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Correct Usage

This chapter deals briefly with a number of language problems that we as editors seem to encounter again and again. Our suggestions are based on one rule: what we write and edit should be clear and concise.

Misused Words and Expressions

Use words carefully and precisely. The following words and expressions are frequently misused.

Affect, effect. In common usage affect is always a verb. It is used as a noun only in fields like psychology and psychotherapy. Affect means to influence (Enrollment affects tuition) or to make a show of or pretend (She affected cheerfulness to hide her concern). Effect is most often used as a noun. It means result (His warning had no effect). As a verb, effect means to bring about or accomplish (We can effect change only through compromise).

A lot, a lot of. These expressions are overused and are too informal in most contexts. Try using often or frequently for a lot and using many, a great deal, or much for a lot of. There is no such word as alot.

Alright. Many critic say it is wrong. Careful writers spell the expression as two words: all right. Although used less frequently than all right, it is found in journalistic and business publications and is common in fictional dialogue.

Although, though. In most uses these words are interchangeable, but it may be best to begin clauses with although, since it is more emphatic, and to use though to connect elements within a clause. (Although intelligent, he could not apply himself. She was born of poor though well-educated parents.)

Among. See Between, among.

An. Use the article a before an initial h pronounced even slightly (a historian, a hypothesis, a horse). Use of an in such cases is considered affected or archaic in this country.

And. And or but may be used as the first word of a sentence. Both are useful as transitional words between related sentences.

And/or. Don’t use this device; it is appropriate only in legal writing. And can sometimes suggest or, and generally or includes and. For the rare sentence that requires such a construction, write instead item 1, item 2, or both (not transcripts and/or entrance scores, but transcripts, entrance scores, or both).

See Like, as and Because, since, as.

Assure, ensure, insure. All three of these verbs mean to make secure or certain. Ensure and insure are interchangeable, except that insure is generally used in the sense of guaranteeing life or property against risk. Assure is the only one of the three that has the sense of setting a person’s mind at rest.

Awhile is an adverb. While is a noun that often appears in the prepositional phrase for a while (three words). (I considered awhile, but I considered the matter for a while.)

Because, since, as. Because is the most specific of the conjunctions used to express reason or cause. It always indicates an unequivocal causal relationship. Since is often a weak form of because. It also contains a notion of duration over time that because does not. Use since when the meaning of what follows it is implied by what precedes it. Using as to mean since or because is always feeble. It makes whatever follows sound trivial. Avoid this misuse. Substitute for, since, or because, except in those rare cases in which you want to tone down the reason assigned.

Between, among.
Between is the only choice when two persons or objects are involved. It is also proper to use between when more than two are involved if you want to express relations taken one pair at a time (Exchanges between the five colleges were not uncommon). Use among when three or more entities are considered collectively and no close relationship is implied (Funds are divided among the eight divisions).

Borrow, lend. Borrow means to obtain or receive something on loan. Lend means to give out or allow the use of something temporarily. You borrow from but lend to. (In formal writing, always use lend rather than loan as a verb.)

Bring, take. In the sense of conveying, use bring to indicate movement toward the speaker. It implies come (here) with. Use take to indicate movement away from the speaker. It implies go (there) with. You take food to a picnic and bring home leftovers.

See And.

Can, may. Use can to indicate ability to do something and may to indicate permission to do it. Don’t use can for may.

Cannot. Use cannot rather than can not.

Compose, comprise.
Comprise expresses the relation of the larger to the smaller, not the other way around (think of comprise as meaning to embrace or take in). The whole comprises the parts; the whole is composed of its parts. The parts compose the whole and are comprised in it. Do not use comprised of; use instead compose, constitute, or make up. (Include is not a synonym for comprise, but comprise has the sense of inclusion.)

Continual, continuous. Although these words have the same primary meaning, their precise meanings are different. Use continual when you mean action that is intermittent or repeated at intervals (the continual reminder of gunfire in the distance). Use continuous when you mean uninterrupted action in time or unbroken extent in space (a continuous stream of marchers).

Convince, persuade.
Use convince with that or of; use persuade with to. (You may be convinced that or of something; you must be persuaded to do something.)

Different from, different than.
One thing differs from another. Different than is incorrect.

Dilemma. A dilemma is a situation that requires one to choose between two equally balanced alternatives. If no suggestion of alternatives is involved, use predicament or problem,

Discover. Do not use discover when you mean develop or invent. Something that was discovered already existed but was unknown.

Effect. See Affect, effect.

E.g., i.e. The abbreviation e.g. means for example (exempli gratia) and introduces an illustrative instance or a short list of names or other items. The abbreviation i.e. means that is (id est) and introduces a repetition in different words of the ideas just discussed, or an amplification that would be appropriate after an ordinary that is. The two expressions are always set off by commas.

Ensure. See Assure, ensure, insure.

Enthused, enthusiastic. Enthuse, a back-formation from enthusiasm, is not considered acceptable in formal writing. Use enthusiastic instead. (A back-formation is a word invented in the erroneous belief that an existing word is derived from it.)

Etc., et al. In strict usage, et cetera (and the rest) is neuter and so can refer only to things, and et alia (and others) can refer only to persons. Do not end a list of persons with etc.; instead, use and others. Using etc. at the end of a list introduced by for example, such as, or a similar expression is also incorrect. (Note: A comma is required after etc. unless it ends the sentence. Also note that et does not require a period but al. does; et is a word, al. is an abbreviation.)

Fact. Use this word only for matter that can be directly verified, not for matters of judgment.

Farther, further.
Farther is best used to indicate distance, further to indicate degree. (He ran farther than she did. We discussed the issue further.)

Fewer. See Less, fewer.

Flammable, inflammable. Both words mean easily ignitable and are interchangeable in their literal sense. Use nonflammable or noncombustible to describe something that does not burn.

Historic, historical. Use historic to describe what is important in or contributes to history (historic walk on the moon; historic meeting of the Allied powers). Use historical to refer more broadly to what is concerned with history (historical play; historical artifacts). Use a, not an, with these words.

Hopefully. It is best used to mean in a hopeful way not it is to be hoped or let us hope. Even though it is common in popular usage and conversation, it is unacceptable to many critics and can be ambiguous. Careful writers avoid this usage.

However. When however means nevertheless, avoid using it as the first word of a sentence. For this sense, the word serves better within the sentence. (His condition continued to weaken. At last, however, we saw some improvement.)

I.e. See E.g., i.e.

Imply, infer. The distinction is as clear as that between give and take. Imply is a word for the transmitting end and infer a word for the receiving end. When you imply, you deliver; when you infer, you draw from. (He implied that he didn’t want to go. From her manner, we inferred that she didn’t want to go.)

Inflammable. See Flammable, inflammable.

Innovation. The root of the word innovate is the Latin novus, meaning new. Saying new innovation is like saying new new introduction.

Insure. See Assure, ensure, insure.

Should be regardless. The negative is expressed by -less; adding the prefix ir- makes a double negative.

Its, it’s. Its is a possessive pronoun parallel to his, hers, yours, theirs. It’s is a contraction of it is or it has, not a possessive.

Latter. Latter refers to the second of two things, not to the last of a series of things. Repeat the necessary information or rewrite the sentence to avoid using this expression; don’t expect your reader to look back to a previous passage.

Lay. See Lie, lay.

. See Borrow, lend.

Less, fewer. Less refers to quantity (less course work); fewer refers to number (fewer courses).

Lie, lay. Lay means to put, place, or prepare. Lie means to recline or be situated. In senses involving what people do with their bodies, use the forms lie (present), lay (past), lain (past participle), lying (present participle). For what people do with objects, use lay (present), laid (past), laid (past participle), laying (present participle).

Like, as. Use as to express in what capacity or role a deed is done; use like to introduce a comparison. (She acts as a supervisor implies that she is a supervisor; she acts like a supervisor compares her to one.) Another clue: like governs nouns and pronouns; as introduces phrases and clauses. Comparisons involving a verb should be introduced with as or as if (I don’t sing as I once did, not I don’t sing like I once did. He carried on as if he were crazy, not He carried on like he was crazy.) See also Such as.

May. See Can, may.

Orient, orientate. Orientate has crept into the language, probably as a back-formation from orientation, but it is a superfluous word. Save a syllable and use orient.

Persons, people.
Use persons when you mean individuals with identities; use people when you mean a large and anonymous mass. (People can be pushed only so far. She was one of those persons who can cope with pressure.)

Persuade. See Convince, persuade.

In modern usage, presently is best used to mean in a short time. Use at present, now, or currently to mean at this time.

Relatively. Use relatively only when there is a clearly implied or expressed comparison.

Respective, respectively. These words are meaningless unless they clarify a direct correspondence between one series and another. Use them only when necessary. (The departments are listed under their colleges, not The departments are listed under their respective colleges.)

Since. See Because, since, as.

Such as. Such as and like are close in meaning, but there is a distinction worth noting. Such as suggests an indefinite group of objects; like suggests a closer resemblance among the things compared (significant events in history, such as the fall of the Roman Empire, the Norman Conquest, . . . , but tangible benefits like good pay and sick leave).

Take. See Bring, take.

That, which. That is a restrictive, or defining, pronoun; it introduces a phrase or clause that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Which is a nonrestrictive, or descriptive, pronoun; the phrase or clause it introduces, which is usually set off by commas, could be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Though. See Although, though.

Till. Not an abbreviation of until, so never write ’til. Till is a word in its own right.

Toward, towards.
Toward is preferred.

Avoid combining type with a noun to create a compound adjective (hippie-type students). Use such a compound only when the reference is technical or at least highly specific. (Note: In nontechnical writing, use type to refer to specific categories and kind or sort to refer to more general groupings: that type of therapy; that kind of problem.)

Underway, under way. Always two words as an adverb (meaning in motion or operation; started). Spelled as one word as an adjective, but its use as an adjective (underway refueling) is extremely limited.

Unique. Don’t use qualifiers (more, most, less) with unique. It means without equal or the only one of its kind.

In most cases, use is preferable to utilize, Utilize suggests putting an object or material to a new or expanded use.

Very. Use this word sparingly. Instead, use words that are strong in themselves.

Whether or not. Usually you can omit the or not to advantage (or substitute if for the whole phrase). If, however, your intention is to give equal stress to the alternative, the or not is necessary. (I will finish the project whether he gives his approval or not.)

Which. See That, which.

While. Don’t use this word to mean although, whereas, and, or but, and don’t use it where only a semicolon is necessary. While means during the time that and should be used to link simultaneous occurrences in instances in which simultaneity is part of the point. Be especially careful not to use while when times mentioned in the sentence are expressly stated to be different. (Although [not while] days were warm, evenings were often chilly. Several of the female graduate students were from other countries, whereas [not while] all the males were Americans.)

Who, whom.
Use who when it functions as the subject or as a predicate after some form of the verb to be. Use whom as an object of a verb or preposition or as the subject of a complementary infinitive (the woman whom I took to be your sister). When you are unsure about which to use, try substituting a personal pronoun (he/she or her/him) in the sentence. If he or she is correct, use who; if him or her is correct, use whom. Use who and whom when referring to persons. Use that and which when referring to animals and inanimate objects.

Adding the suffix -wise to a word is almost never appropriate (Contentwise the class was interesting). Avoid it.

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Words Pronounced or Spelled Similarly but Different in Meaning

Watch out for words that are the same or similar in pronunciation or
spelling but different in meaning.

accept (receive)

except (exclude)
all ready (prepared)

already (previous)
allude (refer to indirectly) elude (avoid)

allusion (indirect mention)

illusion (erroneous perception)
beside (next to or close to)

besides (in addition to or except)
capital (official seat of government; wealth)

capitol (building)
casual (not planned; informal)

causal (cause)
complement (to complete)

compliment (to praise)
council (assembly of persons) counsel (advice; lawyer) consul (foreign service officer)

eminent (prominent, conspicuous)

imminent (ready to take place)
flounder (to move clumsily)

founder (to fail utterly; to collapse)
flout (to show contempt for)

flaunt (to show off)
foreword (preface, introductory note)

forward (all other meanings)
loath (unwilling, reluctant)
loathe (to hate)

mitigate (to moderate or soften)
militate (to have effect, for or against)

perpetrate (to be guilty of; to carry out)

perpetuate (to prolong the existence of)
perquisite (benefit expected as one’s due)

prerequisite (required as a prior condition)
personal (one’s own)

personnel (employees)
practical (useful, not theoretical)

practicable (feasible)
precede (to come before)

proceed (to go forward)
principle (basic truth)
principal (foremost in importance; chief or head)

prophecy (prediction)

prophesy (to predict)

pour (to make flow)

pore (to study carefully)

stationary (fixed)

stationery (paper)
tortuous (winding; twisting)
torturous (related to pain or torture)

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Words with Irregular Plurals

Watch your use and spelling of words with irregular plurals.


agendum (a single thing to be done; an individual agenda item)

agenda (list of things to be done)


appendix appendixes (appendices in scientific writing)


bienniums (also biennia)


curricula (also curriculums)
datum data (be sure to use plural modifiers: many, these)

erratum (one error)

errata (more than one error)

formulas (also formulae)

indexes (also indices)

media (also mediums)


professor emeritus

professors emeriti




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Singular Verbs and Pronouns with Collective Nouns

Use singular verbs and pronouns with collective nouns (class, committee, crowd, faculty, family, group, jury, staff, team, etc.). (The class of ’38 is holding its reunion in the Campus Club. The team of 12 regulars was honored Saturday.)

Plurals regarded as a unit become collectives and take singular verbs.

A thousand gallons were produced. (individual gallons)
A thousand gallons is a good supply. (a unit)
Cheese and crackers are popular snack foods. (individual items)
Cheese and crackers makes a nutritious snack. (a unit)

Made-up Words and Words in Vogue
Do not create your own words, and try to avoid using words that are currently in vogue. The following are considered inappropriate in formal writing; their use invites criticism.

Unacceptable Unacceptable as verbs
learnings office
understandings impact

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Expressing Coordinate Ideas in Parallel Form
Express coordinate ideas in parallel form. The principle of parallel construction requires that expressions that are similar in content and function be expressed similarly. In a series, then, follow the pattern 1, 2, and 3, not 1, 2, and A.

Incorrect Correct
She enjoys golf, tennis, and finding the time to play volleyball. She enjoys golf, tennis, and volleyball.

She enjoys having the time to play golf, tennis, and volleyball.

The same principle applies to phrases or sentences in a series.

Incorrect Correct
Students who apply should: Applicants should:
take the entrance exam-
ination before August 15
take the entrance exam-
ination before August 15
complete an application form
complete an application form
three letters of recommendation are required submit three letters of recommendation

Express similar ideas within a sentence in the same form.

Eric was thinking about the date of his orals and that he must work harder on his dissertation.
Eric was thinking about the date of his orals and the need to work harder on his dissertation.

Correlative expressions should be followed by parallel phrases or clauses. Rearrange the sentence if necessary.

either... or both . . . and
neither... nor not . . . but
not only . . . but also first, second, third

Incorrect Correct
Either you must reapply
immediately or wait another year.
You must either reapply immediately or wait another year.

She objected not only to the screening procedures but also because no interviews were given.
She objected not only to the screening procedures but also to the lack of interviews.

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