There are words that are simple–or sometimes obscure–and yet we sometimes have trouble using them properly. When writing, we make mistakes and only find them after proofreading, or not, which leaves us embarrassed. To prevent this from happening in future, I’d like to take a stroll down a wordy lane with you.
A or An?
That one’s easy. At least that’s what you would think. When the first letter of the word following has the sound of a consonant, we should use “a” and when that following word starts with a letter that sounds like a vowel, we use “an.”
Difficulties arise when using abbreviations. Let’s look at “FAQ.” Pronounced as a word, “fak” would become “a FAQ,” because the first letter of FAQ is not only a consonant, but also sounds like one. Spelled out, the first letter transforms from a consonant to a vowel, leaving us with “an eff-a-q.”
The difference a letter makes.
Swap an “s” for a “c” in advice and you get advise. Now, that’s one easily made mistake that changes everything about the word.
Advice is a noun meaning recommendation, while advise (verb) is the giving of a recommendation.
What if you substitute the ‘e’ for an ‘i’ in ‘complement’? That would turn the addition which serves to form a whole into a compliment, i.e. praise (verb or noun when it’s used as an expression of admiration).
To separate or stick together?
Then we have those words people are inclined to glue together, or not when they should.
“All together now,” said the conductor to the choir as one singer was out of tune.
“It wasn’t all together his fault.” But this is a fault, because he was alone, so he couldn’t be “all together.” Here it should read: “It wasn’t entirely his fault,” or rather: “It wasn’t altogether his fault.”
And what to think of “any more” versus “anymore”? Remember not to make any more (additional) mistakes after reading this, because you don’t need to anymore (nowadays).
Oh, those look-a-likes!
What to think of those words that sound the same, but mean completely different things? They are even written almost the same.
Allude, elude and illude, what to use when? If you refer indirectly to something, you allude, but if you avoid being captured, you elude, and when you mislead, you illude.
Not so difficult after all, just a thing to remember.
But what about ‘effect’ and ‘affect,’ which to use when? Put the pair in one sentence and their difference shows immediately. “The effect of her actions affected me.” Or in other words, “Her actions caused an emotional response,” i.e. influenced me.
That just about sums up the big difference between those two small words.
And then there is that elusive trio: lie, lay, and lie. Who doesn’t mistake one for the other at times?
“I will not lie, not down and not to you.” As you can see that one word—lie—has two meanings in this one sentence. They sound the same, are written the same, and only context reveals the meaning of the word. First one, to recline, and the second one, to tell a falsehood. Laying something down changes how the word is written, because a thing is inherently inert and cannot recline on its own volition. It needs to be laid.
“I like to lie about when I lie down for a nap, while I lay a book over my eyes.” All three possibilities of the trio in Present Tense. As you can hear—and see—the two things done by a human are written the same, while the one concerning an object is once again written differently. A good clue to keep in mind: When in doubt, if an object is in play, use lay. But remember that goes for Present Tense.
“I laid a book over my eyes as I lay down for a nap, but I lied about it.” All in Past Tense. As you can see the ‘rule’ given one paragraph up doesn’t work in past tense.
Basically with the verbs lie and lay, you just need to memorise their proper use. Just remember “to lie” is a thing humans do with their body, while “to lay” is something a person does with a thing.
Often, or rather mostly, we rely on the spellchecker to find our typos. What if we scramble our word into another also existing one and the spellchecker doesn’t catch it because it’s switched off, or the word just isn’t in its dictionary? “The tied came rolling in.” All perfectly proper English words, but one is wrong. Not the word itself, just which word is used. It should read: “The tide came rolling in.”
And that’s why I can’t stress it enough: Do not rely on the machine to check for typos, but read and re-read and then proofread and have it proofread, before you send something off into the world and to your readers.
This is certainly not a complete list; there’s much to be mistaken about and you wouldn’t be the first to make such mistakes, or the last. Keep in mind to proofread and don’t wail like a whale when you’ve fallen for the wile of words while you weren’t paying attention.
(Originally published in The Writers Beat Quarterly Issue #36)