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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.
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.
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 in the window instead of other sets in
the store, we would use that because it defines.
If we’re referring to just one train set without excluding
others—perhaps only one train set is available—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.
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: I lay the book on the desk. Its conjugations are lay (present tense), laid (past tense), and laid (past participle).
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 lay: She laid down next to her childhood teddy bear. What we really
mean to express is She lay down next to her childhood teddy bear.
means over and over again with expected or inherent lapses in time. Continuous means unbroken with no lapses in time.
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
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
Seeing Mr. Jones speak to Mrs. Smith every morning outside before work
began to fill Mr. Smith with
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
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Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.