Posted by: Jack Henry | October 18, 2018

Editor’s Corner: 20 Common Usage Mistakes

Good morning.

In linguistics, the term usage refers to the way words are used in a particular language. It’s not about grammar so much as it is about how words are used. I recently read an article by Jordan Conrad called 35 Mistakes to Avoid in Your Writing: A Cheat Sheet for Common English Grammar Mistakes. The article included 20 usage mistakes (commonly confused words) that I want to share with you.

I think you’ll notice that we’ve covered some of these before, but some are new, and we can all benefit from an occasional refresher. Here you go!

  1. Affect vs. Effect

Incorrect: The game will effect our standings in the league.

Correct: The game will affect our standings in the league.

Although both words can be used as nouns and verbs, effect is usually used as a noun and affect is usually used as a verb.

  1. Apart vs. A part

Incorrect: Can I be apart of your group?

Correct: Can I be a part of your group?

Apart is an adverb meaning, “separated by some distance.” These two rocks are three feet apart from each other. A part is two separate words, the article “a” and the noun “part.” Apart is usually paired with “from” and a part is usually paired with “of.”

  1. Assure vs. Ensure

Incorrect: You must take the proper precautions to assure your privacy.

Correct: You must take the proper precautions to ensure your privacy.

To ensure something happens is to guarantee it. Assure is to tell someone something positively or confidently to remove any doubt. Greg assured me nothing was wrong. In order to ensure that nothing was wrong, Greg locked the door.

  1. Who vs. Whom

Incorrect: Who did you give that to?

Correct: To whom did you give that?

Who functions as a subject while whom functions as an object. An easy way to re­member the difference is to substitute he/him into your sentences. If he works, it should be who. If him works, it should be whom. Who (he) told me to make dinner. You delivered a pizza to whom (him)?

  1. Attain vs. Obtain

Incorrect: Joe worked very hard and obtained a great level of success.

Correct: Joe worked very hard and attained a great level of success.

Attain and obtain are both verbs. Attain means “to accomplish, reach, or achieve something through effect.” Obtain means “to get, acquire, or to gain possession of something.” Attain implies effort put forth to produce the outcome.

  1. Break vs. Brake

Incorrect: There’s been a brake in the water pipe.

Correct: There’s been a break in the water pipe.

Break can be used as a noun and verb. To break something is to cause it to separate into pieces. A break is the act or action of breaking. We took a break at work. Brake can also be used as a noun and verb. To brake is to stop your car.

  1. Capital vs. Capitol

Incorrect: We took a tour of the capital building today.

Correct: We took a tour of the capitol building today.

Capital refers to a city, specifically a governmental seat. It can also be used in a financial sense to describe money or equipment. Capitol is a building where a legis­lature meets.

  1. Compliment vs. Complement

Incorrect: Today I received a nice complement from a friend.

Correct: Today I received a nice compliment from a friend.

A compliment is a flattering or praising remark. A complement is something that completes or brings something to perfection. Those shoes are the perfect comple­ment for that dress.

  1. Comprise vs. Compose

Incorrect: Fifty states comprise the United States.

Correct: Fifty states compose the United States.

Comprise means “to be made up of.” Compose means “to make up the constituent parts of.” With comprise, the whole is the subject. With compose, the parts are the subject.

  1. Emigrate vs. Immigrate

Incorrect: My grandparents emigrated into the United States.

Correct: My grandparents immigrated into the United States.

To immigrate is to enter a new place. To emigrate is to leave a place. You immigrate into places and emigrate from places.

  1. Everyday vs. Every day

Incorrect: I get coffee before work everyday.

Correct: I get coffee before work every day.

Everyday, when used as a single word, is an adjective meaning commonplace, usual, and suitable for ordinary days. Every day, two words, is an adverbial phrase. Substi­tuting “each day” for “every day” will help you keep them separated.

  1. Explicit vs. Implicit

Incorrect: Please be implicit; what is it that you want?

Correct: Please be explicit; what is it that you want?

To say something explicitly is to spell it out clearly so that it is unambiguous. Some­thing is implicit when it is implied or not said clearly and directly.

  1. Invoke vs. Evoke

Incorrect: This comic strip will invoke laughter.

Correct: This comic strip will evoke laughter.

To invoke is to assert something as authority or appeal to someone for help. Great Britain invoked military aid from the United States. To evoke is to bring someone forth or to recall something to the conscious mind. Invoke is a more direct action than evoke.

  1. Who vs. That

Incorrect: The woman that opened the door for you is my mom.

Correct: The woman who opened the door for you is my mom.

When referring to inanimate objects or animals without a name, use that. When re­ferring to human beings and animals with a name, use who. [dbb – There is some disagreement about this rule. Commonly, experts say to use
who when you’re talking about a person and that when you’re talking about an inanimate object regardless of whether you are using a name. Pets are a gray area, however, and both
who and that are acceptable.]

  1. Onto vs. On to

Incorrect: The cat jumped on to the dresser.

Correct: The cat jumped onto the dresser.

Onto is a preposition that means “on top of, to a position on.” On to, two words, is used when on is part of a verb phrase such as “held on.” She held on to the chains while swinging. A good trick is to mentally say “up” before “on” in a sentence. If it still makes sense, then onto is the correct choice.

  1. Passed vs. Past

Incorrect: The car past me on the left.

Correct: The car passed me on the left.

Passed implied movement of some sort. Past is a period of time before the present. Bill Clinton is a past president.

  1. To vs. Too vs. Two

Incorrect: There are to many people here.

Correct: There are too many people here.

Too means “also, very, or excessive.” Two is the number 2. I need two pizzas. To is just about everything else. Can you drive me to the mall?

  1. There vs. Their vs. They’re

Incorrect: All of there equipment was loaded into the truck.

Correct: All of their equipment was loaded into the truck.

There is a directional word and is usually paired with “is” or “are.” Over there is a crocodile. Their is possessive. Their house is very cute. They’re is a contraction of “they are.” They’re (they are) moving in next door.

  1. Toward vs. Towards

The difference between towards and toward is entirely dialectal. In American Eng­lish, you should use toward. In British English, you should use towards.

  1. Principal vs. Principle

Incorrect: Mr. Babcock is the principle of the high school.

Correct: Mr. Babcock is the principal of the high school.

Principal refers to a person of high authority or prominence. It also has specific meanings in finance and law. How much have you repaid on the principal of your loan? Principle is a natural, moral legal rule or standard. The principle of free speech is essential in any democracy.

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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