Frequently Confused WordsJanuary 26th, 2015 by Jeff Winget
So far on the blog, I’ve focused on web design and tech. I love web design and technology, and I’ve found interesting things to write about on design and technology. So, that’s really been my focus so far.
However, we at Professionally Proofed offer other services as well. One of my favorite services and most misunderstood is proofreading and editing. While getting my haircut yesterday, I told the hairdresser that I was an English teacher, and the first two things out of her mouth were the first two things that I always hear when I tell people what I do:
“Well, I’m terrible at English, and I better watch how I speak…ha ha!”
It used to upset me that people stereotyped me as this weird guy with a red pen copy editing the world, but I think I now understand where it’s coming from, and I now have thicker skin for things like that anyway–probably a by-product of age.
With that being said, I would like to do some posts about frequently misused or misunderstood aspects of the English language. This may include a series on how to quit abusing the lowly apostrophe, but I haven’t decided yet. Today, I wanted to look at a few pairs of words that are often confused and give you a tip or two for distinguishing between them in your writing.
Then and Than
This is probably the one that makes me want to get the red pen out the most. I don’t know why it gets my ire, but I also don’t understand why it is so confusing. However, it is for a lot of people, so here is the simple answer.
Then refers to an order: “We did this. Then, we did that.”
Than refers to a comparison: “Karl Malone is better than Charles Barkley.”
Less and Fewer
This one I can see the confusion. Both words refer to an amount of something. The distinction is in the countability of the amounts.
Fewer refers to a countable amount: “The express lane is for 10 items or fewer.”
Less refers to an uncountable amount: “I am less sure about grammar than I used to be.”
Effect and Affect
This one is difficult, but shouldn’t be because the answer is easy.
Effect is a noun: What was the effect of the decision?
Affect is a verb: The cold weather really affects my mood.
The only exception to this one is that “affect” can be used as a noun when describing the expression of emotions on a person: “He has a flat affect.” This is generally pronounced with a short a sound (the a in apple), and is not very common, so the rule above should work in almost every situation.
It’s and Its
This one is particularly difficult because of the damned apostrophe. We know that an apostrophe is used to show possession and that it is also used to contract words. So, it would appear that both itses need an apostrophe since one is showing possession and one is a contraction. Sadly, English plays a trick on us with possessive pronouns since a lot of them end in ‘s’ but don’t have an apostrophe.
Its shows possession: The car showed its muscle in the race.
It’s is a contraction: It’s a shame that it’s so difficult to use an apostrophe correctly.
What are your frequently confused words that I missed? Leave them in the comments.