Commonly Misused Words

Ribbon

The items below are errors in English that I see frequently in term papers, projects, etc.  Please read them and make a habit of using the terms correctly.


Choice of Words

Blue Ball    affect vs. effect

Affect is a verb; effect is a noun.  Effect can be used as a verb only when it means to bring about or to cause something to happen.

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
Do interest rates affect stock prices? Do interest rates effect stock prices?
Do interest rates have an effect on stock prices? Do interest rates have an affect on stock prices?
The lawyer effected the sale of the building through her skillful negotiation.  (brought about or caused to happen)  

Blue Ball    that vs. which

The word "that" introduces an essential clause; it never has a comma associated with it.  The word "which" introduces a non-essential clause; it almost always has a comma preceding it (or a dash, or is set off by parentheses).   A good guide to follow is to try using the word "which" (with its comma) in a sentence.  If it doesn't look right, the word "that" is the one that should be used. 

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
Ample is the word that should be used here. Ample is the word which should be used here. (If you put the comma before which, the sentence wouldn't sound right - Ample is the word, which should be used here.)
My car, which I love, is getting old. My car that I love is getting old.

(Note:  the guide above doesn't apply to the terms "for which" and "in which," as in "the job for which I am best suited.")

Blue Ball    its vs. it's

Its is a possessive form, meaning to own or possess.  Some people want to make a possessive form of it by adding an apostrophe-s.  However, it's is not possessive; it's a contraction of "it is" or "it has" (the apostrophe means that letters or characters have been omitted.)

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
Put the letter in its envelope. Put the letter in it's envelope.
It's a shame that Carmen isn't here tonight. Its a shame that Carmen isn't here tonight.
It's been a long time since your last visit. Its been a long time since your last visit.

The same is true of your vs. you're and their vs. they're.

Blue Ball    there vs. their

There refers to a place (indicates where) or can be used as a pronoun that introduces a clause or sentence; their is a plural possessive noun. 

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
Put your wet gloves over there near the fireplace.  (indicates where) Over their is where we went fishing when we were children.
There is no way that I can go to the dentist's office this Friday.  (introduces the sentence) Their is a beautiful quality to her voice when she sings.
Their schedules all have Monday, Wednesday, and Friday classes.  (possessive) There backpacks were drenched by the sudden rainstorm.

Blue Ball    regardless vs. irregardless

Regardless is the correct form of the word.  Irregardless is a crude variation and is unacceptable in most circles.  Avoid the use of irregardless.

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
Regardless of the consequences, we shall proceed. Irregardless of the consequences, we shall proceed.

Blue Ball    comprise vs. compose

The whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole.  

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
The United States comprises fifty states. The United States composes fifty states.
Fifty states compose (or make up) the United States. Fifty states comprise the United States.

Blue Ball    ensure vs. insure (and assure)

The first two terms are similar but there are differences.  Ensure means "to make certain."  Insure means "to guarantee against a monetary loss."

Assure
means to state in a convincing manner.

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
Since I haven't talked with my attorney, I can't ensure that the contract is valid.  I assure you that I will talk with him by tomorrow though. I insure you that the contact is valid.
I can insure the company for $1,000,000 in case of an accident. The dancer's legs are ensured for $10 million.

Blue Ball    data vs. datum

Datum is singular; data is the plural form of datum.  The word data always requires a plural verb.

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
The data are in the computer. The data is in the computer.

Blue Ball    could of vs. could have (contraction:  could've)

There is no such phrase as could of; you should never use it.  (The same is true of should of.)  It's easy to see why people want to use it:  the correct phrase is could have and its contraction is could've.  (Say could've out loud and you'll see how could of came into existence.)

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
Jim could have earned a higher score if he had concentrated more.
     or
Susie could've graduated with honors if she hadn't been so involved in extracurricular events.

We could of been conference champions in football if our star quarterback hadn't broken his arm.

Blue Ball    pair vs. pairs

Pair vs. pairs - this one does get a bit confusing because there are a lot of exceptions to the general rule.

A "pair" means "two", so you would say, "I have a pair of socks." (Pair is singular, meaning one set of two socks.) Since socks are always sold in sets of two, it is just easier to refer to the combination as a pair.

However if you have more than one pair, then you would use the plural form, or pairs. For example, if you have a total of six socks, you would say, "I have three pairs of socks." Since a pair is two, six socks would be three pairs (plural) or three sets of two socks.

So the general rule is:  If you are referring to only one set of two items, use the singular word "pair". If you are referring to more than one set of two items, use the plural word "pairs" (five pairs of socks).

A lot of things in life come in sets of two, so it is easier to use the word "pair":  a pair of dice, a pair of gloves, a pair of crutches, a pair of earrings, etc. Unfortunately, over the years, some single items that have two parts have become known as pairs - hence, the exceptions to the rule. For example, pants have two legs, so today people commonly refer to "a pair of pants." Technically correct English? No. Commonly used English? Yes, so we should conform and use the term also. There are a lot of these exceptions:  a pair of scissors (two blades), a pair of shorts (two legs), a pair of glasses (two lenses), a pair of tweezers (two "arms"), etc. It is best to just memorize some of the more common exceptions, like a pair of pants, and apply the general rule in all other cases.

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
Remind me to buy a pair of shoes when we go shopping on Saturday.

Look, there's a pair of identical twins.  (Twins refer to two people, so this is correct only if you are referring to four people.)

Punctuation

Blue Ball    Commas

How do you know whether to use a comma when using the conjunctions and or but in a sentence?  Here is a good guide:

Correct Usage Incorrect Usage
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates but did not slow the economy's growth.  (Only one subject - no comma) The Federal Reserve raised interest rates, but did not slow the economy's growth.
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates but the Fed did not slow the economy's growth.  (A restatement of the subject - no comma) The Federal Reserve raised interest rates, but the Fed did not slow the economy's growth.
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates, but the action did not slow the economy's growth.  (Two subjects - needs a comma) The Federal Reserve raised interest rates but the action did not slow the economy's growth.

Blue Ball    Bulleted items

Bulleted items should agree in tense and form.  For example,

Everyone's report should:

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