Usage

Usage refers to using appropriate words at appropriate times. There are several words, or pairs of words, that are frequently used incorrectly. Below is a list of commonly misused words.

Common usage mistakes

Affect vs. effect – Affect is a verb meaning “to influence.” Effect is usually a noun meaning “the result of an action.” Effect can also be used as a verb meaning “to accomplish.”

  • The weather may affect our weekend plans.
  • The effect of studying is higher grades.
  • Our club is working to effect a change in tardiness.

Beside vs. besides – Beside means “by the side of” someone or something and is always a preposition. Besides, as preposition, means “in addition to.” As an adverb, it means, “moreover.”

  • My dog walks beside me all the time.
  • Besides the fires, I’ll have onion rings too.
  • I should be getting along now. Besides, I’ve an appointment at three.

Bring vs. take – Bring means “to carry something.” Take means “to go carrying something.” Bring is associated with coming, whereas take is associated with going.

  • Bring a soda from the fridge, please. (it’s being brought here)
  • I’ll take a cake to the party. (it’s being taken there)

Between vs. among – Between is used when comparing two things at a time. Among is used when comparing a group larger than two.

  • Between you and me, that color of paint is not very pretty.
  • Mike is the tallest among all the students in the class.

Leave vs. let – Leave means “to go away or depart.” Let means “to allow or permit.”

  • I’ll leave you alone to your studying.
  • Let the children out in the backyard to play.

There vs. their vs. they’re – There refers to a place. It’s also often used to start sentences. Their is the third person plural possessive of they. They’re is the contraction of they are.

  • Place the flowers right there.
  • There might be rain today.
  • The team forgot to bring their baseball bats.
  • They’re going to have to borrow bats from the other team.

Its vs. it’s –Its is the third person possessive of it. It’s is the contraction for it is.

  • The dog lost its bone. (Could not be read as, “The dog lost it is bone.”)
  • It’s hot today. (Could be read as, “It is hot today.”)

Hear vs. here – Hear means “to perceive sound via the ear.” Here is a place.

  • I can hear the birds singing.
  • It rained hard here.

Your vs. you’re – Your is the second person possessive. You’re is the contraction of you are.

  • Is that your book? (Could not be read, “You are tall.”)
  • You’re tall. (Could be read, “You are tall.)

Whose vs. who’s – Whose is the possessive of who. Who’s is the contraction of who is or who has.

  • Whose notebook is this? (Could not be read as, “Who is notebook is this?”)
  • Who’s the book’s author? (Could be read as, “Who is the book’s author?”)

Accept vs. except – The verb accept means “to receive.” Except is either a verb or preposition. It means “to leave out or to omit” as a verb. As a preposition except means “excluding.”

  • I happily accept your invitation.
  • Anyone with an “A” average will be excepted from the final exam.
  • All the ingredients are in except for the eggs.

A lot vs. allot – The term a lot means “many or a large quantity” or a "piece of land". The verb allot means “to distribute a share of something.” Notice that alot (with only one l) is not a word. People often misuse alot when they’re trying to write a lot.

Non-standard

  • There sure was alot of snow last night.

Standard

  • There sure was a lot of snow last night.
  • The doughnut shop bought the empty lot beside next door in order to expand.
  • The teacher will allot the cookies evenly to everyone.

Complement vs. compliment – A complement is either a noun or verb and means “something that completes or makes perfect.” A compliment is “a flattering remark.”

  • Our school band has a full complement of support personnel.
  • The dark trim really complemented the classy look of the room.
  • The guest gave the cook strong compliments for the tasty dinner.

Principle vs. principal – A principle is “a rule of conduct or a fundamental fact.” As a noun, a principal is “a person who leads a school.” It can also mean “a sum of money on which interest is drawn.” As an adjective, principal means “main or most important.”

  • It’s important to live by strong principles.
  • Before moving ahead in geometry, you need to know the basic principles.
  • The principal let us out of school early due to snow!
  • We have to pay back $100,000 principal on the house, plus the interest.

Capital vs. capitol – As a noun, capital means either “a government’s main city or money used by businesses.” As an adjective, it means either “punishable by death, of major importance, or excellent.” A capitol is “a government building, usually the main legislative building.”

  • The nation’s capital is Washington D.C.
  • The business wanted to expand, but didn’t have the capital to do it.
  • Murder is a capital offense.
  • The capital error that cost the game came in the bottom of the ninth.
  • This is a capital movie so I’m sure it’ll be a blockbuster.
  • The capitol in Tallahassee is very tall and has an observation floor on top.

Lie vs. lay – The verb lie means “to rest or recline.” The verb lay means “to put or to place” something.

  • I think I’ll go lie down on the couch for a rest.
  • Just lay the groceries on the counter for now.

Sit vs. set – Sit and set are similar to lie and lay. The verb sit means “to rest in an upright position. The verb set means “to put or to place” something.

  • I think I’ll go sit down on the couch for a rest.
  • Just set the groceries on the counter for now.

Rise vs. raise – The verb rise means “to go in an upward direction.” The verb raise means “to move something in a upward direction.”

  • Gas prices are again on the rise.
  • It’s time to raise the flag to full mast.

Advice vs. advise – Advice is a noun which means “guidance or counsel.” Advise is a verb which means “to give advice.”

  • The counselor gave the senior some very sound advice about college.
  • My teacher advised me to take honors next year.

All together vs. altogether – All together means “everyone in the same place.” Altogether means “entirely.”

  • When we were all together, we blew out the candles.
  • I rushed and got the answer quickly, but I was altogether wrong.

Consul vs. council vs. counsel – A consul is “a representative of a foreign country.” A council is “a group or committee called to accomplish a job.” Counsel means “advice” as a noun and “to give advice” as a verb.

  • The president will meet with Mexico’s consul at 3:00 P.M.
  • The church council meets tonight to plan on the new expansion.
  • The therapist gave the couple wise counsel to help their marriage.
  • My grandfather likes to counsel me whenever we go fishing.

Sight vs. site vs. cite – Sight refers to “vision or the ability to see.” A site is “a specific location.” The verb cite means “to quote or reference a source, usually in an essay or scholarly work.”

  • As a person ages, poor sight may cause the need for reading glasses.
  • The mayor had a ribbon cutting ceremony on the site of the statue.
  • When writing a research paper, always cite your sources carefully.

Desert vs. desert vs. dessert – Des’ert, with the accent on the “des”, is “a dry or arid land.” Desert’, with the accent on the “ert”, is a verb meaning “to abandon.” Dessert is “the final course of a meal.”

  • Make sure your gas tank is full before crossing the desert.
  • The bus ran out of gas and the driver wanted to desert the passengers!
  • I think I’ll have the double chocolate ice cream brownie for dessert.

Moral vs. morale – A moral (rhymes with floral) is a lesson or a standard of right and wrong, such as, “The moral of the story is…” Morale (rhymes with a horse corral) refers to the feelings, enthusiasm, or spirit of a person or group.

  • The moral of the tortoise and the hare fable is: slow and steady wins the race.
  • My grandfather’s morals wouldn’t allow him to spend money gambling.
  • After three days in the cold rain, the army’s morale was at an all-time low.

Past vs. passed – Past refers to a time period that has gone by. It can also mean beyond something else. Pass has several definitions. As a verb can mean to qualify, like passing a test or passing judgment, or to move or throw something, like a football. It also means to move in a specific direction beyond another location. In this sense, passed and past often are similar, and therefore cause the most confusion. For example, “The blue racecar passed the red car.” Or, “The blue car has moved past the red one.”

  • Eight-track players were big in the ‘70s, but are now a thing of the past.
  • Did we go past Nashville while I was sleeping?
  • She was elated when she heard she’d passed the test!
  • He dropped the spoon and made a mess when he passed the bowl of gravy.
  • When the left lane cleared, she passed the slow car.

Loose vs. lose – Loose (rhymes with moose or noose) means not tight. Lose (rhymes with snooze) means to not win.

  • The noose was too loose and slipped off the outlaws neck.
  • They’re almost certain to lose with their star quarterback injured.

Lead vs. led vs. lead – Lead, when it rhymes with “seed”, is a verb that means to be a leader to a follower. Led is simply the past tense of lead. Lead, rhymes with “bed”, refers to the heavy metal.

  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
  • General Lee led his men into many battles.
  • The fisherman added lead weights to his hook so it’d sink faster.

Piece vs. peace – Piece means a small portion of something. Peace means a time without war or disruption.

  • Would you like a piece of pie?
  • There’s nothing like a little peace and quiet on a Sunday afternoon.

Plain vs. plane – Plain means simple or not decorated. As a noun it’s a large flat area of land. It can also mean clear. Plane refers to either a flat surface, a tool to smooth surfaces, or an airplane.

  • Amish women choose to wear very plain dresses so as to not show off.
  • The desert plain was flat as a pancake and went on forever!
  • The lawyer spoke clearly and made her point plain to the jury.
  • Geometry is normally viewed on only one plane.
  • The carpenter used a plane to smooth the door jamb.
  • The plane flew a very long bomb mission.

Quite vs. quiet – Quite means to a great extent or completely. Quiet means silent or still.

  • Since I’d studied a great deal, I found the driver’s test to be quite easy.
  • Grandpa loves sitting on the porch in the quiet of the evening.

Stationary vs. stationery – Stationary means without motion. Stationery refers to writing paper, usually with matching envelopes.

  • The gator was perfectly stationary until it lunged at its prey.
  • The invitations were sent on personalized stationery.

Than vs. then – Than is a conjunction and preposition that introduces the second part of a comparison. Then is an adverb that refers to time, usually something occurring afterwards or next.

  • Add more flour than water next time you make pancakes.
  • The cyclist rounded the corner then raced to the finish line.

Shown vs. shone – Shown means revealed. Shone is the past tense of shine.

  • The evidence has shown that the defendant is not guilty.
  • The sun shone brightly all day yesterday and melted the snow.

Threw vs. through – Threw is the past tense of throw. Through means to penetrate from one side to another.

  • The pitcher threw sixty strikes and forty balls today.
  • The hailstone went right through the window.

To vs. two vs. too – To is usually a preposition and can have many meanings or uses. But essentially it connects two parts and points from the first position to the second, as in “point A to point B.” Two is the number. Too means also and to a high degree.

  • We’re going to Chicago this summer.
  • One scoop is great, but two scoops are better!
  • I’ll have a cheeseburger and hot dog too.
  • You say you you’re not hungry, but I know you too well.

Weather vs. whether – Weather refers to the atmospheric condition. Whether is used to express doubt between two conditions.

  • The weather looks as though it’s changing to a rainy pattern.
  • It’s unclear whether the parade is still on or not.

Weak vs. week – Weak is the opposite of strong. A week is seven days.

  • After being down with the flu, I felt rather weak on my feet.
  • Next week is the big festival we’ve been expecting.

Conscience vs. conscious – Conscience is a person’s inner feeling of what’s right and wrong. Conscious means aware of one’s surroundings or awake.

  • My conscience just wouldn’t let me sell that junky car to the elderly lady.
  • The boxer was hit hard, and though still standing, was clearly not conscious.

Could of vs. could have – "Could of" is simply a wrong way to write "could have". It sounds similar, but is incorrect. Do not write could of. Similarly, do not write ought to of, should of, would of, might of, or must of.

  • I could have gone to the fair, but decided on a movie instead.

Fewer vs. less – Fewer is used with plural words, less is used with singular words. Fewer tells “how many,” less tells “how much.”

  • Fewer people arrived than expected so much was left over.
  • Less cleanup was needed afterwards.

Good vs. well – Good is always an adjective, never as an adverb (to modify a verb). Well is used an adverb.

  • You’re looking good today. (good is an adjective that describes you)
  • Eileen really reads well. (well modifies the verb reads)

The Double Negative

The double negative occurs when two negative words are used when only one is sufficient. The double negative was common in bygone days. Triple or even quadruple negatives were used at times. However, even though a double negative may be understood today, it is now considered non-standard.

Non-standard

  • This math problem don’t make no sense. (double negative)

This math problem doesn’t no way make no sense. (triple negative)

Standard

  • This math problem makes no sense. (single negative)

Don’t and doesn’t

"Don’t" and "doesn’t" are contractions for do not and does not, respectively. Don’t or (do not) is plural; doesn’t (or does not) is singular. Use don’t with the subject I and you and with any plural subject. With singular subjects, use the singular doesn’t.

Non-standard

  • I doesn’t like green beans. (This also says: I does not like green beans.)
  • You doesn’t have to go. (This also says: You does not have to go.
  • Vampires doesn’t like garlic. (subject—vampires is plural; doesn’t is singular)

Standard

  • I don’t like green beans. (This also says: I do not like green beans.)
  • You don’t have to go. (This also says: You do not have to go.)
  • Vampires don’t like garlic. (subject—vampires is plural; don’t is plural)

Tricky situations with agreement

Situation #1 – collective nouns

Collective nouns refer to a group of some sort and can be either singular or plural. When the collective noun refers to the whole group, the noun is singular. Even though there may be many parts in that group, there is only one group and therefore it is singular. When collective nouns refer to individuals within that group, they take the plural form. Below are some common collective nouns.

Common collective nouns
group committee club family
flock herd swarm public
jury army audience assembly
class team faculty fleet

Collective noun referring to a group and is singular

  • The buffalo herd runs with pounding hooves.

The subject herd has many individual buffalo, but there is only one herd. Therefore it’s singular and the singular form of the verb (runs, with an s) agrees with the subject (as if it said, “The dog runs.”

Collective noun referring to individuals within a group and is plural

  • The jury were arguing among themselves.

Here, the subject jury is thought of as individuals and therefore is the plural. It takes the plural form of the verb (were).

Situation #2—when the verb comes before the subject

In a sentence that begins with there or here, or in questions, the subject often follows the verb. In that case, the agreement between the subject and verb must be examined carefully.

Standard

  • Here is a vase to use. (subject—vase is singular; verb is is singular)
  • There are two cats outside. (subject—cats is plural; verb are is plural)
  • When are the packages to arrive? (subject—packages is plural; verb—are is plural)

Situation #3—words that state amounts are singular

Words that state amounts, such as ten dollars, may look plural, but they are not. In this case, ten dollars refers to one amount, not ten single dollars.

  • Ten dollars isn’t a lot. (subject and verb are both singular)
  • One-half is not good enough. (subject and verb are both singular)

Situation #4—the title of a work is singular

Sometimes the title of a work is in plural form, such as Great Expectations, however the work itself is singular.

  • Great Expectations is a classic. (subject and verb are both singular)

Situation #5—exceptions

A few nouns take the singular verb even though they’re in the plural form. Examples of these exceptional nouns are: news, diseases such as measles, and words ending in –ics such as mathematics.

  • The news is bad, as usual. (subject—news is plural; verb—is is singular)
  • Economics is my worst subject. (subject—economics is plural; verb is is singular)

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