Chapter 25: Usage




This list contains words that are easily confused and thus misused. The definitions and examples will help clarify how these challenging words ought to be used in your writing. (These usage rules align with The Chicago Manual of Style.)

Using the Right Word

a, an

A is used before words beginning with a consonant sound; an is used before words beginning with a vowel sound.

a hotel

an understanding

a unified team

an honest mistake

accept, except

The verb accept means “to receive” or “to believe.” The preposition except means “other than”; the conjunction means “unless”; and the verb means “leave out.”

The supervisor accepted Lu’s reason for being late for work.

Everyone—except Lu and the supervisor—had remembered to switch to daylight saving time.

Only in rare cases are employees excepted from the policy on punctuality.

adapt, adept, adopt

Adapt means “to modify to make suitable”; adopt means “to take and treat as one’s own” (as with a concept or a child). Adept is an adjective meaning “proficient or well trained.”

We adopted Business Plus accounting software. Now we need an adept accountant to adapt our bookkeeping system to the new software.

adverse, averse

Adverse means “hostile, unfavorable, or harmful.” Averse means “to have a definite feeling of distaste; disinclined.”

Adverse weather conditions grounded all airplanes.

The tired staff was averse to the idea of working till midnight.

advice, advise

Advice is a noun that means “recommendation or information”; advise is a verb meaning “to counsel or recommend.”

He advised me to value good advice.

affect, effect

Affect is a verb that means “to influence.” As a noun, effect means “the result”; as a verb, it means “to bring about.”

Your performance in the coming year will directly affect the amount of your bonus.

The effect of the economy is hard to predict.

The new procedure will effect significant savings in time and cost.

aid, aide

As a verb, aid means “to help”; as a noun, aid means “the help given.” Aide is a person who acts as an assistant.

This book will aid anyone who wants to improve his or her writing.

Mr. Young is an aide to the vice president.


allot, alot, a lot

Allot means “to assign a portion or piece.” Alot is not a word; a lot (two words) is correct, but should be used sparingly—especially in formal writing.

allude, elude, refer

Allude means “to indirectly refer to something,” elude “to escape attention or understanding altogether,” and refer “to directly call attention to something.”

Don’t just allude to proper conduct; instead, refer specifically to required behavior. That way your expectations will not elude your staff.

allusion, illusion

Allusion is an indirect reference; illusion is a false impression or image.

Are you under the illusion that most people understand your allusions to the works of Aristotle?

already, all ready

Already is an adverb meaning “before or by the specified time.” All ready is an adjective form meaning “completely prepared.” (Use all ready if you can substitute ready alone in the sentence.)

The shipment already arrived this morning.

The sales staff is all ready to take orders.

alright, all right

Alright is an incorrect form of all right. (Please note that the following words are spelled correctly: always, altogether, already, almost.)

alter, altar

Alter means “to change something”; altar is a table or raised area used in worship.

The secretary altered the company letterhead.

The couple stood in front of the altar.

alternate, alternative

Alternate is a noun meaning “something or someone that can be used or put in place of another”; it is also a verb meaning “to change back and forth between two things.” An alternative is a choice derived from two or more possibilities.

If I’m still sick, Mary can go to the meeting as my alternate.

Earl and I alternate shifts.

One alternative to a meeting is a conference call.

altogether, all together

Altogether means “wholly, completely.” All together means “in a group” or “all at once.” (Use all together if you can substitute together alone in a sentence.)

All together there are 5,000 jobs listed.

That’s altogether too many to consider.

among, between

Among refers to groups of more than two persons or things; between refers to only two.

Personal-leave days are listed among the benefits offered by this company.

Communication between workers and management is candid.


amount, number

Amount refers to things in bulk or mass. Number refers to separate units that can be counted. (See also fewer, less.)

The number of new workers hired next year will depend upon the amount of revenue raised by sales.

and, etc.

Don’t use and before etc. (See also etc.)

Did you confirm prices, costs, profits, etc.?

annual, biannual, semiannual, biennial, perennial

Annual means “occurring once every year.” Biannual and semiannual mean “twice a year.” Biennial means “every two years.” Perennial means “throughout the year, every year.”

I planted annual flowers this year next to the perennials that come up from bulbs every year. I buy bulbs at the semiannual sales in spring and fall at our garden shop.

anxious (about), eager (to)

Anxious indicates that one is worrying; eager, that one is gladly anticipating something.

Margarete is anxious about speaking in public, but she is eager to share her new findings with the research department.

any one (of), anyone

Any one means “a singular thing or person from a group”; anyone is a pronoun meaning “any person.”

Choose any one of the proposed weekend schedules. Anyone wishing to work on Saturday instead of Sunday may do so.

any way, anyway, anyways

Any way means “any route, method, or course of action”; anyway is an adverb meaning “in any case.” (Anyways is an incorrect form of anyway.)

Matt couldn’t think of any way to change his schedule. I didn’t really need a ride from him anyway.

appraise, apprise

Appraise means “to estimate the worth of something.” Apprise means “to inform.”

The man appraised the house at $190,000 and apprised the owners of its worth.

as, as if, like (See like.)

ascent, assent (to)

Ascent refers to rising or advancement; assent refers to agreement.

The ascent of Mt. Everest is treacherous.

Because of your inexperience, I cannot assent to your going on the expedition.

assure, ensure, insure (See insure.)

augment, supplement

Although both words mean “to add something,” augment indicates a simple increase in size or degree, and supplement indicates making something that was deficient, complete.

Flood warnings augmented the importance of the levee reports.

This manual supplements the program we purchased last month.


average, median

The average and median of a series of numbers can be explained by this example: Seven workers used 0, 2, 3, 3, 5, 7, and 8 sick days respectively. The average number of sick days used is the total (28) divided by the number of workers (7): 4. The median, or middle number in the series, is 3: 0, 2, 3, 3, 5, 7, 8.

bad, badly

Bad is an adjective and can be used after linking verbs.

The bad day would not end.

I feel bad, look bad, and smell bad.

Badly is an adverb.

He was driving badly, so I called the 800 number on the truck’s bumper sticker.

base, bass

Base is the lowest part or the foundation. Bass (when pronounced like case) is a low-pitched singer, instrument, or sound. Bass (when pronounced like pass) is a fish.

I will base my biographical essay on my cousin Ace, who plays the electric bass and fishes for bass.

beside, besides

Beside is a preposition that means “next to.” Besides is an adverb or a preposition that means “in addition to.”

Put the file cabinet beside the desk.

Besides the new cabinet, we need better lighting.

between, among (See among.)

biannual, biennial (See annual.)

bring, take

Bring refers to movement toward the writer or speaker; take refers to movement away from the writer or speaker.

Please bring the new product data to the meeting, and remember to take our recommendations to Marketing afterward.

by, bye, buy

By is a preposition or an adverb. Bye, an interjection, is short for “good-bye.” Buy is a verb meaning “to purchase.”

I cannot walk by a candy store without having an urge to buy some chocolate. Bye-bye, diet.

can, may

Can implies ability; may indicates permission.

“I can take your order” literally means “I am physically or mentally able to take the order.”

May I take your order?” asks permission to take the order.

capital, capitol

As a noun, capital refers to wealth (money or goods) or to a chief city. The adjective capital means “important, excellent, or serious.” Capitol refers to a government building.

Capitol buildings are generally in the center of capital cities.

She grew used to making decisions of capital importance.

“Thought, not money, is the real business capital,” said Harvey Firestone.

New investments contributed capital for the building fund.


censor, censure

Censor means “to examine in order to delete anything objectionable.” Censure means “to condemn or criticize.”

After the letter was censored, there was little left to read.

The problematic open-campus policy was censured by the school board.

cent, sent, scent

Cent is the value of a penny; sent is the past tense of the verb send; scent is a fragrance or a smell.

The perfume company sent out 75-cent postcards to announce their new scent.

chair, chairperson

The terms chair and chairperson refer to the presiding officer of a meeting or board. Use either term, but do not use chairman or chairwoman; the latter terms are sexually biased.

Elsa is the new chair of the theater guild, replacing Donald, the outgoing chairperson.

choose, chose

Choose (chüz) means “to select”; chose (chōz) is the past tense of choose.

After being warned to choose her words carefully, Fiona chose to remain silent.

chord, cord

Chord means “the combination of three or more tones sounded at the same time,” as with a guitar chord. It can also mean “an emotion or a feeling.” A cord is a string, a rope, or a small electrical cable.

The guitar player strummed the opening chord to the group’s hit song, which struck a responsive chord with the audience.

The worn electrical cord for my space heater should be replaced.

cite, sight, site (See sight.)

climactic, climatic

Climactic refers to the climax, or high point, of an event; climatic refers to the climate or weather conditions.

Because we are using the open-air amphitheater, climatic conditions in these foothills will just about guarantee the wind gusts we need for the climactic third act.

clothes, cloths, close

The word clothes means “a covering or garments meant to be worn.” Cloths are fabrics. As an adjective, close means “very near.” As a verb, it means “to shut” or “bring to an end.”

In the play, I wore my own clothes, including close-fitting jeans and a top made of three different cloths.

coarse, course

Coarse is an adjective meaning “common, rough, or crude.” The noun course can mean “a direction or route taken” or “a class on a certain subject.” The verb course means “to move swiftly.”

Burlap is a very coarse fabric.

The ship’s captain mapped out a new course to avoid the hurricane.

I’m taking an Internet course.

compare with, compare to

Things of the same class are compared with each other; things of different classes are compared to each other.

Compare your responses with mine.

Ben compared his computer to a sloth.

Note: Compared to can also mean “in relation to.”

Roberta is Internet savvy compared to me.


complement, compliment

Complement means “to complete or go well with.” Compliment means “to give praise.” Both words can also be used as nouns. The adjective complementary means “serving to fill out or complete.” Complimentary means “given free as a favor.”

“Some folks pay a compliment like they expect a receipt.”

—Frank McKinney Hubbard

A fine grape jelly is a complement to any peanut butter.

comprehensible, comprehensive

Comprehensible means “capable of being understood”; comprehensive means “covering a broad range, or inclusive.”

If the report is comprehensible to laypeople, it’s a great report.

Comprehensive training sessions ensured the program’s success.

comprise, compose

Comprise means “to contain or consist of”; compose means “to create or form by bringing parts together.”

The research team comprises three Ph.D.’s and one high school student.

The research team is composed of [not comprised of] three Ph.D.’s and one high school student.

concave, convex

Concave refers to an object curved inward like the inner surface of a ball; convex refers to an object curved outward like the outer surface of a ball.

I remember that concave forms a hollow because it contains the word “cave.” I remember that convex protrudes because it is the opposite of “concave.”

confidant, confident

A confidant is someone you trust. Confident means “self-assured.”

Mr. Barker had no confidant with whom he could share his ideas.

Confident of her talent, Sharon leapt at any chance to speak.

conscience, conscious

A conscience gives one the capacity to know right from wrong. Conscious means “awake or alert, not sleeping or comatose.”

Your conscience will guide you.

Mr. Kreutz needs two cups of coffee to be fully conscious at this hour.

consequently, subsequently

Consequently means “as a result of”; subsequently means “following closely in time or order.”

We were late for the meeting; consequently, we missed the reading of the minutes.

The general had retired to his study but was subsequently interrupted by a knock at the door.

consul (See counsel.)

continual, continuous

Continual refers to something that happens at intervals over a long period; continuous refers to something that happens without stopping.

The continual interruptions impaired her concentration.

The company suffered a continuous slump that lasted for five months.


controller, comptroller

Controller refers to someone who either controls air traffic or is the chief accountant in a business or an institution. Comptroller refers only to the latter position.

The air traffic controllers get their paychecks from the comptroller.

counsel, council, consul

As a noun, counsel means “advice” or “a legal or professional adviser”; as a verb, counsel means “to advise.” Council refers to a group that governs, administers, or advises. A consul is a government official appointed to a position in a foreign country.

The consul appointed to Brazil counseled the trade minister there about our new tariff laws.

The corporate counsel knew the pollution laws by heart.

The building council offers counsel to dissatisfied tenants.

credible, creditable

Credible refers to someone or something you can believe. Creditable means “deserving of commercial credit or limited praise.”

The auditor examined two credible reports.

The bank believes Joy’s Shoe Mart is a creditable business.

criteria, criterion

Criteria is the plural form of criterion, a standard on which a judgment is made.

The most important criterion in the pie judge’s mind was taste.

The exclusive club has a long list of membership criteria.

data, datum

Informally, the term data often defines a single collection off acts.

The data given in this report is interesting and very convincing. (Informal)

In formal writing, if your emphasis is on the individual facts, data is used as the plural form of the singular datum.

These data were collected during months of research. (Formal, scientific)

decent, descent, dissent

Decent means “good.” Descent is the process of going or stepping downward. Dissent means “disagreement.”

The plane’s descent into the airport was quick and smooth.

There is much dissent over which airline offers decent business service.

defective, deficient

Defective means “faulty or imperfect”; deficient means “lacking something necessary” and indicates a shortage.

The defective part caused the sudden engine failure.

Our winter food stores were deficient.

device, devise

Device is an invention for a particular purpose or a means to do something. Devise means “to form, plan, or arrange.”

That paint-mixing device no longer works.

He was asked to devise a sales plan for the fourth quarter.


different from, different than

Use different from in most cases; use different than when it is followed by a clause.

His car is different from mine.

The elevator smells different than it smelled yesterday.

disburse, disperse

Disburse means “to pay out funds”; disperse means “to spread out or break up.”

The trustee is the only person who can disburse the inheritance.

The riot police dispersed the crowd.

discreet, discrete

Discreet means “showing good judgment, modest, unobtrusive”; discrete means “distinct, separate.” You can remember this difference because in discrete, the t “separates” the two e's.

The new office dress code mandated businesslike, discreet attire.

Her advice to me was to keep my home life discrete from my career.

disinterested, uninterested (See uninterested.)

effect, affect (See affect.)

elicit, illicit

Elicit is a verb meaning “to bring out”; illicit is an adjective meaning “unlawful.”

The manager’s confidence in the team seems to elicit strong morale.

Illicit home use of shop equipment has been uncovered.

eminent, imminent, emanate

Eminent means “prominent, conspicuous, or famous”; imminent means “ready or threatening to happen”; emanate is a verb that means “coming from a particular source.”

Several eminent CEO’s will be flying in for the meeting. A merger of the companies is imminent.

envelop, envelope

Envelop means “to cover or surround”; an envelope is a flat paper folder or case (usually for a letter).

Fog envelops our seaside cottage each morning in summer.

The letter arrived in a hot-pink envelope.


Etc. is an abbreviation for et cetera, which means “and others” or “and so forth.” Never use and before etc. (See also and, etc.)

example, sample

The noun example means “prototype, or something that serves as a pattern”; the noun sample means a “representative item from a larger whole.” As a verb, sample means “to take a sample of or from.”

Mr. Dorrit will compose a collection letter to be used as an example for the rest of the clerks.

Before you purchase the pepper sausage, taste a sample.

except, accept (See accept.)


explicit, implicit

Explicit means “expressed directly, or clearly defined”; implicit means “implied, or unstated.”

The directions were explicit and easy for us to follow.

The implicit message in the boss’s glance was understood by all.

fair, fare

Fair, as an adjective, refers to a pleasing appearance; as a noun, it refers to a gathering for buying and selling goods. Fare is the charge levied for transportation.

I met a fair maiden at the fair.

The fare for the ferry had gone up by $5.00.

farther, further

Farther refers to physical distance; further means “to a greater degree or extent.”

When we investigated further, we discovered that they had traveled farther than initially thought.

female, woman

Use female in scientific or legal materials; in most other contexts, woman is the more personal, acceptable term.

The female subject received the placebo.

Women of varying economic backgrounds have been polled.

fewer, less

Fewer refers to a number of countable units; less refers to value, degree, or bulk quantity. (See also amount, number.)

Despite fewer benefits and less pay, department morale rose.

first, firstly

Both words are adverbs meaning “before another in time” or “in the first place.” However, do not use firstly, which is stiff and unnatural sounding.

Incorrect: Firstly, I want to see the manager.

Correct: First, I want to see the manager.

When enumerating, use the forms first, second, third, next, last—without the “ly.”

fiscal, physical

Fiscal means “related to financial matters”; physical means “related to material things.”

Physical health requires regular exercise; fiscal health requires careful budgeting.

for, fore, four

For is a preposition with many meanings, including “because of,” “directed to,” “in favor of,” or “during a duration.”As an adjective, fore means “earlier” or “forward”; as a noun, it means “the front.” Four is the number 4.

The fore of the boat dipped for a moment, splashing the four of us.

former, latter

When speaking of two things, former refers to the first thing and latter to the second. (See also later.)

Of the two speeches, the former was more polished, but the latter was more entertaining.

Former means “from an earlier time”; latter means “closer to the end” or “recent.”

This latter decision was never even hinted at in their former correspondence.


good, well

Good is an adjective, never an adverb. Well is nearly always an adverb; however, when used to indicate state of health, well is an adjective.

Good work should be well rewarded.

Please go home if you’re not feeling well.

guarantee, guaranty

A guarantee is an agreement or assurance that a product or a service will maintain a certain standard. A guaranty is an agreement that one will pay another’s debt if that person fails to pay.

The guarantee says I must be completely satisfied with this stove or I’ll get my money back.

My parents signed a guaranty when I got my first car loan.

healthful, healthy

Healthful means “promoting good health”; healthy means “possessing good health.”

She has a healthy heart because of her healthful diet.

hear, here

Hear is a verb meaning “to perceive by the ear.” Here is an adverb meaning “of or in this place.”

When we first arrived here, we could hear a persistent beeping sound.

heard, herd

Heard is the past tense of the verb “hear.” As a noun, herd means a “group of animals”; as a verb, it means “to keep or move a group of animals.”

When we heard the thundering herd of cattle, we knew it was time to get out of the way.

hole, whole

Hole is a noun meaning “an opening or a gap.” As an adjective, whole means “complete or entire”; as a noun, it means “an entire or complete entity.”

The whole problem with the exhaust system came down to a hole in the muffler.

illicit, elicit (See elicit.)

illusion, allusion (See allusion.)

immigrate (to), emigrate (from)

Immigrate means “to come into a new country to reside here.” Emigrate means “to leave one country to live in another.”

Her family emigrated from Nigeria in 2018.

Knowing English made it easy for her to immigrate to the United States.

imminent, eminent (See eminent.)

imply, infer

Imply means “to suggest, hint, or communicate indirectly”; infer means “to deduce or conclude from.” (Writers and speakers imply; readers and listeners infer.)

I thought she was implying that I would receive a raise; apparently I inferred incorrectly.

insight, incite

Insight is the ability to see the truth in a situation. Incite means “to provoke or encourage.”

The new employee’s insight proved extremely helpful.

Poor communication can incite distrust in a company.


insure, ensure, assure

Insure means “to secure from harm or loss”; ensure means “to make certain of something”; and assure means “to put someone’s mind at rest.”

We assured Mr. Finn that the drilling would be painless; and to ensure that promise, the dentist used her strongest anesthetic.

One more gold crown, and I’m going to insure this mouth.

interstate, intrastate

Interstate means “connecting or existing between two or more states”; intrastate means “occurring or existing within a state.”

The wrestling team took the interstate to travel to the intrastate semifinal meet.

irregardless, regardless

Irregardless is the substandard form of regardless.

Incorrect: Irregardless of the weather, we will go.

Correct: Regardless of the weather, we will go.

it’s, its

It’s is the contraction of “it is” or “it has.” Its is the possessive form of “it.”

It’s about time for another staff meeting.

The medical clinic finally remodeled its outdated waiting room.

kind of, sort of

These phrases are used informally to mean “somewhat” or “rather”; avoid using them in formal business communications.

Unacceptable: Sales have been kind of slow this quarter.

Acceptable: Sales have been somewhat slow this quarter.

knew, new

Knew is the past tense of the verb “know.” New means “recent, original, or fresh.”

We are wondering if he knew about the new logo before we did.

later, latter

As an adverb, later means “after a period of time”; as an adjective, it is the comparative form of “late.” Latter is a noun referring to the second of two things mentioned. (See also former, latter.)

We can write the agenda later.

This report was submitted later than that one.

Of the two proposals just presented, the latter offers a more workable solution.

lay, lie

Lay means “to put or place something.” It is a transitive verb, which means it must be followed by a direct object. (See transitive verbs.) Its principal parts are lay, laid, laid.

Please do not lay that report there.

Harley’s assistant laid down the new carpeting yesterday.

She had laid down the law about printer ink.

Lie means “to rest or recline.” It is an intransitive verb, which means it does not take a direct object. (See intransitive verbs.) Its principal parts are lie, lay, lain.

George likes to lie down for a nap after lunch. He lay down Monday at 12:30, but often he has lain down by 12:15.


lead, led

Lead (lēd) is the present tense of the verb meaning “to guide or direct.” The past tense of the verb is led (lĕd). The adjective lead (lēd) means “first.” The noun lead (lĕd) refers to a heavy metal or graphite.

Yesterday, I led a presentation about lead poisoning, the same presentation that you used to lead.

lean, lien

As a verb, lean means “to incline or bend.” As an adjective, lean means “having little or no fat.” A lien is a legal charge or hold on property.

I would lean on your shoulder, but it is too bony and lean.

The property has a lien on it for back taxes.

learn, teach

Learn means “to acquire knowledge”; teach means “to impart knowledge.”

Someone who learns easily may not possess the patience to teach others.

leave, let

Leave means “to depart from” or “to let something remain behind.” Let means “to permit or allow.”

Leave your work at the office. Don’t let it ruin your weekend.

lend, borrow

Lend means “to give or allow the use of temporarily”; borrow means “to obtain or receive for temporary use.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Rob asked to borrow a copy of the new manual. Laura was happy to lend it.

less, fewer (See fewer.)

liable, libel, likely

Liable means “responsible according to the law” or “exposed to an adverse action”; libel is a false or unfavorable written statement about someone; likely means “very probable” or “reliable.”

If you take the expressway, you will likely be late.

Being entirely at fault, Graham was liable for the damages.

Claiming the charges were untrue, Maria sued for libel.

like, as, as if

In formal writing, use as or as if (conjunctions) to introduce clauses.

Prepare the report as [not like] you were instructed.

It looks as if [not like] we will need two more tickets.

Use like (a preposition) to introduce a phrase.

Your office looks like an oversized closet!

loose, loosen, lose, loss

The adjective loose (lüs) means “unfastened or free.” The verbs loosen and loose mean “to release.” Lose (lüz) is a verb meaning “to be deprived of” or “to fail to win.” Loss (lōs) means “deprivation” or “the act of losing possession.”

I bet my loose change on the poker hand, so I didn't mind to lose.

I'm pleased with my weight loss, but if I lose more weight, my clothes will be loose.

man, mankind

Do not use the words man or mankind to mean “the human race” because the terms exclude women. Instead, use humankind, humans, or humanity. (See more inclusive language.)

I want to do something for humanity, for all of humankind.


medal, metal

Medal is a small metal award. Metal is a hard substance like silver or aluminum.

The heavy metal band won a medal made of heavy metal.

media, medium

Media is the plural form of medium.

The media are relentlessly exposing fraud.

Radio has been an important news medium throughout the world.

miner, minor

A miner is a person who digs for ore. As a noun, minor means “someone who is not yet legally an adult.” As an adjective, minor means “of lesser importance or size.”

The miners were rescued from a shaft 300 feet underground.

Try to solve minor problems before they become serious.

A responsible minor has an excellent chance of becoming a responsible adult.

moral, morale

Moral refers to what is right or wrong, or to the lesson a story or situation teaches. Morale is a person’s attitude or mental condition.

Human cloning raises a moral question.

Office morale seems to peak on payday.

number, amount (See amount.)

OK, okay

This expression (OK or okay) is used informally; however, avoid using it in formal correspondence of any kind.

oral, verbal

Oral means “uttered with the mouth”; verbal means “relating to or consisting of words and the comprehension of words” and can refer to something oral or written.

Writing a clear, interesting report requires strong verbal skills.

Delivering the report from the podium takes oral skill.

partly, partially

Partially is an adverb meaning “to some extent but not totally”; partly is an adverb meaning “in some but not all parts.”

The partially cooked fish was still partly raw.

passed, past

Passed (the past tense of the verb “to pass”) means “went by” or “gone by.” Past can be used as a noun (“time gone by”), an adjective (“preceding”), or a preposition (“after” or “beyond”).

The company passed last year’s sales in early December. (verb)

Clinging to policies of the past can be a detriment to the future. (noun)

For the past two weeks I’ve entered data in to our new computer system. (adjective)

It takes steel determination to walk past that pastry cart. (preposition)

percent, percentage

Percent means a “part of a hundred” and is used with a specific number. Percentage refers to a portion of the whole and is not used with a specific number.

Maria saves 20 percent of her paycheck each week. That percentage was recommended by her accountant.


personal, personnel

Personal means “private” or “individual.” Personnel are workers in a particular business or other organization.

The Human Relations Department keeps a list of all the company’s personnel. Some personal information, such as address, phone number, and social security number, is included in the list.

perspective, prospective

Perspective is a person’s mental vision or outlook on things; prospective is an adjective meaning “expected in or related to the future.”

From my perspective as a recent dorm dweller, your apartment is pure luxury.

We interviewed five prospective copywriters today.

plain, plane

As a noun, plain means “a large area of level land.” As an adjective, it means “easily understood or seen” or “ordinary.”

“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”

—Alan Jay Lerner

“There are no plain women on television.”

—Anna Ford

As an adjective, plane means “flat, level, and even.” As a noun, it means a “flat surface” or “a tool used to smooth the surface of wood”; it also can mean “airplane.”

The surface of the new desk was a plane; not even a marble would roll off.

A plane must be sharpened frequently when used on hardwood.

pore, pour, poor

As a noun, pore means “a minute opening”; as a verb, it means “to read intently.” Pour is a verb meaning “to cause to flow in a stream.” Poor means “lacking wealth” or “inferior.”

This new fabric is full of pores that let moisture escape.

Pour yourself some more coffee and take time to pore over the proposal.

The poor morale was causing problems.

precede, proceed

To precede means “to go or come before,” while proceed means “to move on or go ahead.”

A memo that preceded today’s meeting told us to proceed with stage two.

preventive, preventative

These words are synonyms, but preventive is the preferred form, meaning “something that prevents or hinders a certain action or disease.”

Preventive measures were taken to avoid the takeover.

principal, principle

As an adjective, principal means “primary or main.” As a noun, it can mean “highest-ranking person” or “a sum of invested money.” Principle is a noun meaning “a guiding doctrine” or “a scientific law.”

His principal gripe is boredom. (adjective)

Most high school principals are concerned about much more than academics. (noun)

The buyers made extra payments to more quickly lower the principal. (noun)

The principle of caveat emptor is “let the buyer beware.”


quiet, quit, quite

As an adjective, quiet means “free from noise”; it can also be a noun or a verb. Quit is a verb meaning “to stop” or “to leave.” Quite is an adjective meaning “completely” or “to a considerable extent; rather.”

My office is quiet and quite comfortable.

I’ll miss it when I quit.

quote, quotation

In formal writing, quote should be used as a verb; quotation is always a noun.

The quotation used in your report was very effective, but in your next report, you should also quote what your foreman said to you.

real, very, really

Real is usually used as an adjective meaning “authentic.” Do not use it in place of the adverbs very or really.

Real life seems to have no plot.”

—Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett

Raul’s forecasts turned out to be very [not real] accurate.

The controller was not really in control of that situation.

reason . . . is because, reason why

Don’t use either of these phrases, because they are redundant. The words because and why both repeat the idea of cause unnecessarily. Instead, use reason . . . that or simply because.

The reason I’m late is that I missed the train.

I’m late because I missed the train.

respectfully, respectively

Respectfully means “showing a high regard for”; respectively means “each in the order mentioned.”

The young man respectfully shared his views with his father.

Awards were given to Mira, John, and Roland respectively.

As an adjective, right means “righteous, correct, or appropriate”; as a noun, it means “that which is just or legal.” Write means “to inscribe or compose.” A wright is someone who builds or repairs something. Rite is a ceremonial act.

Write the memo again, but this time use the right form.

Get the wheelwright to repair the spokes.

The initiation rites need to be reviewed.

scene, seen

Scene is a noun that means “a view,” “a place where something happens,” or “a spectacle.” Seen is a form of the verb “see.”

Have you seen Hannah’s office? It looks like the scene of a disaster.

seam, seem

Seam (noun) is a line formed by joining two pieces. Seem (verb) means “to give the impression of being.”

The stuffing was coming out of the seams on her chair.

You seem to be capable of handling this yourself.


set, sit

The verb sit means “to assume a seated position.” The verb set means “to place or put down.” Set is transitive (it must take a direct object); sit is intransitive (it does not take a direct object).

Jay set the package on the scale.

Please sit over there while I do this.

sight, cite, site

As a noun, sight means “the ability to see” or “something seen”; as a verb, it means “to see something.” Cite means “to quote,” “to officially commend,” or “to summon before a court.” Site means “a place.”

Before they reached the construction site, they were cited for speeding.

Carolyn had a tendency to cite Dickens when observing the sights of London.

sole, soul

As an adjective, sole means “single, one and only”; as a noun, sole refers to the bottom surface of the foot or a shoe. Soul refers to the spiritual part of a person.

The sole reason for the success of this paper is that it prints the truth.

Certain experiences nourish the soul.

some, sum

Some (adjective) refers to unspecified things or numbers. Sum means “the whole amount, the total.”

Some reporters are at the door.

The sum is too high for our budget.

stationary, stationery

Stationary is an adjective meaning “immobile”; stationery is a noun referring to writing materials used in letters. Let the e in stationery remind you of an envelope.

The stationary bike spins its wheel but gets nowhere.

I chose stationery with a company watermark.

subsequently (See consequently.)

tenant, tenet

A tenant is one who rents or leases property from a landlord; a tenet is a principle, belief, or doctrine.

As a tenant in a crowded apartment building, I live by one tenet: be courteous to your neighbors.

than, then

Than (conjunction) indicates a comparison; then (usually an adverb) refers to time.

Michael did not know any more about this than I did.

First write your résumé; then look for a job.

their, there, they’re

Their is a possessive pronoun. As a pronoun, there is used to introduce a clause; as an adverb, it is used to indicate place. They’re is the contraction for “they are.”

They’re planning to leave immediately after their presentation.

“If there isn’t a law, there will be.”

—Harold Farber

threw, through

Threw (verb) is the past tense of “throw.” Through (preposition) means “in one side and out the other”; through (adjective) means “extending from one place to another.”

After Marcus threw the ball, he heard it crash through a window.


to, too, two

To (preposition) indicates direction; it is also used to form an infinitive. Too (adverb) means “also,” “very,” or “excessively.” Two is the number 2.

The two friends headed to the cafeteria to eat lunch, which smelled too good to pass up.

toward, towards

These words are synonyms, but toward is the preferred form, meaning “in the direction of” or “in relation to.”

Please point me toward the fitness center.

uninterested, disinterested

Both words mean “not interested”; disinterested, however, is also used to mean “unbiased or impartial.”

A judge is never uninterested in the facts of the case but must hand down a disinterested decision.

vain, vane, vein

Vain (adjective) can mean “valueless” or “fruitless” or “conceited.” In vain means “to no avail.” Vane (noun) is an instrument that shows which way the wind blows. Vein (noun) refers to a blood vessel or an ore deposit.

The weather vane twirled about during the spring storm.

A rich silver vein was discovered beneath the town.

We searched in vain for the disks.

vary, very

Vary is a verb meaning “to change”; very is an adverb meaning “to a high degree.”

When you vary the speed like that, you take a very great risk.

waist, waste

Waist is the part of the body between the rib cage and the hips. As a verb, waste means “to use carelessly” or “to cause to lose energy.” As a noun, waste refers to either a worthless by-product or an act of wasting.

Waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both.”

—Benjamin Franklin

One’s waist size is largely a function of diet and exercise.

wait, weight

Wait (verb) means “to remain somewhere expecting something or someone.” As a noun, wait refers to the act of waiting. Weight is a noun referring to a measure of heaviness.

After a long wait, I stepped on the scale to check my weight.

ware, wear, where

Ware is a noun that refers to manufactured goods. As a verb, wear means “to have on one’s person”; as a noun, it means “clothing.” Where refers to location; it can be an adverb, a conjunction, or a noun.

Where do you plan to sell your wares?

I never know what I should wear on casual Fridays.


waver, waiver

Waver refers to faltering due to a lack of decision making; waiver is a conscious surrender of rights or privileges.

When Ms. Stewart was asked to make a final decision, she wavered.

Many ski resorts require skiers to sign a liability waiver.

way, weigh

Way is a noun meaning “path or route”; avoid using it as an adverb meaning “to a great degree.” Weigh means “to measure weight” or “to evaluate.”

After weighing the possibilities, Kenton decided to take the easy way out.

weather, whether

Weather refers to the condition of the atmosphere. Whether refers to a possibility.

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

—Mark Twain

Tell me whether you agree or not.

who, which, that

Who always refers to people. Which refers to nonliving objects or animals, never to people. That may refer to people, animals, or nonliving objects. In formal writing, use that to introduce restrictive (necessary) clauses and which to introduce nonrestrictive (unnecessary) clauses. (See A Closer Look at which and that.)

The Altina Fitness Center, which was built last year, is filled to capacity after work.

The exercise and yoga classes that are offered there are especially popular.

who, whom

Who is used as the subject of a clause; whom is used as the object of a verb (direct object) or of a preposition.

To whom should I give this Internet proposal? Give it to Ms. Brown, who is in charge of Information Technology Services.

who’s, whose

Who’s is the contraction of “who is” or “who has.” Whose is a possessive pronoun.

Who’s in charge of cleanup?

Whose life is it anyway?”

—Brian Clark

wood, would

Wood is a noun or an adjective referring to the material trees are made of; would is a form of the verb “will.”

I would not buy that wood to make the filing cabinets.

your, you’re

Your is a possessive pronoun showing ownership. You’re is the contraction of “you are.”

Your job is only as big as you are.”

—George C. Hubbs

You’re never wrong to do the right thing.”

—Malcolm Forbes

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