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Here you’ll find a few tips to help you avoid looking stupid in front of your friends or your boss. We’ll provide answers to many common points of confusion with the English language.

Some Overarching Usage Rules

Shorter is better. Given two equally accurate choices, opt for the shorter option. That’s why “setup” is preferable to “set-up,” “online” is preferable to “on-line,” “if” is preferable to “in the event that,” and “flammable” is preferable to “inflammable.” Why? Because processing useless information slows down the human brain; and unnecessary letters in a word, or unnecessary words in a sentence, constitute useless information.

Ambiguity is anathema; clarity is king. That’s why “try to” is preferable to “try and,” and “see if you can” is preferable to “see if you can’t.” And the dreaded “and/or.” Don’t get me started.

Be consistent. Whenever I find myself making changes for the sake of consistency, I’m reminded of this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (The quote is from Self Reliance). It’s easy to become engrossed in making sure we’ve handled concepts consistently, and forget that what we’re really about is communicating. It’s often true that the little inconsistencies that bother us as writers aren’t even noticed by the reader.

On the other hand, inconsistency breeds ambiguity. Readers can draw subtle conclusions from the written word, and inconsistencies can interfere with that process, glossing over significant differences, and likewise implying differences where they don’t exist.

It’s up to the writer then to strike a happy compromise between a “foolish consistency” on the one hand, and sheer sloppiness on the other. Consistency is a hallmark of quality. Inconsistency implies shoddiness. It’s better to be consistently wrong on a specific aspect of the language than wrong half the time and right half the time. If you’re consistently wrong, the reader assumes your error is limited in scope; if you’re right half the time and wrong half the time, the reader quickly loses all trust in your words and assumes you’re likely wrong elsewhere.

The operative word in the quote from Emerson obviously is “foolish.” Strive for consistency, but avoid its becoming a “hobgoblin.”

© 2014 Keith W. Sessions. All rights reserved.






















A Lot vs. Alot

This is an easy one. “Alot” is not a word; don’t use it. I see this error a lot.

Affect vs. Effect

Generally speaking, “effect” is a noun and “affect” is a verb. So . . .

Of course, not surprisingly, there’s an exception. You can use “effect” as a verb to mean “bring about” or “make happen,” as in the following example:

On the other hand, “affect” is always used as a verb, never as a noun (except in a very archaic sense that I won’t go into here).

All ready vs. Already

“All ready” means “all prepared” or “completely ready.” That’s it. “Already” is an adverb that refers to a previous time or an earlier time than expected.

RIGHT: “I was there on time, but she’d already left.”

RIGHT: Are you all ready for tomorrow’s track meet?

WRONG: I’ve all ready read that book.”

Altar vs. Alter

You don’t typically see someone misspell “alter” as “altar” but it’s not uncommon to see someone misspell “altar” as “alter,” so we include it here.

ALTAR: A place of worship. A noun.

ALTER. To change. A verb.

Amused vs. Bemused

If you’re amused, you find something funny or humorous. If you’re bemused, you find something confusing.


“And/or” is just confusing—and needlessly so. Use “and” or “or”  but never “and/or.”

I once engaged a nurse in a lengthy debate about why the following sentence was a bad idea to include in a hospital procedure manual:

Now, the question the reader would quite reasonably ask is this: Whom must be notified? The doctor? The nurse? Both? It quickly became clear that the nurse’s intended meaning was that either the doctor or the nurse must be notified.

She still insisted that I use “and/or” because it sounded “more professional.” Of course I didn’t, although I told her I did. When the procedure manual was produced, it said “or.” I just couldn’t bring myself to inject ambiguity into a procedure manual. I doubt the nurse ever noticed.


This is another one of those words so universally misused that it may be time to throw in the towel. The problem is, that’s not my nature.

The respected Wall Street Journal reported something about a “six-month anniversary in Poland.” Impossible. All anniversaries have 12-month increments. The word means, literally, the yearly recurrence of the date of a past event. Its etymology (rooted in Latin) reveals this:

As vs. Because

RIGHT: “I’ll be arriving late because I have to make a couple of stops first.”

WRONG: “I’ll be arriving late as I have to make a couple of stops first.”

“As” typically means “while”:

The long history of this usage of “as” will certainly prompt hard-core grammarians to declare that “as” used in place of “because” is perfectly acceptable. However, an overriding priority with all language is clarity. When clarity is violated, something has to give.

As vs. Like

Like a noun; as a verb.

WRONG: “It felt like I was floating in a sea of rose petals.”

RIGHT: “It felt as though I were floating in a sea of rose petals.”

Assure vs. Ensure vs. Insure

Use “assure” when you want to make someone feel comfortable that something is going to happen.

Use “ensure” when you want to guarantee that something is going to happen.

Use “insure” when you are referring to insurance you buy for a house, car, Marilyn Monroe’s legs, etc.

Averse vs. Adverse

Averse” is an adjective that means to be in opposition to something, as in:

Adverse” is an adjective that means “bad” or “unfavorable,” as in:

Bad vs. Badly

If you smell badly, you may have a cold, a broken nose, or some genetic disorder. In other words, you’re just not very good at smelling. If you smell bad, why not try Irish Spring®?

Just an FYI: “Badly” is an adverb and is used to modify a verb or adjective (as in “badly distressed home”). “Bad” is an adjective and is used to modify a noun (as in “bad dog!”).

Bust vs. Break

It’s not “busted,” it’s “broken.” A “bust”refers to a woman’s breast region, or a statue from the chest up, or a bunch of cops kicking in your door. And if things go badly in Vegas, you’re busted.

RIGHT: “Climb down off of there! We’re going to get busted!”

RIGHT: “I’m flat busted; I don’t even have enough money for one more trip to the buffet at the Golden Nugget.”

WRONG: “I won’t be watching the Super Bowl; my TV’s busted.”

Can vs. May

In general, use “can” if you mean someone or something is able to do something; use “may” to grant permission or to connote possibility.

Canvas vs. Canvass

“Canvas” is a noun; it’s what you use to cover your boat during winter, or to protect the floor when you decide that the chartreuse you used to paint the dining room and once thought was so beautiful finally has to go.

“Canvass” is a verb; it’s what you do when you go door-to-door in an effort to get that kook down the street elected to the school board, or when you’re trying to find out who owns the dog that keeps crapping in your driveway.

Capital vs. Capitol

Here’s an easy way to remember the difference between capital vs. capitol,” based on the sole difference between the spelling of the two: with an ʽa’ or with an ʽo’. Capital typically is an adjective, as in:

Just remember that the one spelled with an 'a’ is typically an adjective, which starts with the letter ʽa’. (See exception below.)

Capitol, spelled with an ʽo’, is a noun and refers to a building or group of buildings where the functions of government are carried out. It’s from the Latin Capitolium, the name of the temple of Jupiter at Rome on the Capitoline hill. Remember it this way: There’s an ʽo’ in noun but not in adjective.

An Exception

Capital” is typically an adjective, but it does have a couple of uses as a noun. It can refer to a stock of accumulated goods, whether those goods be cash, skills, personnel, etc. It can also refer to the top portion of a column that bears the weight of the structure it supports.

Compliment vs. Complement

If you say to someone, “That’s a nice hat,” you’ve complimented them. If you say, “You will complement our staff quite nicely,” you’ve said the staff will be better off with the person as a member.

If you’re saying something nice to someone, use “compliment” with an “i” (remember “nice“ and “i”). If you are saying that one thing completes something else, use “complement” with an “e” (remember “complete“ and ʽe’).

And it’s a “complimentary breakfast” because it’s “compliments of the house.”

Compose vs. Comprise

This one’s a bit tricky to remember, which probably explains why it’s such a common error. You’ll often hear even supposedly highly educated persons confuse the two.

To understand the distinction between “compose” and “comprise,” consider the difference between “the whole” and “the parts.”

ALWAYS WRONG: You’ll often hear someone say “comprised of.” This is always wrong. Something is composed of, never comprised of.

Continual vs. Continuous

“Continuous” means it never stops happening. “Continual” means it happens repeatedly, but not constantly.

The first example above indicates the flow of wealth never stops. In the second example, it’s not suggested that the senator never stops harping about the issue but rather that he harps on it over and over (surely sleeping between harps).

Copyright (©) Symbol

This is an aspect of typography that is consistently misused. The following use is flawed, although it is very common on the Web:

It’s flawed because it’s redundant. It’s a belt-and-suspenders situation; you don’t get more support by using both. Use either the “circle C” (©) or the word “Copyright” but not both.

Could care less

Oh really? How much less could you care? When you hear this phrase, the speaker or writer always means he couldn’t care less.

Different from vs. Different than

Something is different from something else, it’s not more different than something else. “Than” is a subordinating conjunction. It compares two things: “taller than I,” “more expensive than mine,” etc.

WRONG: “Her religion is different than mine.”

RIGHT: “Her religion is different from mine,” or, even better, “her religion differs from mine.”

I will concede that some grammarians have already thrown in the towel on this one because “different than” has become so common; however, as I’ve already revealed, throwing in the towel is not something that comes easily to me.


Ok, I’ll concede this is probably another losing battle; however, guess what? I just can’t bring myself to surrender quite yet.

Virtually everyone in the entire English-speaking community pronounces “dissect” as “dy-sect.” You’ll even hear scientists make this mistake. The problem is that this screws up the entire etymological history of the word. It should be pronounced “dis-sect.” Why? Here’s why:

The prefix “dis” means “apart.” The stem “sect“ means “cut.” Cut apart. Get it?

The prefix “di” means two. So pronouncing the word as “di-sect” does two things:

The word should be pronounced “dis-sect.”

Whew. I definitely feel better after having gotten that out of my system.


To be electrocuted is to die by electric shock. If the shock doesn’t kill you, then you weren’t electrocuted, you were just shocked. (And given that it always comes as a surprise to have electricity pass through your body, “shocked” is a particularly accurate word to describe the experience.)

WRONG: “This isn’t the first time I’ve been electrocuted.”

Strictly speaking, this is true, because if you’re alive to say it, you haven’t even been electrocuted in the first place, not even once. And nobody gets electrocuted more than once. What the person meant was this:

RIGHT: “This isn’t the first time I’ve been shocked with electricity.”

E-mail vs. Email

Either way is correct. The important thing is to be consistent. Don’t use “e-mail” in some places and “email” in others. To do so suggests sloppiness or inattention to detail.

Eminent vs. Imminent

It’s obvious why these two words are often confused: They sound the same. However, they have completely different meanings:

NOTE: “Eminent” has a different meaning when referring to “eminent domain.” In this case, “eminent” means “supreme.” It is derived from the Latin dominium eminens, which literally translates to “supreme lordship,” the idea being that the lord or king had supreme power over everything in his domain or kingdom, even private property.

End result

“End result” is redundant. All results come at the end of something; it’s the nature of the word “result,” which implies resolution. Simply say or write “result” and you’ve knocked out another word (“end”) for the reader or listener to deal with. Besides, it just sounds better:

WRONG: “The end result is that our profits have plummeted this quarter.”

RIGHT: “The result is that our profits have plummeted this quarter.”

Especially vs. Specially

Confusing these two is an extremely, and increasingly popular, error. Consider these two sentences:

In the first sentence, “especially” means “particularly.” It singles out one item among several.

In the second sentence, “specially” means “specifically” or “exclusively” or “only.” It does not single out a single item among several; instead, it describes the uniqueness (or “specialness”) of a single item.


How many times have you heard someone say, “. . . etc., etc.?” Too many. The Latin words et cetera are abbreviated “etc.,” and literally translate “and the rest.” Therefore, saying, “etc., etc.” is equivalent to saying, “and the rest and the rest,” which clearly makes no sense. When using “etc.” in either spoken or written communication, one “etc.” will suffice, and using any more than that is simply wrong.

By the way, if you decide to spell out “etc.,” remember that “et cetera” is two words, not one (i.e., “etcetera” is wrong).

Everyday vs. Every day

When used as a single word, “everyday” is an adjective, modifying what follows, as in this example:

When used as two words, “every” simply modifies “day,” as in this example:

Famous vs. Infamous

Someone or some thing is infamous because of some bad action or trait. Someone is famous for some good action. John F. Kennedy, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr.—all achieved fame, but not infamy.

The same applies to “notoriety.” “Notoriety” means fame, but in a bad way. For example, Adolph Hitler, Mussolini, James Early Ray, Sirhan Sirhan—all achieved a great deal of notoriety in their day.

Farther vs. Further

This is an easy differentiation. “Farther” refers to distance, as in:

“Further” denotes “to a greater degree,” as in:

Fewer vs. Less

“Fewer” is used for countable nouns (cars, people, ideas, etc.). “Less” is used for uncountable nouns (water, sand, air, etc.). That’s a pretty simple distinction, isn’t it?

Now, technically, you could count the grains of sand on a beach, or the number of water molecules in the ocean, given enough time, but that’s not really practical. So, if it can reasonably be counted, use “fewer.” If counting is not practical, use “less.”

Flammable vs. Inflammable

These two words mean precisely the same thing: something is able to burn. Therefore, following the usage rule that given two equally accurate terms, always opt for the shorter, use “flammable,” not “inflammable.”

Forego vs. Forgo

“Forego” means to go before or precede, as in this example:

“Forgo” means to refrain from or give up, as in this example:

Free gift

As opposed to what, a gift you’re charged for? A gift by its very nature is free, so “free gift” is redundant.

Good vs. Well

“Good” is an adjective, and adjectives modify nouns, as in, “Good dog!” (“Good” is describing the noun “dog.”)

“Well” is an adverb, and adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, as in, “He performed well on the exam.” (“Well” is modifying the verb “performed.”)

WRONG: “I don’t feel good.”

RIGHT: “I don’t feel well.” (In other words, you’re probably sick.)

Had vs. Would have

Any time you hear someone start a sentence with “If I would have . . .” a grammar red light should go off in your head, and you should understand they should have said, “If I had . . .” instead.

WRONG: “I wish I would have known.”

RIGHT: “I wish I had known.”

Here are a couple of other (correct) examples that should serve to clear this up:

In technical parlance, “would have” is the conditional perfect form, while “had” is the past perfect form.

Hanged vs. Hung

Both of these are the past tense of “hang.” However, “hanged” is used exclusively to refer to death by hanging at the end of a rope.

RIGHT: “He hung the lamp in the wrong place!”

WRONG: “They hung the guy from the highest tree.”

RIGHT: “He was hanged at dawn.”

He vs. He or She

Let’s face it: “He or she” (or “him or her”) gets tedious after a while if you use it every time you might otherwise use “he.” I’m probably skating on the edge of political correctness here by recommending the use of “he” instead of “he or she,” but that never stopped me before, so here I go.

Historically, “he” has been used generically to refer to Mankind, which, surely nobody would dispute, includes everyone. Yes, it once was a man’s world, and that’s probably why we say “Mankind” instead of “Womankind“ or “Personkind.” Still, that die has been cast, and I don’t see any great problem with sticking with this historical usage of “he” (or “him”) to generically refer to people, not just Man or Woman.

Some writers have taken to using “she” instead of “he”—everywhere. This is simply wrong. “She” specifically refers to females; it has no historical record of use (until now) to refer to both man and woman. Perhaps it’s a female writer’s way of getting even. The problem is, it’s dead wrong. “She” refers to female, period (no pun intended).

Using “she” where “he” would typically be used makes the writer sound angry, with an axe to grind, getting even for all those years of exclusion with the use of “Mankind“ to refer to the human race.

My advice? Get over it. Clarity is king when it comes to writing, and using “she” (or “her”) in this generic sense is wrong because it leads the reader to infer that you specifically mean “female.”

Hers vs. Her’s

Typically when you want to show possession, you add ‘s to the end of a noun, as in “the car’s engine” or “the home’s electrical systems.” However, this does not apply to pronouns.

WRONG: “Her’s is the only dress I think that is truly hand-crafted.”

RIGHT: “Hers is the only dress I think that is truly hand-crafted.”

In technical parlance, “hers” is the third person singular feminine possessive pronoun (I kid you not). “Her’s” isn’t anything because it’s just wrong.

This same reasoning applies to “our’s” and “your’s” and “their’s—all always wrong.


This word (an adverb because it’s used to modify a verb) is so universally misused that it may be time to throw in the towel as far as setting anyone straight on it. But, what the heck, here goes.

“Hopefully” describes how something was done, as in this example:

But that’s not how people use it. They use it (incorrectly) this way:

WRONG: “Hopefully we’ll get there soon.”

What was really meant was this:

RIGHT: “I hope we get there soon.”

I vs. Me vs. Myself

Consider these examples of using the wrong form of a pronoun:

When you’re in doubt as to which form of the pronoun to use, remove the other person from the sentence and you’ll see how silly it sounds to get it wrong:

When the pronoun is the subject, it’s “I,” “he,” “we,” “they.” When the pronoun is the object, it’s “me,” “him,” “us,” “them.”

By the way, “myself” is the reflexive or intensive form (depending on how it’s used) of the pronoun “I” just as “himself” is the reflexive or intensive form of “he,” “yourself” is the reflexive or intensive form of “you,” and “themselves” is the reflexive or intensive form of “they.”

Also see Reflexive vs. Intensive Pronouns.

i.e. vs. e.g. and et al.

The abbreviations “i.e.” and “e.g.” have distinct meanings, but are often incorrectly used interchangeably. Here’s the straight scoop on how to use them correctly. Remember: When using either abbreviation, be sure to follow it with a comma, as we’ve done appropriately in the examples below.

The abbreviation “i.e.” means “that is“ or “in other words.” It abbreviates the Latin phrase id est, which translates, “that is.” Use this abbreviation when you want to restate the subject of the sentence in slightly different terms. Here’s an example of correct usage:

The abbreviation “e.g.” means “for example.” It abbreviates the Latin phrase exempli gratia, which translates, “by way of example.” Here’s an example of correct usage:

NOTE: Always use a comma after “e.g.” or “i.e.” to let the reader know that the preceding period does not indicate the end of the sentence.

The abbreviation “et al.” means “and all others.” It abbreviates the Latin phrase et alia, which translates, “and all others.” The period is needed after the “al” to indicate the abbreviation of the Latin word alia. The term “et al.” is often used when citing multiple authors for a single work. The first one or two (usually primary) contributors are listed, and “et al.” is used to indicate all the rest. It’s also used to represent additional plaintiffs or defendants in a lawsuit. Here are some examples:

NOTE: If you use “et al.,” within the body of a sentence (i.e., not at the end), be sure to follow it with a comma to let the reader know that the preceding period does not indicate the end of the sentence.

Imply vs. Infer

These are little troublemakers. To infer is to deduce; to imply is to insinuate. We draw inferences, we leave implications.


Do not use “including” if you go on to list every element in the series, as in this example of incorrect usage:

WRONG: “The hand has several appendages, including the thumb, forefinger, middle finger, ring finger and little finger.”

Use “including” only if you go on to mention only some of the elements. If you need to list all the elements, find another way, as in this example:

RIGHT: “The hand has five appendages: the thumb, the forefinger . . .”

Ironic vs. Coincidental

Some writers and speakers use “ironic” when they really mean “coincidental.”

RIGHT: “Coincidentally he showed up just before I did.”

RIGHT: “Ironically the doctor found himself waiting with everyone else, trapped by the same rules he helped write.”

WRONG: “Ironically we both shop at the same grocery store.”

RIGHT: “Ironically the doctor found himself waiting with everyone else, trapped by the same rules he had laid down.”

Something is coincidental if its occurrence appears to be linked to something else, but isn’t. In the example above, it may truly be ironic that “we both shop at the same grocery store”; more likely, though, it’s probably just another example of the writer or speaker confusing the two words.

Its vs. It’s

“It’s” is always a contraction for “It is.” If you’re not contracting “It is,” you don’t need “It’s.” The reason we bring this up is because many people are using “It’s” as a possessive, as in “It’s tank is empty,” which is simply wrong. Here are two examples of correct usage:

Generally speaking, adding an apostrophe followed by an ‘s’ to a word forms a possessive (e.g., “the car’s doors”) but this is not the case with “it’s.” Remember: “It’s” always means “It is.”

Jibe vs. Jive vs. Gibe

“Jibe” means to “mesh” or “fit together,” as in, “The facts just don’t jibe.”

“Jive” refers to a type of music or dance, as well as the slang term, “jive talk” used to describe them. Think of the BeeGees song “Jive Talkin” (and I apologize for putting that tune in your head).

“Gibe” refers to a jab, either written or spoken, as in, “ ‘Late again, are we?’, he gibed.”

Lay vs. Lie

“Chickens lay eggs, people lie down.” That’s what my dad told me when I was a kid to help me remember the difference. If you’re doing something to something, use “lay,” as in “lay bricks” or “lay tile” or “lay groundwork” or . . . “lay eggs.”

If you’re not doing something to something, you probably need “lie,” as in “lie down and take a nap,” “lie around and wait,“ or “Rover, lie down!”

To lapse technical for a moment, this is the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. A transitive verb (in this case, “lay”) “transfers“ action to the noun. An intransitive verb (e.g., “lie”) does not.

A tiny wrinkle: Some twisted soul long ago decided that the past tense of “lie“ should be “lay,” just to make sure that nobody ever got unconfused over this issue.

“He lay down for over an hour yesterday. “Most people would say “He laid down . . .” but that would be wrong, because “laid” is the past tense of “lay,” not “lie.” Example: “He laid carpeting for the better part of the day.”

Confused? Then my work here is done!

Least I could do

This must be one of the rudest, most insulting phrases in English, but nobody ever seems to take it that way.

“Thank you for the flowers!”

“Oh, you’re welcome. It was the least I could do, since you so graciously gave me a ride the other day.”

In other words, “I tried to do less (because that’s how much I care), but I couldn’t think of anything less, so I sent you flowers.”

Lend vs. Loan

This may be another one of those losing grammar battles, since “lend” vs. “loan” is so universally misused, but here goes anyway.

WRONG: “Hey, can you loan me a dollar for the candy machine?”

RIGHT: “Hey, can you lend me a dollar for the candy machine?”

Literally vs. Figuratively

“I literally died laughing!” Really? And yet you’re here, standing in front of me. How very odd.

Use “literally” when it actually happened. Use “figuratively” when you’re just trying to emphasize a point, as in:

RIGHT: “His humor brought the house down.” (figuratively speaking)

WRONG: “He made me laugh so hard I literally threw up.” Don’t say this unless you actually disgorged the contents of your stomach.

Login vs. Log in vs. Log-in

“Log in” is a verb, “log-in” is a noun. If you need a verb, use “log in” or “log on”; if you need a noun, use “log-in” or “log-on.” You can also use the nouns “logon” and “login,” but be consistent. Don’t use “log-on” in one place and “logon” in another.

This same logic also applies to “log-out” and “log out,” “sign-out” and “sign out,” and “sign-in” and “sign in.”

Here are some examples of correct usage:

Loose vs. Lose

I almost didn’t put this one in here. I just can’t fathom how someone could confuse these two. If you can read, you can hear the difference; they don’t sound alike.

I just don’t get it.

By the way, if you’re still reading this, “lose” and “loose” are two different words, and, as much as it makes me cringe to explain this:

Momentarily vs. Soon

The other day I was waiting for my flight when the gate agent made this announcement:

My first thought was, how will the passengers have time to get off? More importantly, how will I have time to get on?

“Momentarily” means “briefly.” In other words, the agent announced that the plane was going to touch down on the tarmac and then take off again, without even stopping. What the agent really meant was:

Pink Floyd got it right when they titled their album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason.

Moot vs. Mute

“Mute” generally is a button on a remote or a person who can’t speak. “Moot” is something else altogether.

Consider this sentence: “The point is moot.” That means the point is no longer relevant because conditions have changed. If someone offers you free car-detailing a week after you’ve sold the car, the offer is certainly moot.


“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” If you use “neither” in this context, you must follow it with “nor,” not “or.” The same logic applies to “either/or.”

RIGHT: “Neither he nor I can understand what you’re saying.”

WRONG: “Neither he or I can understand what you’re saying.”

RIGHT: “Either he goes or I do.”

Nobody vs. No one

“Noone” is not a word. Never use it.

Whew. I feel better.

These examples should illustrate the difference between the two:

 Again, “noone” is not a word, so just don’t use it.

Notoriety vs. Fame

“Notoriety” means fame, but in a bad way. For example, Adolph Hitler, Mussolini, James Early Ray, Sirhan Sirhan—all achieved a great deal of notoriety in their day.

Fame is another story. John F. Kennedy, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr.—all achieved fame, but not notoriety. The same distinction exists between “infamous” and “famous.” Someone or some thing is infamous because of some bad action or trait.

Nucular vs. Nuclear

I’ve never seen this word misspelled, but I’ve sure heard it pronounced incorrectly a lot. President Jimmy Carter was proud to declare himself a former “nucular physicist.” You’d think that would be step one in becoming a nuclear physicist: learning to pronounce the word correctly. In fact, would you really want someone working on a nuclear facility if this small point of pronunciation were lost on them?

On line vs. Online vs. On-line

Don’t use “on-line”; the hyphen is not needed. Use “on line” if you don’t need an adjective; use “online” if you do. This same logic applies to “off line” as well.

Here are some examples of correct usage:

“Only” as a Misplaced Modifier

If only English writers and speakers would stop putting “only” in the wrong place.

A modifier, not surprisingly, modifies another word or phrase, and “only” surely is the most common misplaced modifier. When Art Garfunkel sang, “I only have eyes for you,” he was being lyrical but not grammatical. After all, the grammatically correct “I have eyes for only you” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

“Only” needs to be next to the word or phrase it is modifying.

RIGHT: “I have time for only a few quick questions.”

WRONG: “I only have time for a few quick questions.” (I have nothing else—not a car, a home, a job, nothing.)

WRONG: My family only likes meat.” (They have no idea how to prepare it or buy it or store it.)

RIGHT: My family likes only meat.” (They don’t like vegetables, breads, or anything else.)

Premise vs. Premises

This is a relevant topic in any service delivery industry because “customer premises” is a common term. Unfortunately, you’ll often see it as “customer premise,” which is incorrect.

“Premises,” as in customer premises, refers to a tract of land with buildings, or a building or part of a building. In other words, “premises” refers to real estate: Example:

“Premise,” on the other hand, refers to a proposition that supports an argument or inference. Example:

Preventive vs. Preventative

This is the difference between an adjective (a word that describes something) and a noun (a name of a thing).

The word “preventative” is often used incorrectly in place of “preventive.”

Principal vs. Principle

These are two completely different words, but since they sound the same, they are easily confused. Here are the different meanings involved (all correct usage):

Use the “pal” at the end of “principal” to help you remember the difference: “The principal is no pal of mine.”

Prior to vs. Before

“Prior to” is wrong. “Prior“ means “earlier,” and “earlier to” just sounds weird.

WRONG: “Complete all forms prior to your arrival at the gate.”

RIGHT: “Complete all forms before you arrive at the gate.”

RIGHT: “I have a prior engagement.”

Rack vs. Wrack

Historically, “rack” is derived from torture because in the Middle Ages they’d stretch you on a rack if you spoke heresy or otherwise misbehaved in the eyes of the church or king.

“Wrack” is derived from “wreck” and has largely fallen out of use. We include it here because writers often use it when they really should have used “rack.” You don’t “wrack” your brain because that would wreck it. You “rack” your brain because you are (figuratively, presumably) torturing it.

Ravage vs. Ravish

This is one you really don’t want to get wrong because doing so could send entirely the wrong message to your reader. “Ravage” means to destroy or pillage. “Ravish” means to rape or, oddly, to captivate with interest.

Reason why . . .

“Reason why” is wrong because it’s redundant. Consider these examples:

RIGHT: “The reason I did it is not for you to know.”

RIGHT: “Why I did it is not for you to know.”

WRONG: “The reason why I did it is not for you to know.”

“The reason” and “why” both work fine, but don’t use them together. Follow this rule of thumb: Whenever you can pull a word out of a sentence without damaging the meaning of that sentence, do so.

Regardless vs. Irregardless

This is an easy one to remember. “Irregardless” is not a word, so don’t use it. The confusion here probably stems from “respective” and “irrespective,” which have separate and opposite meanings. When people say “irregardless,” what they really mean is “regardless.”

NOTE: You may also want to take a look at flammable vs. inflammable.

Related vs. Relating

Almost always when someone uses “relating” he means “related.” If something is relating to something, it is sharing understanding or information, as in this example:

If something is related to something, some sort of link (relationship) exists between them:

Remains to be seen

Is it not instantly evident that every future event under the stars remains to be seen? The only valid use for this empty cliché is perhaps in a funeral services announcement.

Revert back

“Revert” means to return to an earlier state. “Revert back” is redundant. It says nothing that “revert” does not.

ALWAYS WRONG: “Revert back.”

RIGHT: “The werewolf reverted to its human state at precisely 6:01 a.m.”

Second of all

Uh, yikes. Quit it. “First of all” is used to lend emphasis to the first item mentioned, signifying its elevated importance. But this works only with the first item. “Second of all” defeats the purpose of singling out the first item with “first of all.” This holds for “third of all, “fourth of all” (yes, people actually say that), etc., as well.

Use “First of all” for the first item, “Second” (not “secondly”) for the second item, “Third” (not “thirdly”) for the third item, etc.

By the way, there’s no point in saying, “first of all” if you don’t go on to say “second.” Just delete the phrase “second of all” and you’ll see that your sentence still retains all its intended meaning—and without the added weight of bloated language.

Trust me.

See if you can’t . . .

Unless your goal is to fail, this phrase makes no sense. This is another extremely common error, which has never made any sense. Why would you try to fail?

In Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker says to R2D2, “See if you can’t lock it down!” he’s literally instructing R2D2 to try to fail to lock down the antenna that was just damaged on his Starfighter, which clearly is just the opposite of his real intent.

ALWAYS WRONG: “See if you can’t.” Always use “see if you can,” for the obvious reason that the assumption is that success is the goal, not failure.

Seems like

Wrong, although its usage is so common that it doesn’t sound wrong to most people. It’s wrong because “like” in this sense is unnecessary. To make your writing (and speech) crisp, always eliminate unnecessary words. However, even I will concede that “seems like” sometimes sounds just fine, as in the example below.

WRONG: “It seems like I can’t do anything right.”

RIGHT: “It seems I can’t do anything right.”

WRONG: “It seems to me like you have an ulterior motive for showing up late all the time.”

RIGHT: “It seems to me that you have an ulterior motive for showing up late all the time.”

OK: “It seems like old times.”

Set up vs. Setup vs. Set-up

“Set-up” is always wrong; don’t use it. “Setup” is a noun or adjective. “Set up” is a verb. Don’t confuse the two. Some examples of correct and incorrect usage:

RIGHT: “Run the setup program.” (adjective)

WRONG: “Setup the software.” (noun used when verb was needed)

WRONG: “Set-up the scaffold.” (hyphen used needlessly)

RIGHT: “Set up the hardware in a secure location.” (verb)

WRONG: “Set up instructions are included.” (verb used when adjective was needed)

WRONG: “Set-up time is minimal.” (hyphen used needlessly)

Set vs. Sit

“Set” when used as a verb means “place” or “establish,” as in “Set the plate down,” or “Set a fair price.”

“Sit” means to “be seated” or “be or remain in a particular position or state,” as in, “The bike sits in the garage most of the time.”

You’ll often hear someone use “set” when they really mean “sit,” as in this example:

WRONG: “Set in this chair.”

RIGHT: “Sit in this chair.”

The difference here lies in transitive vs. intransitive verbs. A transitive verb does something to something else, as in “Set the plane down on runway.” It transfers the action to the object being acted upon.

An intransitive verb, such as “sit,” doesn’t transfer action to an object, as in, “Rover, sit!”

AN EXCEPTION: “Sit” can be used intransitively on rare occasions, as in the following example:

Should of vs. Should Have

“Should of” is wrong. “Should have” is right. It’s really that simple.

WRONG: “I should of known better than to buy second-hand rocket engines.”

RIGHT: “I should have known better than to buy second-hand rocket engines.”

Should vs. If

This is kind of a strange one. I’m not sure why people feel inclined to use “should” when they really mean “if,” but it’s becoming increasingly common.

WRONG: “Should you have any questions, please feel free to call my secretary.”

RIGHT: “If you have any questions, please feel free to call my secretary.”

NOTE TO GRAMMARIANS: Yes, I know this use of “should” has been around for centuries. It’s still weird.

Subsequent to

Some writers use this phrase to mean “before.” Others use it to mean “after.” It means “after” so use “after” instead; it’s shorter and eliminates potential confusion.

WRONG: “Have all forms completed subsequent to your arrival at the gate.” (Implies “before”)

RIGHT BUT STILL CONFUSING: “Your forms will be provided subsequent to your arrival at the gate.” (Implies “after”)

Take vs. Bring

To understand this one, you first must know whether you’re coming or going:

If you’re coming somewhere (to a party, meeting, etc.), bring something with you.

If you’re going somewhere, take something with you.


That vs. Which

Use “that” to introduce a specific thing (that car, that person, etc.). In other words, use “that” to introduce phrases that restrict (the meaning of the subject or object. Use “which” to introduce phrases that do not restrict the meaning of the subject or object.

“Which” is used to introduce extra or parenthetical information. By its nature, parenthetical information does not restrict the meaning of the subject or object. In other words, remove the parenthetical statement and the essential meaning of the sentence remains intact.

RIGHT: “The house (which I built) was partially destroyed by fire in ‘96.”

RIGHT: “The house, which I built, was partially destroyed by fire in ‘96.”

In the above examples, the phrase “which I built” is just extra information being conveyed to the reader, like saying “by the way”; it’s a parenthetical statement that does not restrict the meaning of the subject—“the house.”

Parenthetical information should be preceded and followed by parentheses or commas (as in the above examples), depending on the importance of the information.

“That” on the other hand is used to introduce information that is specific; in other words, it does restrict the meaning of the subject or object, as in the example below.

If you remove “that I built” from this sentence, the meaning of the subject—“the house”—is changed because now the reader doesn’t know the writer is referring specifically to the house that the writer built. The subject in this example is not just any house but “The house that I built.”

Their vs. They’re vs. There

I think this issue is one of carelessness more than a true misunderstanding of how these three words are distinct. However, here’s how it breaks down anyway:

“Their” is the possessive form of the pronoun “they,“ just as “his” is the possessive form of “he,” and “my,” is the possessive form of “I”. Use it to show possession, as in, “Their eyes just look strange to me.”

“They’re” is simply a contraction of “they are,” as in, “They’re always staring at me.” Not much room for confusion there.

“There” is a placeholder for the subject of the sentence (as is “it”), as in, “There is one primate that really creeps me out.”

NOTE: It’s generally considered lazy to use “there” or “it” as the subject of the sentence (sometimes called a “fake subject”). Better to write:

Then vs. Than

“Then” expresses a point in time—for example, “then vs. now.” “Than” compares two items. “He is taller than I.” “Your car runs better than mine.” (Also see Different from vs. Different than.)

Try to vs. Try and

This is a very common error, and a very old one; you’ll hear it quite often in old movies, but age hasn’t diminished its popularity. People today will often write or say “try and” when they really mean “try to.”

Consider these sentences:

ALWAYS WRONG: “Try and” is always wrong. Always use “try to.”

Under way vs. Underway

As one word, “underway” is an adjective, as in “underway replenishment of fuel.” As two words, “under” is a preposition, as in this example of correct usage:

Unique vs. Very unique

Something is either unique or it isn’t; it’s a binary state. Therefore, it’s impossible for something to be “very unique.” The term “unique” is an absolute term (like yes and no, on and off, etc.). Qualifying it with “very” is simply wrong (just as it would be to say that a light is “very on”).

When people say or write “very unique,” what they really mean is “very unusual” or “very special.”

Use vs. Usage

These are not synonyms. “Usage” (which is always a noun) refers to common or accepted practice; or to consumption, as in:

“Use” as a noun simply means “the act of using, employing or putting into service, as in:

Of course, “use” can also be used as a verb, as in:

Web site vs. Website

The term “Web” is capitalized when referring to the Worldwide Web. The term “Web site” is always two words, never one. “Website” is wrong, although this likely will change as its usage becomes more common.

Again, the important thing is to be consistent; pick an approach and stick with it.

Where at

“Where at” says nothing that “where” does not. The “at” is superfluous.

A popular marketer of pay-as-you-go cell phones (ok, it’s Boost®) uses this tagline in virtually all its advertising: “Where you at?” I understand they’re attempting to reach a very specific target audience, but it always struck me as a bit racist.

RIGHT: “Where are you?” Doesn’t that sound just right?

WRONG: “Where you at?” Doesn’t that just clunk?

Whether vs. Weather

Yes, I know, weird, but these two do get mixed up, so here you go:

“Whether” is a conjunction used to introduce alternatives:

 “Weather” usually is a noun that refers to what’s happening in the atmosphere:

I say usually because “weather” can also be used as a verb or adjective, as in these examples:

Who vs. That

People are “whos” and things are “thats.” Here are some examples to light the way:

RIGHT: “I’m going to flag down the next car that comes by.”

RIGHT: “I’m going to flag down the next person who comes by.”

WRONG: “I’m going to flag down the next person that comes by.”

NOTE: As politically incorrect as this may seem, animals are considered “thats,” not “whos.”

Who vs. Whom

Here’s a simple test to determine when to use “who” vs. “whom.” Swap out the who/whom with he/him, and you’ll see how the wrong answer sounds absurd. (By the way, “who” corresponds to “he,” and “whom” corresponds to “him”; keep an eye on that ‘m’.)

When the Ghostbusters said, “Who you gonna call?” they were speaking ungrammatically. As ridiculous as it sounds, they should have said, “Whom you gonna call?”

First, restate the question with the who/whom at the end: “You’re gonna call who?” Then swap out the who/whom with he/him.

Applying this test, you certainly wouldn’t say, “You’re gonna call he.” Instead you’d say, “You’re gonna call him.” Therefore, ‘You’re gonna call who?” should be, “You’re gonna call whom?” Put the “whom” back at the beginning and you get, “Whom you gonna call?”

Here’s another example using “Who are you going to vote for?”

Step 1: Restate the question with the “who” at the end—“You are going to vote for who?”

Step 2: Replace the “who“ with “he”—“You are going to vote for he.” Clearly wrong. “You are going to vote for him.” Clearly right.

Therefore, using the “m test,” it should be, “Whom are you going to vote for?”

Whose vs. Who’s

“Who’s” is a contraction for “who is,” as in, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “Whose” is the possessive form of the pronoun “who,” as in, “Whose mess is this?!” That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

Your vs. You’re

Before the Internet came along, nobody would ever have guessed that so many were so confused by something so simple. “You’re” is a contraction for “you are,” pure and simple. If you don’t intend to say “you are,” then don’t use “you’re.”

WRONG: “You’re pants are unzipped.”

RIGHT: “Your pants are unzipped.”

WRONG: “Your welcome.” (Whenever someone writes this to me, I can’t resist the urge to respond, “What about it?” Sometimes I have a grammar mean streak.)

RIGHT: “You’re welcome.”

 “Your” is simply the possessive form of “you,” as in “your car,” “your hair,“ “your career.”

Yours vs. Your’s

“Yours” is the possessive form of the pronoun “you,” as in, “Yours are the first kids I’ve seen all day.” In technical parlance, “yours” is the second person possessive form of the pronoun “you.” (I know, yikes.)

“Your’s” is always wrong. Literally, “your’s,” being a contraction, would have to mean “your is,” which makes no sense.


This word is pronounced “zo-ology,” not “zoo-ology.” You’d need three “o’s” in a row to pronounce the word “zoo-ology,” and you never use three letters in a row in English. What’s disturbing is that you’ll frequently hear scientists, and, yes, sometimes zoologists, mispronounce this word.

By the way, zoology is the study of animals.