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Death to Common Grammatical Errors - 10 Commonly Confused Words!

Updated on October 21, 2014
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Grammatical errors are unwanted, unneeded, and unnecessarily lower the professionalism of whatever piece of work it is you've been commissioned to submit. From simple grammatical errors like the misplacement of quotation marks and apostrophes, to the more difficult handling of complicated sentence structures and similar words, it's important to dive as deeply into the dark depths of English as possible in order to perfect your writing and get the feedback that, with a bit more editing, you would probably have received in the first place. So let's get started immediately with ten pairs of frequently confused words.

  • In the sentences, 'I lay the glass on the dining table' and 'I laid the glass on the dining table', we can see that I is the subject, whilst the glass is the object. Therefore, we can identify this as a transitive verb.
  • On the other hand, the sentences, 'Those national parks lie in Northern Canada' and 'he lay in bed, asleep', utilise the intransitive verb, as they refer to no object.

Lay vs. Lie

It's not surprising that people frequently confuse this pair of words, as 'lay' is a transitive verb and 'lie' is an intransitive verb, rendering their distinction, at times, a little tricky. Just remember that the present tense of 'lay' is 'lay', whilst the past tense is 'laid'. As a transitive verb, 'lay' is required to have a direct subject and at least one object (an object being something that the action of the verb is being done to). However, 'lie', as an intransitive verb, does not require an object, and its present tense is 'lie', whilst its past tense is 'lay'. To clarify: if I 'lie' down today, I 'lay' down yesterday, and in the past I 'have lain' down, but if I choose to 'lay' the glass on the table today, I 'laid' it on the table yesterday, and I 'have laid' it in the past.

Verb
Infinitive
Past Tense
Past Participle
Lie
Lie
Lay
Lain
Lay
Lay
Laid
Laid
  • Take the sentence 'Whom do you love?' We can see that 'whom' is, in this case, correct, as the phrase refers to an object - the object of your affections. If unsure, however, it is completely appropriate to simply answer the question, investigating the correct type of pronoun. One might respond, 'I love her.' As 'her' is an objective pronoun, and as 'whom' fits into this category, we know that 'whom' is correct in this scenario.
  • On the other hand, in a sentence like, 'Who loves you?' we can see that 'who' is correct, as the information focuses now on the subject - the person who actually has the feelings. In a response one might say, 'She loves me,' and as 'she' is, like 'who', a subjective pronoun, we can conclude that 'who' is correct.

Who vs. Whom

Whilst 'who' is a subjective pronoun (think he, she, it, we, and they), 'whom' is an objective pronoun (think her, him, it, us, and them). This means that whilst the former is used when the pronoun acts as the subject of a clause, the latter is used when the pronoun acts as the object of a clause. Therefore, your usage of either 'who' or 'whom' is going to depend on your referral to either the subject or object of a sentence. There is a trick for deciding which word is the most appropriate, however, and it simply involves substituting the 'who' or 'whom' for a different pronoun, seeing whether it is the subjective or the objective kind, which makes sense. Once you've determined this, you can similarly determine whether 'who' or 'whom' is the appropriate selection. It can be particularly helpful to substitute the 'who' or 'whom' for a 'he' or 'him', as him has the 'm', so links to 'whom', whilst 'he' doesn't, and so links to 'who'.

Who or Whom?
Who or Whom? | Source
  • What do I mean by this? Well, if you're at dinner and know that you need to drive soon, rendering there being only an extremely remote chance of ordering another cocktail, it would be correct to say, 'I might have another cocktail later.'
  • On the other hand, if you choose to order this cocktail you might say, 'I won't drive home for a while because I may be over the blood alcohol limit,' as the possibility of being too drunk to drive given the amount of alcohol you've consumed is fairly great.

May vs. Might

'I may do this next Tuesday' ... 'I might do this next Tuesday' ... people often have difficulty determining which one is correct. 'May' refers to a possibility, whilst 'might' implies a deep uncertainty, meaning that in response to the above sentences, the correct word would really depend on the likelihood of that particular thing being done on Tuesday. Just remember that if there is a genuine possibility of a thing happening, 'may' is correct, whilst a remote chance constitutes the use of 'might'.

  • As has already been discussed, a sentence like 'five items or fewer' is correct, seeing as it refers to items that can easily be quantified.
  • By contrast, something like 'the film was less successful at the Box Office than hoped,' calls for the word 'less', as 'success' cannot be quantified like tangible items in a shopping cart.

Fewer vs. Less

Lots of people struggle with this one, and lots of others just get really annoyed by its incorrect usage on signs like those displayed above the checkout aisles in supermarkets, 'ten items or less.' Why is this incorrect? You may ask. The answer is because 'less' refers to un-quantifable amounts, whilst 'fewer' is used in reference to things that can be quantified - like groceries in a supermarket. See, it's actually pretty easy when you think about it!

Items like this can be quantified, and so would be classed using 'fewer'.
Items like this can be quantified, and so would be classed using 'fewer'. | Source
  • With this in mind, it's correct to say, 'The horror movie deeply affected the girl,' as the film has made an impact upon her feelings.
  • What exactly impacted those feelings? Perhaps it was the combined effect of the shadows and haunting background music. Here, we can clearly see how the effect of the film has affected the girl.
  • In rarer circumstances, one might say that the film effected a blood curdling scream from its viewers, as its use as a verb relates to bringing something about - in this case a scream.
  • Even rarer would be to use affect as a noun and to say that, after watching the film, the girl seemed hollow and devoid of all affect - meaning that she seemed devoid of emotion.

Affect vs. Effect

It doesn't help that these words are almost homophones, and are therefore pronounced extremely similarly, but it might be useful to know that 'affect' is almost always a verb, used in reference to an impact upon feelings or impressions. 'Effect', however, is the thing brought about as a result of this changed impression. So, for example, to affect produces an effect. Be wary of a few exceptions, however, as it's also possible to use 'effect' as a transitive verb, relating to bringing a certain occurrence about, just as (in extremely rare circumstances) 'affect' can be used as a noun, referring to a display of emotion. It's important to note that whilst 'effect' can be used as a verb and whilst 'affect' can be used as a noun, this type of language is often ambiguous and can be substituted for a better word. If ever in doubt, try to restrict your usage of 'affect' and 'effect' to a verb and noun respectively.

  • This means that one would say, 'I can drive home later if I get my car working,' as the ability to drive home depends entirely upon the repairing of the car, meaning there are no alternatives.
  • However, one might later say, 'If I can't get it working, I don't know whether I should catch the train or the bus,' as the deliberation between the modes of available transport clearly indicates alternative options.

If vs. Whether

At first glance these two seem interchangeable, but there is (not surprisingly) a slight difference between them, the mastering of which may just improve your writing in the long-term, and give you more confidence in your ability to handle written material. Luckily for us, however, the rule in this case is not too difficult. Just try to remember that 'if' refers to a situation in which there is no alternative, whilst 'whether' refers to one in which there are alternatives.

  • To illustrate my point: It would be completely incorrect to say that the judge of the murder trial was uninterested, as of course he wasn't. It's his job to listen extremely closely in order to accurately sentence the defendant if need be. To say that the judge was disinterested, however, is entirely accurate, as judges are required to remain impartial and unbiased.
  • If, however, the judge was driving home after the case and found himself constantly switching the radio because he was interested in nothing that was on, he would be uninterested, as he didn't care about the broadcasts at all.

Disinterested vs. Uninterested

Yes, there's a difference, and unlike our friends 'may' and 'might' above, which can, perhaps, both be considered correct in certain circumstances, 'disinterested' and 'uninterested' actually mean completely different things. It's important to note that a 'disinterested' person is not someone who, for example, takes no interest in your animated story about last year's Christmas dinner. That would be an 'uninterested' person. Rather, a 'disinterested' person is someone who is impartial - fair, neutral and nondiscriminatory, in a particular circumstance.

Judge's are often said to be 'disinterested'.
Judge's are often said to be 'disinterested'. | Source
  • When we apply this knowledge, we find that it's correct to say, 'She passed through town in two days,' as this refers to a literal movement through town.
  • However, if I ask someone to 'name me the past kings of England,' or to give directions to someone instructing them to 'walk to the end of the road, turn right, and proceed past the post office,' I'm referring to times and places in the past, so 'past' is the correct word to use.

Passed vs. Past

It's quite easy to get this one wrong when writing or typing quickly and left with little time to edit. Most people are probably well aware of the fact that 'passed' is the past tense of the verb, 'to pass', and therefore refers to movement, whilst 'past' (as you have likely gauged from above), refers to a former time. The bit that perhaps trips some people up is that 'past' is also used in situations where it might, at first glance, feel more natural to use 'passed'. Such a case may occur in the delivery of directions, like those instructing someone to walk 'past' something, as one may initially fall into the trap of using 'passed' due to a sense of the occurrence of movement.

  • 'I walked 100m farther before stopping.' Here 'farther' is clearly the correct fit, as it refers to a measurable distance.
  • On the other hand, 'The famine was causing further complications,' utilises 'further', as the gravity of these complications and their increase in number cannot be measured.

Farther vs. Further

This one is easy, I promise! Similar to 'less' and 'fewer', with the former referring to unquantifiable items and the latter referring to quantifiable items, 'farther' applies to a measurable distance, whilst 'further' applies to a non-measurable one. If you ever forget, just remember that the word 'farther' itself contains a reminder by harbouring the word 'far'. As something can be 'far' away, and as this distance could be measured, we can remind ourselves that 'farther' applies to measurable distances.

'Farther' applies to measurable distances
'Farther' applies to measurable distances | Source
  • 'I'm going to school today.' This sentence clearly utilises the word 'to', as it expresses movement towards school.
  • However, sentences like, 'I'm going to school, too,' or 'I studied too much at school today!' take the word 'too', as the former clearly uses it to mean 'also', whilst the latter refers to an excess of study.

To vs. Too

Most people are confident in the knowledge that 'two', despite sharing it's pronunciation with the above words, is the written form of the numerical digit '2', and therefore do not struggle with its usage. The other two versions of the word, however, seem to present a little more difficulty for the masses. Try to remember that 'to' is a preposition used to refer to movement toward something. Again, look for the word 'to' within the word 'toward' if you find yourself in need of a reminder. Contrarily, 'too' means 'also' or 'excessively', and receives quite a different emphasis from 'to' in the spoken word.

Source

So there we have it. I hope that you have either learned something new about commonly confused words or had your vast knowledge of the English language confirmed through the perusal of this article, and hopefully these pesky, confusing words will become less so in the future through combined effort and study.

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    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 2 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      A much needed explanation of some tricky words that I still confuse (and I'm an editor!).

    • Better Yourself profile image

      Better Yourself 3 years ago from North Carolina

      Well done! This is an excellent hub and extremely helpful! The difference in affect and effect has always been tricky for me but your side notes with examples and instructions should make it easier for me to remember! Congrats on HOTD and Voted up!

    • profile image

      Happy Times 3 years ago

      I love this article! I used to have to think hard before using 'wonder' & 'wander' and I must be one of the only people who still uses 'soo'. ;-D

    • Seema Berwal profile image

      seema 3 years ago from ACT

      good explanation!

      thanks

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Well done! I've written a few such Hubs myself. It is aggravating in the extreme to see such errors made on a daily basis, and often by those who should know better.

      Every time I see the "Who/Whom" quandary, I am reminded of an incident years ago. The phone rang, and the person on the other end spoke in a rather muffled voice, so I asked, "With whom did you wish to speak?" There was a heavy silence, and then, "Oh, I got the wrong number. No one I know says 'whom.' "

      Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 3 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      As an old grammarphile I enjoyed this article, and as a current member of a drop-in writing group, I appreciate the review. Your descriptions are elegantly laid out with easily understood examples. Bravo! I'm sharing this.

    • swilliams profile image

      Emunah La Paz 3 years ago from Arizona

      This article is very useful, this article provides information in which writers can reflect back on when they are not sure on how to make perfect use of transitive verbs, etc., English structure that was taught in elementary school, yet the concept can easily be forgotten. Thanks!

    • anglnwu profile image

      anglnwu 3 years ago

      Congrats on HOTD. Good topic for writers. You've managed to make it clear to us with your examples. Thanks.

    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 3 years ago from Texas

      Good hub and good topic. Hopefully your notes on effect/affect will finally help me recall which is which. Another that I don't see covered here is 'it's/its'. I often see 'it's' used as if the apostrophe is meant to mean possession. Like, the wind changed it's direction. It's (it is) a pet peeve of mine.

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana ZK 3 years ago from California

      Great hub! I love the language and usually think that I got all of the grammar down, but even I was surprised a few times! "Disinterested vs. Uninterested" - good one!

    • Billie Kelpin profile image

      Billie Kelpin 3 years ago from Newport Beach

      Very useful AND illustrative of how using meaningful key words in the title makes an excellent search choice. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay title "Me and Him Love American English" and I think it went past (or is it passed - tee hee) the people who might benefit from it :) This is an excellent source; I'll link to my website.

    • stevarino profile image

      Steve Dowell 3 years ago from East Central Indiana

      How ironic that the "lay" vs "lie" topic came up this weekend when I ran into my High School English teacher at church on Easter Sunday.

      Thanks for the information!

    • LadyFiddler profile image

      Joanna Chandler 3 years ago from On planet Earth

      This hub is a well written and well organized thanks for taking the time out to share with us hubbers :)

      May God bless U

    • Dbro profile image

      Dbro 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      I must admit confusion on some of these word choice situations, particularly "past" and "passed." Thanks for the clarification. You didn't mention the "your" "you're" confusion so common in usage these days. That one makes me crazy.

      Congratulations on this very informative hub!

    • profile image

      cjbehr 3 years ago

      Congratulations on HOTD! Great information!

    • 101Ways2Life profile image

      Alana Niall 3 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      Great article and congratulations for being selected as Hub of the Day. Another common grammar mistake is the use of apostrophe for plurals, like mango's, apple's and so on. Just look around your neighborhood and you will find plenty of such errors.

    • Anita Saran profile image

      Anita Saran 3 years ago from Bangalore, India

      Congrats on Hub of the Day. Well deserved. What I see most often abused is the lay and lie.

    • cheeluarv profile image

      cheeluarv 3 years ago from INDIA

      Informative,interesting article with appropriate examples. Voted up and congratulations on Hub of the Day.

    • profile image

      hdkw 3 years ago

      Thank You...

      just got on these hub-pages and this I found most interesting. English being not my native language, I must admit I sometimes have some problems with the above mentioned.

      Thanks again. Now that it's all passed I feel better!

    • wiserworld profile image

      wiserworld 3 years ago

      Thanks for explaining the grammatical differences so clearly. Thumbs up!

    • DaveOnline profile image

      David Edward Lynch 3 years ago from Port Elizabeth, South Africa

      Thanks for your advice in this hub

    • Hady Chahine profile image

      Hady Chahine 3 years ago from Manhattan Beach

      Great hub! I have to admit that on occasion, especially when pressed for time, I tend to inadvertently use "affect" in lieu of "effect", or vice versa. This is also true for the abbreviations "i.e." and "e.g." Urrr! Voted up.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile image

      Stephanie Bradberry 3 years ago from New Jersey

      Very good explanation of these common grammatical errors. I know, especially when I am writing fast, that I can slip into bad habits or mix up rules.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 3 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I don't know how many times I've been through "past vs passed," as well as "lay vs lie." For some reason it just does not stick. Thanks for the detailed explanation and the helpful examples. (I took notes)

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Great hub, thanks for sharing your knowledge. Must give this to my teenage daughter, she has English exams soon. Voted up, pinned and shared.

    • Hugo Furst profile image

      Hugo Furst 3 years ago from Australia

      I agree with Hezekiah. I remember being 7 and reading this little booklet about the correct usage of such words, and knowing that early on really got me through my writing classes.

      Thanks for sharing, pal! Voted up :)

    • Thief12 profile image

      Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

      I agree. Very informative.

    • Deepak Reddy N profile image

      Deepak Reddy 3 years ago from India

      Thanks, this hub is very informative!

    • Hezekiah profile image

      Hezekiah 3 years ago from Japan

      Good points there. I think that most of the common mistakes go unnoticed because nobody realizes, and if even they do, people couldn't be bothered to correct them. I think childhood is the absolute best time to iron out and correct these potential grammar issues before they become stubborn and stuck.

    • samwrites21 profile image
      Author

      Sam 3 years ago from Melbourne

      Thanks for all the feedback everyone! It's great to know that people are interested and it really helps me with the selection of topics for the future.

    • profile image

      ColleenDaniels 3 years ago

      Love this, voted up for the nice clear explanations!

    • Diana Lee profile image

      Diana L Pierce 3 years ago from Potter County, Pa.

      Good information. I get confused with many of the homonyms and may leave an error undetected forever. Many mistakes I know better about, but easily screw up anyhow.

    • cwritersblock profile image

      cwritersblock 3 years ago

      Thanks for the great article! To my great shame, I definitely still get "lay" and "lie" confused.

    • electronician profile image

      Dean Walsh 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Very interesting and useful - I've been uncertain about a couple of these in the past, and I remember a few years ago having a long slightly inebriated conversation with someone trying to work out the difference between affect and effect.

    • April Garner profile image

      April Garner 3 years ago from Austin, Texas

      I always wondered about farther versus further and less versus fewer. Well-written, informative, easy to read hub - thanks!

    • profile image

      jenp123 3 years ago

      Thanks for the lay vs. lie chart. I always have a hard time teaching this particular lesson to my students!

    • Prithima Sharma profile image

      Prithima Sharma 3 years ago from Delhi, India

      hmm informative hub, many used to write wrong spelling. It really helps a lot and of course me. Thanks for sharing.

    • Alphadogg16 profile image

      Kevin W 3 years ago from Texas

      Very nice and informative hub. Ironically I like to write even though grammar was my worst subject. Very helpful. Thumbs up!

    • Richawriter profile image

      Richard J ONeill 3 years ago from Bangkok, Thailand

      Just what I needed.

      Disinterested and uninterested - great explanation!

      Thank you and I love the way you've 'laid' this out! (Think I got it right there.) Always good to double check one's grammar and this well-laid out hub makes it easy.

      Richawriter.

    • Kevina Oyatedor profile image

      kevina oyatedor 3 years ago

      great hub. very informative.