on its own. Nonessential material is usually set off by commas. Therefore, if you would pause at the beginning and end of a phrase when speaking, you probably have a case for which.
That is used for essential material. Without essential material, the sentence would change its meaning – or make no sense at all.
The company that makes the chips we use filed for bankruptcy.
Take out that makes the chips we use and you’re left with, The company filed for bankruptcy. What company? And why is it relevant? This is a case for that.
Their is the possessive form of they (meaning belonging to them). There means at that place. They’re is a conjunction meaning they are.
I looked over their proposal and was unimpressed.
I put the proposal over there.
They’re presenting the proposal tomorrow.
This refers to something close by or present. That refers to something that has already been pointed out. If two things have already been mentioned, this refers to the one that is closer in time or place.
I like this one better than that one.
He said she was the best employee. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Threw is the past tense of throw. Through means via or across. Thru is not a word.
Use wait on only when referring to hospitality or service (e.g., waiting on tables). Otherwise, use wait for.
Do not hyphenate a modifier that includes the word well when it comes after the word it modifies. Hyphenate when it precedes the word.
Her efforts were well intentioned.
Her well-intentioned efforts were ignored.
used with at or as a substitute for that Where used with at is grammatically incorrect.
Incorrect: Where is the firm’s headquarters located at?
Correct: Where is the firm’s headquarters?
Where as a substitute for that is also incorrect.
Incorrect: I saw on television where they arrested the robber.
Correct: I saw on television that they arrested the robber.
The distinction between who and whom is one of the most confusing in all of grammar. Technically, who is the subjective form of the pronoun, while whom is objective.
When deciding whether to use who or whom, determine where the action is. If who is doing the action, use who. (Ellen, who reports to Joan, came to our meeting.) If the action is being received or if the word is an object of a preposition, use whom. (I don’t know whom I should choose. Joan, to whom Ellen reports, came to our meeting.)
Correct: Ellen is the person to whom I report.
Incorrect: Ellen is the person who I report to.
Some grammarians now accept the use of who whenever it comes at the beginning of a sentence. (Who did you visit? Instead of Whom did you visit?)
Whose means belonging to whom. Who’s is a contraction meaning who is.
Whose desk is that?
Who’s going to sit at that desk?