Grammar Commonly Confused Words That Bring Bumps to Writing |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Commonly Confused Words That Bring Bumps to Writing

The English language—its words, its structure, its stylistic possibilities—is rich, descriptive, and versatile. It can communicate with precision and convey vivid, persuasive thoughts and ideas.

At times, it can also confuse. Those not familiar with the nuanced or multiple meanings of many English words and the finer points of grammar can sometimes trip where they’re looking to stride in their writing. The good news is removing such stumbling blocks requires only that we identify those that often appear.

We’ve singled out several speed bumps that remain frequent throughout current communication, including blogs, websites, magazines, newspapers, business correspondence, and even novels. Discussing and distinguishing them allows us to better smooth the road for writing that glides.

Speed Bump: That and Which 

These pronouns are still often used interchangeably, and some style arbiters will even say that’s okay today. We say let’s keep their correct original functions so we can write more concisely.

Compare the following sentences:

I want the train set that is in the store window.
I want the train set which is in the store window.

In spoken language, you’ll probably be understood either way. In writing, however, the door opens for ambiguity if we don’t correctly distinguish and punctuate that and which.

That is a restrictive pronoun that limits or identifies the word or phrase it modifies. Which is a non-restrictive pronoun that doesn’t limit or identify.

If we want the specific train set that is displayed in the window to the exclusion of any other set in the store, we would use that because it defines.

If we’re referring to a train set without excluding others—any train set in the store that is like the one displayed in the window will do—we would use which set off with a comma: I want the train set, which is in the store window. The non-restrictive which also introduces information that enhances but may not be essential. I want the train set is the main, unrestricted thought; which is in the store window further clarifies but is not required for understanding.

Speed Bump: Lay and Lie 

We’re all familiar with this enigmatic pair dating back to grade school. Even after decades of reading and writing, some of us can still get caught on whether to use lay or lie in a sentence.

The best way to distinguish the two is to remember that lay is a transitive verb, i.e., one that requires an object to complete its meaning: lay the book on the desk. Its conjugations are lay (present tense), laid (past tense), and laid (past participle).

Lie is an intransitive verb, which doesn’t require an object for completion: The sofa lies between the end tables. Its conjugations are lie (present tense), lay (past tense), and lain (past participle).

The most common mix-up involves using laid to mean layShe laid down next to her childhood teddy bear. What we really mean to express is She lay down next to her childhood teddy bear.

Speed Bump: Continual and Continuous 

Continual means over and over again with expected or inherent lapses in time. Continuous means unbroken with no lapses in time.

The continual disagreement among the board members last year prevented them from achieving the quorum they needed. 

The family eventually moved to a different location because of the continuous traffic noise from the nearby interstate highway.

Speed Bump: Envy and Jealousy 

Envy means discontented longing for someone else’s advantages. Jealousy means unpleasant suspicion or an apprehension of rivalry.

Seeing the Joneses driving new cars and wearing designer clothes fueled the Smiths’ envy.

Seeing Mr. Jones speak to Mrs. Smith every morning outside before work began to fill Mr. Smith with jealousy.

As devoted grammarians and observant communicators, we have the focus and the tools to smooth these bumps in our writing. The result is thoughts and ideas that both transmit more clearly and perpetuate precision through proper usage.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

10 responses to “Commonly Confused Words That Bring Bumps to Writing”

  1. Margaret L. Carter says:

    “Lay” and “laid”: The mistake you highlight, which our English teachers cautioned us against, is no longer a common pitfall among writers. In published works, the error I see all too frequently is the opposite, overcorrection out of a morbid fear of “laid” (similar to the misuse of “whom” because writers think “who” sounds wrong even when it isn’t). This habit results in teeth-grinding sentences such as, “She picked up the book and lay it on the table.” Many writers who should know better do this. I don’t know whether to blame them or ignorant editors. (I once discovered that this “correction” had been imposed on a story of mine published in an anthology.)

  2. Marc says:

    What about the use of pronouns bumped up against the primary noun, such as “my sister she…” or my father he…”? I was taught many decades ago in grade school that these are redundant and not to be used. You do not say “my sister she was walking to school”, or “my father he told me not to do this”–or so I was taught. Yesterday I fell into an argument with my oldest son (11 years of age, in 6th grade) when he said something similar to me, and when I corrected him, he proceeded to explain to me that his teacher said it is indeed allowed and is an example of an “apositive”. His teacher, so he said, explained that it is the same as saying “My sister Alice was walking to school.” I still maintain that it is NOT the same and that using “she” is redundant, whereas “Alice” is the primary noun in the latter example and clarifies the use of the word “sister”. To put it bluntly I think children these days sound like idiots when they’re all saying such things as “my teacher she said..”, “my Mommy she’s picking me up..”, “my dad he picks on my grammar.” Is my son’s teacher (who I must say is several decades younger than me) truly correct? Am I just a stodgy old coot who is behind the times? Perhaps the nuns whacking my knuckles in my younger days were wrong?

    • says:

      We agree that this construction serves no useful function. The term for the error is left dislocation. It is usually not recommended in formal contexts. (Also see the May 22, 2016, and August 10, 2017, comments under our blog post Media Watch.)

  3. James says:

    I enjoyed your article.
    I am wondering if the word “that” is needed in the following sentence or if there is a better way to recast this sentence.

    “Back at his apartment, and after a couple of beers, he mentioned that between 1970 and 1971 he was a member of the Boy Scouts of America.”

    Thank you!

    • says:

      The Associated Press Stylebook says, “That should be used when a time element intervenes between the verb and the dependent clause.” Since the phrase “between 1970 and 1971” appears between the verb mentioned and the dependent clause “he was a member of the Boy Scouts of America,” the word that should be used in the sentence. One alternative that tightens by dispensing with “that” could be “Back at his apartment, and after a couple of beers, he mentioned he was a member of the Boy Scouts of America between 1970 and 1971.”

  4. Kathy M. says:

    Can you please explain the difference between “substantial” and “substantive”?

    • says:

      While the words are often used interchangeably, substantive generally refers to quality, meaningfulness, or solidity, while substantial generally refers to quantity, size, or extent.
      The panel concluded that the most substantive objection to raising the speed limit was that it would increase traffic accidents.
      The Smith Foundation made a substantial donation to building the memorial.

      Thank you for your question. We have added Substantial/Substantive to our Confusing Words and Homonyms section of our website.

  5. grammarpuzzle says:

    seating vs sitting

    At first, I thought I had this one in the bag but I have recently encountered sentences that dumfounded me and the sentences go like this.
    1. Her left ear was normal whereas on the right an extruded grommet is sitting in the middle ear canal close to the tympanic membrane.
    2. She has got a ring finger contracture with an MCP joint sitting at 60 degrees.

    Are both correct in using sitting instead of seating? Can you please explain further if the answer is yes or no.

    Can you also explain this to me further? Is it just limited to ‘fit in position’?

    From Oxford Dictionary:
    Seat (verb)
    No. 2 [with object and adverbial of place] Fit in position.
    ‘upper boulders were simply seated in the interstices below’

    PS: I’m a health documentation specialist, and this was asked of me recently.

    Thanks in advance.

    • says:

      Because we are not medical experts, we suggest you consult references such as the AMA Manual of Style or Scientific Style and Format.

      That being said, we are willing to venture a guess from a grammatical point of view. The nuance as we see it lies in the difference between being placed (transitive verb) and in place (intransitive verb). In other words, both the grommet and the MCP joint are already in place (i.e., sitting). If they were not yet in place, but rather being placed, we would “seat” them as direct objects, neither of which would clear logical scrutiny:

      – while a grommet would originally be placed in the ear by a doctor, an extruded grommet has apparently moved its position and was not “placed” or “seated” in its present position.
      – an MCP joint at 60 degrees appears to be an abnormal situation and would not be “placed” or “seated” at that angle.

      For these reasons, we favor “sitting” from our laypersons’ perspective.

      • grammarpuzzle says:

        I believe the AMA Manual of Style or Scientific Style and Format cannot answer this one for me.
        I get the explanation and it is a lot of help for which I’m really thankful. (bowing)
        Thanks again!

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