Death to Common Grammatical Errors - 10 Commonly Confused Words!
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.
- 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'.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- '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.
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.