Word Usage and Abusage


This guide to word usage is based upon several sources, which are not always in agreement. Remember American English is a “living” language. Also, writers must consider their audiences.

In our original draft of the usage guide, when we weren’t sure about one of these words or phrases, we checked American Usage and Style, by Roy H. Copperud. We could compare various dictionaries and grammar guides… if we had nothing else to do for several years. Copperud compares at least nine sources, noting when major references differ. Dictionary definitions used on these pages are quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary or the Oxford New American Dictionary.

As of 2006, we are now relying on Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner.

Usage Guidelines

Any usage guide is just that — a guide. There are few strict rules and no “laws” in English composition. Fiction writers should learn the basics of both usage and style, but are under no obligations to use a style guide. We encourage fiction writers to comply with word usage guidelines, but question any publisher or editor beholden to a style guide for fiction.

Creative writing is not meant to be newspaper or journal style. A publisher might have minimal style requirements for fiction, but all good publishers wisely allow for creative uses of English. Also, the genre of a work dictates its style and its adherence to a usage guide. You would not write a Western or Regency novel using a modern AP Stylebook — it would be terrible to read.

AP Style

The Associated Press has long been the arbiter of American English grammar and word usage among the popular media. Fiction writers should use the AP style for basic questions of spelling and usage, but should not attempt adherence to the AP Stylebook. The AP establishes basic style for the writing of newspaper and non-fiction articles, not novels.

According to the AP, the following books should be consulted whenever you have a word usage or grammar question:

  1. Associated Press Stylebook (or Tameri Style Guide)
  2. Webster’s New World College Dictionary
  3. The Word, by Rene Cappon
  4. The Chicago Manual of Style
  5. The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White

The list appears in order of AP preference, which applies to professional journalists. Consult the official AP guidelines before proceeding to other references. The other texts might not agree with the AP or each other, which is why the order of preference matters.

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I] [J] [K] [L] [M]
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- A -

a / an - Use a before consonant sounds and an before vowel sounds. Examples: a historic, an honorable.

about - Avoid when approximating measures. Use approximately when citing one number, otherwise use a range.

There were about 130 people at the concert.

Edited:

The manager said there were approximately 130 people at the concert.

There were 120 to 150 people at the concert.

above - Words do not appear above other words on paper. Words and statements precede each other. Remember websites are printed by some readers.

The above section applies only to screenwriting.

Edited:

The preceding section applies only to screenwriting.

accept / except - Accept is a verb meaning “consent to receive” or “to recognize.” Except is a preposition that means “not including” or a verb meaning “to exclude.”

accustomed to - Do not use with in place of to. A common mistake is using accustomed with in place of familiar with.

We were accustomed to small paychecks.

We were familiar with cheap publishers.

A.C.E. - Alternative Common Era or After Common Era (among other phrases, used to add the “A” to the notation), is used in some texts and periodicals. Most texts use C.E. for “Common Era” for our current calendar years. We suspect the use of A.C.E is an absurd attempt to balance B.C.E. without a logical need to do so. See B.C. for further discussion.

A.D. - Anno Domini, or Year of he Lord, is preferred for calendar years in popular writing, including most newspapers and magazines. The suggested standard for technical and non-fiction writing is C.E., “Common Era,” which was adopted by some scientific journals and universities to respect non-Christian readers. This standard was prompted by complaints from one group, as far as we can determine. Some historians argue C.E. is as offensive as A.D. because it references the same religiously-based calendar. These scholars suggest referencing “local or cultural” calendars out of respect for particular civilizations. Such dates would be meaningless to Western readers.

Fox Newswire
Monday, December 09, 2002
By Scott Norvell

The Royal Ontario Museum in Canada has stopped marking calendar years on its exhibits with A.D. and B.C. because the terms are ethnocentric and not inclusive enough for the modern era, reports the National Post.

Instead, the museum will use the terms BCE (“before the common era”) and CE (“common era”) or ACE. “Anno Domini,” which means “year of the Lord,” and “before Christ” have been deemed too religious.

“A lot of people accept the reality of Jesus as a historical figure but don’t accept him as Christ, and to use the words ‘before Christ’ is really quite ethnocentric of European Christians,” said Dan Rahimi, the Toronto museum’s director of collections management. “And to use ‘the year of our Lord’ is also quite insensitive to huge populations in Toronto who have other lords.”

adapt / adopt - To adapt is "to adjust or become accustomed to something, to use for a new purpose or modify." One usually "adapts to" a situation or object. To adopt is "to take as one's own, take up, or start to use," such as adopting a new habit.

add an additional - Simplify, replace with add when possible. Use another or more when needed.

Add an additional three cups of flour to the mixture.

Edited:

Add another three cups of flour to the mixture.

Add three cups of flour to the mixture. (Assumes three cups total.)

adequate / enough - Choose one; they are synonymous.

admit - Do not use admit to, use admit or admitted.

He will admit nothing.

She admitted borrowing the love scene from his novel.

adverse / averse - Adverse is harmful or unfavorable, as in the adverse effects of some medications. Averse means "opposed, against, or having a strong dislike."

advice / advise - Advice is a noun, whereas advise is a verb. One advises someone by offering them advice or an opinion.

adviser / advisor - Advisor is standard in American English. Most dictionaries list both as acceptable. The AP insists that adviser is the preferred form, but most government and educational organizations use advisor in titles. We suggest using whatever your organization prefers and ignoring the AP rule in this case. Choose one spelling and stick with it.

affect / effect - Affect is the verb and effect is generally the result.

The moon affects lovers, and the effects can be deadly.

after / afterwards - Afterwards is considered proper. Most Americans use afterward.

aggravate - To make worse. When you mean to bother, use annoy or irritate.

aid / aide - Aide applies to the military, diplomacy, and nursing. Aid refers to medical attention or any personal assistant. The Associated Press uses aide for all people.

The general’s aide needed first aid after tripping.

aim to - Use intend to.

I intend to correct my errors.

ain’t - Does anything need to be stated?

air - Often ambiguous, air has more than a dozen accepted definitions. Use air for the atmospheric mix of gasses.

Replacements for the expression (“airing”) of an idea: expose, discuss, explore, broadcast, express, and others.

albeit - One word. Middle English origin from although it be.

alive and well - Avoid unless the person was previously not well or, worse, was not alive.

all - Do not use all of.

All of the writers had carpal-tunnel syndrome.

Edited:

All the writers had carpal-tunnel syndrome.

all-around /all-round - Most common in sports stories, all-round is preferred.

all ready / already - All ready means completely prepared and already means previously.

He was all ready to wait for his date. She was already dressed when he arrived.

all right /alright - Use all right in American English.

all that - Superfluous. Remove all that unless writing dialogue.

It wasn’t all that bad.

Edited:

It wasn’t bad.

all the - Use the when possible, unless all is not obvious.

The writers owned pens.

all the farther - Use as far as.

This is as far as I can walk.

all-time record - It is a record, which implies “all-time” best.

all together / altogether - All together means in a group. The phrase can be removed in most instances. Altogether means either entirely, or mentally stable.

The writers met all together. Only one was altogether.

allude / refer - To allude is to suggest without naming. To refer is to name the object.

allude / elude - To allude is to hint or suggest. To elude is to escape.

allusion / elusion / illusion - Allusion is a suggestion without a specific reference to a concept or thing. Elusion is to avoid or escape. Illusion is deception.

almost - Avoid when possible due to its vague nature. Almost lacks precision.

He almost won the election

Edited:

He lost the election by five votes.

almost certainly - Use likely instead. Yes, it is weak, but better than almost certainly.

almost nearly all - Yes, this is an actual example from a student paper.

a lot - A lot is always two words. Never write it as alot.

also - Avoid when possible and never use as a conjunction in place of and.

alternate / alternative - Alternate means by turns, first one then another. An alternative is a choice.

The writers alternated writing alternative scenarios.

although / though - Avoid both when possible. Although is a concession, though can replace however in English. We would avoid though and however. Use although to mean “in spite of the fact that.” See whereas, while.

Although the manuscript was handwritten, the publisher accepted it. Though, later he realized his mistake.

alumnus / alumni - The masculine singular is alumnus. Alumni is the plural. In Latin, alumna is the feminine singular, but has fallen from usage.

a.m. - Use lower case and periods but do not duplicate a period at the end of a sentence. Avoid phrases such as 9 p.m. tonight.

among / amongst - In American English use among to mean within a group. Amongst is antiquated for in the middle of a situation or gathering.

among / between - Use among when comparing three or more objects. Use between to compare two objects.

amoral / immoral - Immoral means "contrary to accepted standards or morally wrong." Amoral and unmoral mean "without regard to moral standards, neither moral nor immoral." See immoral.

amount - Avoid when superfluous. Otherwise, use amount for quantities that cannot be counted and use number for quantities that can be counted.

The amount of sugar in the recipe was three cups.

Edited:

The recipe contained three cups of sugar.

amused / bemused - To be bemused is to be slightly confused or muddled. Someone who is amused is entertained and finds something to be humorous.

and/or - Diana Hacker's A Pocket Style Manual suggests writers avoid using and/or as a word unless they are writing technical or legal documentation. Bryan Garner advises avoiding ambiguity by not using and/or at all and suggests in most cases using or. We recommending erring on the side of caution by avoiding ambiguity.

angry / mad - To be angry is to be displeased while to be mad is to be insane.

angry at / angry with - You are angry at someone unless you are angry with another person at someone else.

another - Avoid when superfluous. Another does not mean additional, it clarifies the original group.

Harry is one student and Ralph is another.

Edited:

Harry and Ralph are students.


Five people accepted invitations, while another four declined.

Five people accepted invitations within the week; an additional four accepted later.

anticipate - Use expect when appropriate. Anticipate expresses eagerness towards an unpredictable event, not a planned event.

anxious - Never use in place of eager. Anxiety is nervousness and foreboding. One is eager to and anxious about.

He was anxious about seeing the doctor; he was eager to be done with it.

any and all - Do not use.

anyone / any one - Anyone is an indefinate pronoun meaning "any person or people." Any one may refer to a particular person or thing in a group.

Anyone may borrow any one of the books on that shelf.

anyways / anywheres - Nonstandard versions of anyway and anywhere. Never use in speech or in writing.

approximately - When using approximately, give readers a narrow range of values.

The script is to be approximately 500 to 525 words long.

as - Avoid when possible, using alternatives. In most cases, we recommend using because. In the sample below, as can either mean because or when. Because as and since have temporal implications, avoid using when it might create ambiguity. As is a subordinating conjuction that introduces a subordinate clause.

As no one could stop him, we ran.

Edited:

Because no one could stop him, we ran.

assure / ensure / insure - Assure is give confidence to someone or assurances that something is true. Ensure is to make certain something will occur. Insure is is to make a financial guarantee.

at - Use to refer to a specific location or time. You are at a city or building, not in, even though you are likely inside the building. Use in to refer to cities or places following an adverb

While in San Francisco, we will be staying at the Hilton.

at this point in time - Use now.

aught - Do not use. Aught is an antiquated pronoun, not a synonym for ought.

author - Books are written, not authored. Use author as a noun.

awful - Now overused with the misuse approaching accepted use, awful properly means awe-inspiring yet dangerous, not merely dreadful. In casual, and incorrect, use, awful is sometimes used to mean very. In writing, do not use awful or awfully in place of very.

The tornado was an awful sight.

awhile / a while - Awhile is an adverb for time. A while is synonymous for a moment and should be replaced when possible. If a preposition appears before a while, the usage is correct.

The writer stared at the blank page awhile. We watched him for a while.

- B -

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back of / in back of - Use behind instead of in back of. Use on [the] back of to refer to a physical location. Indicate locations for effective writing.

Standing in back of him, we could see the stain on his shirt.

Edited:

Standing behind him, we could see the stain on the back of his shirt.

back up / backup - Use back up as the verb and backup as the noun or adjective.

He is so paranoid, he will back up his backup copy.

backward / backwards -  According to Bryan A. Garner, in American English, backward is preferred. In British English, backwards is preferred. The same rule holds true all directional words: upward, downward, forward, toward.

bad / badly - Bad is an adjective or noun, meaning undesirable or ill-prepared. Badly is an adverb of manner implying sloppy, incomplete, improper, or extreme.

He is a bad golfer who hates to practice. No wonder he played badly today.

B.C. - Preferred for years preceding the current era in popular writing. The new standard is B.C.E., “Before Common Era,” to respect non-Christian readers. From the Columbia University Guide to Standard American English, 1993:

Recently B.C.E., meaning either “before the Christian era” or more frequently “before the common era,” has had some champions, but Edited English seems only rarely to have adopted it thus far. (A.)C.E., “(after the) common (or Christian) era,” seems to have prospered even less, perhaps because some regard it as slighting Christianity (which is ironic, given that both alternatives were proposed to avoid the possible disrespect implied by the more popular terms).

because of / due to - Due to is an adjective phrase traditionally used as a subject complement and usually follows a form of to be (Diana Hacker). Because of is a prepositional phrase meaning owing to or caused by. Bryan Garner suggests avoiding the use of due to entirely and many writers view it to be graceless even when used correctly.

Many went hungry due to the war.

Edited:

Many went hungry because of the war.

because / since - Because clauses should introduce new information and should end the sentence, not begin it. Since clauses repeat information the reader should already know; they should begin the sentence. Some grammar books insist that since must only be used in its temporal sense, but there is a causal meaning that has been in use for more than a thousand years, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage. In its causal use, since implies a milder relationship than because. Looking at the example above, our edits become:

Because of the war, many went hungry.

Edited:

Many went hungry because of the war.

being as / being that - Both are considered nonstandard usage. Use because instead when there is no temporal intended and since or when when there is a temporal meaning intended.

believe / know / think - Avoid all three in essays and non-fiction unless quoting or explaining what other people believed, knew, or thought. The words are weak and sound defensive in rhetoric.

I believe there are three reasons his script failed.

Edited:

There are three reasons his script failed.


As you know, stories have character-driven or plot-driven structures.

Edited:

Stories have character-driven or plot-driven structures.


I think his story lacked structure.

Edited:

His story lacked structure.

beside / besides - Beside is a preposition meaning “at the side of or next to.” Besides is a preposition meaning “in addition to or apart from.” Besides may also act as an adverb meaning “in addition” or “as well.”

between - See among / between.

bimonthly / semimonthly - Commonly confused, bimonthly is every other month (six times a year). Semimonthly is twice a month.

biweekly / semiweekly - Commonly confused, biweekly is every other week. Semiweekly is twice a week.

blame - Blame on is considered incorrect while blame…for is proper.

We blame him for the accident.

blond / blonde - Blonde refers to a woman, blond refers to a man. Some object to the gender distinction and use “blond” exclusively.

borrow / loan / lend - To borrow an object is to take and use something that belongs to someone else, with the intention of returning it. You borrow an item from someone, you do not borrow it to them. A loan is the thing that is borrowed, usually money. To lend someone an object is to grant someone the use of an object that belongs to you, with the intention that the borrower will be returning the object back to you. Though it is not a common mistake, it may be a regional mistake. We have heard people confuse borrow and lend.

John needs to borrow my screwdriver.

I will lend John my toolbox.

both - Avoid when possible.

John and Mary are both writers.

Edited:

John and Mary are writers.

break / broke - An action results in a break. According to some editors, few people would intentionally break a limb

The writer broke his leg. (Why would one intentionally break a bone? Or did a writer break another person’s arm?)

Edited:

The fall broke the writer’s arm. The break required a cast

breakthrough - A cliché. Avoid when possible and remember — not every “discovery” is a breakthrough.

bring / take - Use bring when the object is moving toward you; use take when the object is moving away from you.

Please bring me that glass of water.

I will take this book back to the library.

brunet / brunette - Similar to blond, brunette refers to a woman, a brunet is a man. Many publications and editors prefer brown-haired as gender neutral.

bureaucrat - Now considered an insult by most American English dictionaries. (As if civil servant is better?)

but - Often redundant, avoid when possible.

by - Avoid when possible. Use synonyms for clarity, since by has many definitions. When used with a verb phrase, change the sentence to an active form to remove by.

As we drove by the store, we saw him standing by a mysterious woman.

Edited:

As we drove past the store, we saw him standing next to a mysterious woman.


The essay was written by Gretchen

Edited:

Gretchen wrote the essay.

- C -

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can / may - Can refers to an ability, may indicates permission granted or a polite request. Current dictionaries suggest may also implies possibility. We prefer to err on the side of older usage and restrict the use of may to permission. Consider using might to indicate possibility.

She can write the story, and the editor may let her.

If you wire the device incorrectly, you might be shocked.

cannon / canon - A cannon is a weapon used to launch a projectile. The canon is a set of rules, guidelines, or a collection of standards.

canvas / canvass - A canvas is any heavy cloth, usually undyed. When you actively survey a group, you canvass the population.

capital / capitol - According to the OED, capital pertains "to the head or top," whether it is "standing at the head" as in a capital letter at the head of a sentence or the loss of a head (and life) as in "capital offense." Capital may also mean important or first class, hence the use of a "capital" city or head town of a region or state. A capitol is the building occupied by the legislature.

carat / caret / carrot / karat - A carat is a metric measure equal to 200 milligrams and diamonds are weighed in carats. Proofreaders use a caret (^) to indicate insertion points. Bunnies eat carrots, the orange root vegetable. The percentage of gold in any solid alloy is expressed in karats.

caused - Use with the preposition by, not from.

Death was caused by drowning.

C.E. - Common Era has replaced A.D. in scientific texts.

cement / concrete - Cement is an ingredient of concrete. Cement is a stone powder used with sand, gravel, and water to create concrete. Cement is also synonymous with glue.

We cemented our friendship by writing our names in the wet concrete.

censor / censure - Censor is a verb meaning "to officially suppress objectionable parts." A censor is also a noun referring to the official who does the suppressing. To censure is to express disapproval.

cite / site - To cite is to quote a source, typically a written document, as evidence to support your argument. A site is a noun referring to a specific place.

close to - Avoid when possible. Use near or next.

coarse / course - Coarse is an adjective meaning "loose or rough in texture," or "rude, crude, or vulgar when describing a person." A course is the path or route followed by something or a series of lessons or lectures in a particular subject.

compared to / compared with - Compared to is used to assert a claim of similarity without elaboration. Items are compared with each other.

John's swing was compared to Babe Ruth's. His batting average was .321 compared with a team average of .270.

complement / compliment - Complement as a verb means "to add to something in a way that improves it." As a noun, a complement is a thing that completes something. A compliment (noun) is a "polite expression of flattery, praise, or admiration." As a verb, compliment is the "act of flattering, praising, or congratulating someone."

compose / comprise - The whole comprises the parts; is comprised of is incorrect. Composed of is considered proper for a list of parts.

The book comprises four chapters.

Or:

The book is composed of four chapters.

confessed to - Eliminate to. There must be an object of the confession.

He confessed an interest in romance novels.

conscience / conscious - A conscience (noun) is the "inner feeling or guide that judges the rightness or wrongness of our actions." To be conscious (adjective) is to be "actively aware of your surroundings, awake."

conservative - Technically conservative means resistant to change. Most Americans associate the term with anti-government and pro-business political views. If a publications uses “conservative” to describe political views, it is obligated to use “liberal” as well. We prefer using neither unless an individual self-identifies with a term.

consist in / consist of - To consist in is to inherit from, to consist of is to be composed of.

The value of love consists in its passion. Passion consists of biology and insanity.

contagious / infectious - Contagious diseases are transferred by contact. Infections are carried by organisms and may or may not be contagious. Not all diseases are either.

continual / continuous - When something is continual (adjective), it is always happening or frequently recurring. When something is continuous (adjective), it occurs without interruption.

continue on - Avoid when possible, especially in clichés.

cool - Avoid when possible, and never use the slang form unless quoting.

corpus delicti - Evidence necessary to establish that a crime, not always a murder, has occurred. Often misused by mystery writers.

could care less - Could care less is a nonstandard expression that should be replaced with the phrase could not care less or couldn’t care less.

I could care less what she thinks.

Edited:

I couldn’t care less what she thinks.

could certainly - Either could or might, depending on the sentence.

could of - Could of is a mistaken use of could have. Do not use unless you are writing dialogue for an educated or sloppy character.

council / counsel - A council is an advisory or legislative body of people who meet regularly. As a verb, to counsel is to offer advice. As a noun, counsel is the advice offered or a lawyer conducting a case.

course - Avoid of course as superfluous. Also avoid course when used to indicate the passage of time. Replace with during or another word when possible.

Of course he lied, like he always does.

Edited:

He lied, like he always does.


In the course of history, few have been more feared.

Edited:

Few have been more feared.

couple - Requires a plural verb when referring to people, though this rule is fading. Test sentences by using they in place of couple.

The couple were embracing in the moonlight.

The couple are happily married.

crackdown on - Avoid as a cliché. Rarely is it needed.

criteria - Criteria is the plural of criterion. Criterion is the standard by which something is judged or decided.

cut in half - Grammatically this should be “cut in halves.”

He cut the loaf in half.

Edited:

He cut the loaf in halves.

czar - Preferred to tsar.

- D -

damn - Use sparingly for increased effect. All profanity (or swearing) should be used judiciously.

damn it - A blasphemy, while dammit is a non-specific profanity.

data - Data is a plural referring to a collection of statistics and datum is the singular. When using data, use a plural verb. Although, Diana Hacker's guide suggests that is now acceptable to use data as a singular noun, Bryan Garner suggests that in formal writing, data should still be used as a plural.

The data are inconclusive.

daylight saving time - The use of savings is a common error.

dead body - Use body; it is assumed to be dead.

The victim’s dead body laid in a crimson pool of blood.

Edited:

The body laid in a crimson pool of blood.

desert - Both dry, barren land and what one deserves. A common mistake is the phrase “just desserts,” implying one deserves a sweet treat. The phrase has changed over time.

Walking across the desert, he dreamed of a cool dessert. It was just desert for an ice cream thief.

destined - Use the preposition to.

The book was destined to collect dust.

diagnose - A doctor can diagnose a disease or condition, which means to recognize the cause. Seldom is the patient the cause, so you cannot diagnose a patient.

The doctor diagnosed asthma in Mrs. Jones.

dialog / dialogue - Dialogue is preferred by most sources, but dialog is becoming standard in American English. A dialog box is a computer interface, while dialogue is spoken lines.

die - Use the preposition of not from.

He died of a gunshot wound.

differ from / differ with - To differ from is to be dissimilar. To differ with is to disagree.

different - Often redundant; most things are different — even twins. When necessary, use different from, not different than. Different is an adjective and should not be used in place of differently. One thinks differently but is different.

This novel is different from her last.

The young man might look nice, but he acts differently.

dilemma - A choice between bad and worse, not a choice between positive alternatives. Good versus bad is an easy choice; dilemmas are not easy.

It was a dilemma, whether to cross the shark-infested waters or starve on the island.

disinterested / uninterested - Disinterested means unbiased, uninterested means lacking attention.

We needed a disinterested judge. Instead, we got an uninterested one.

don't - Use don't as the contraction for do not, use doesn't for does not.

doubt - Do not follow doubt with that unless a negative connotation is wanted. Shorten the sentence for effect.

I don’t doubt that his statement is the truth.

Edited:

I don't doubt his statement.

downward / downwards - According to Bryan A. Garner, in American English, downward is preferred. In British English, downwards is preferred. The same rule holds true all directional words: upward, backward, forward, toward.

Dr. - Use only with doctors of medicine and dentists. Some writer’s guides include veterinarians. For other doctors, use the accepted doctorate abbreviations. Do not add M.D. to a person’s title.

drunk / drunken - Drunken is the adjective, drunk is a verb or noun. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving failed to consult a grammarian.)

The drunken driver crashed his car. He is a drunk. He drank six beers before trying to drive home.

due to - See because of. Due to is a prepositional phrase that should not be used in place of because of, which is a preposition.

due to the fact - Just use because.

duel - A duel is a contest between two people. Three companies or three people cannot duel.

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each - According to the Associated Press and Strunk and White, each is a singular pronoun.

each other - The possessive is each other’s and is followed by a plural noun.

We gathered to critique each other’s works.

eager - Wanting a positive event to occur. See anxious.

He was eager for the meeting with his new publisher.

East - Capitalize when referring to a region of the United States.

e.g. / i.e. - Erroneously interchanged: e.g. is exempli gratia, meaning “for example.” i.e. is id est, meaning “that is.”

effect - The result of an action is its effect. See affect.

either - According to the Associated Press and Strunk and White, either is a singular pronoun. Use a singular verb unless a joining noun is plural.

Either paper or diskettes are required to save a novel.

elderly - Too ambiguous, since the people live longer each generation. Be specific when possible.

She was an elderly poet.

Edited:

She was a 95-year-old poet.

elicit / illicit - To elicit (verb) is to bring out, evoke, induce. Illicit is an adjective meaning unlawful, illegal, or forbidden by rules, laws, or custom.

else - It is now common in American English to use the form everyone else’s as a possessive. Everyone’s else is correct, but antiquated. Most editors prefer the American standard — the antiquated form is awkward.

elusion / elusive - Difficult to understand or well-hidden. See allusion.

e-mail / email - Email is considered correct by the Associated Press, but e-mail remains common.

emergency situation - Simply an emergency.

emigrate from / immigrate to - One emigrates from one country and immigrates to another. To emigrate is to “leave one country with the intention to settle in another country.” To immigrate is to “enter a country with the intent to live there.”

emote - To feign an emotion.

engine / motor - An engine converts chemical energy to mechanical energy. A motor converts electrical energy to mechanical energy. Also, an engine develops its own power internally, a motor receives power externally.

Scientists hope to replace the gasoline combustion engine with electric motors… if they can generate enough electricity cleanly.

endemic / epidemic / pandemic - An endemic is local, an epidemic is not. A pandemic is a world-wide epidemic.

We must act while the disease is endemic to this city, before it becomes an epidemic.

end result - Redundant. Use result.

The end result was disastrous.

Edited:

The result was disastrous.

ensure - To ensure is to make certain while to insure is to financially guarantee. See assure.

enthused - Enthusiastic is preferred.

epidemic - See endemic.

equal - Equal has no comparitive forms. You cannot seek a “more equal” result. Often confused with equitable, which means “fair.”

estate - Avoid in modern fiction because in America trailer parks are now named “Estates” along with nearly any class neighborhood.

et al. - Et alii means “and others,” referring exclusively to people.

etc. - The abbreviation for et cetera, meaning “and so forth.” Avoid when possible. Style guides state that most readers understand that lists are not complete without having to add and so on or et cetera.

even - Avoid when possible, using alternative constructions. Use for equal, as in ratios, height, and other measures.

There were even odds on the game.

The headstones were even, to signify the equality of men.

Questionable:

Even the coach was late to practice.

I even like anchovies on pizza.

every - Avoid when possible, using absolutes only when accurate.

Every person I meet on this trip seems rude.

Edited:

Most people I meet on this trip seem rude.

everyday / every day - If every- is used as a prefix, the meaning shifts to “common” or “average” instead of the adverbial every as in “all” of something.

No one likes everyday chores, like washing dishes. Doing them every day is even worse!

everyone / every one - According to the Associated Press and Strunk and White, everyone is a singular pronoun. Every one refers to each individual item within a group

Every one of the books on the table is wet.

everybody - According to the Associated Press and Strunk and White, everybody is a singular pronoun.

exaggerate - Must be an intentional mistake of measure, not an accidental statement.

except - See accept.

exist - Preferred for things that are alive, but proper for all things, even concepts.

expert in / expert on - We've searched several style guides and are unable to determine which use is correct. Our recommendations, based on observation, are to use expert in when speaking about a specific field of study and expert on when speaking about a topic within a field.

Professor Jones is an expert on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and an expert in archaeology.

eye of the storm - Remember in fiction to use as a dead-calm, not a disturbance.

The eye of the storm was eerily quiet.

- F -

faerie / faery / fairy - Faerie refers to mythical winged creatures, faery is common to Celtic mythology, and fairy is used in American English to refer to something feminine, as well as mythical creatures.

farther / further - Farther refers to a distance, further refers to a quantity or degree.

faze / phase - To faze (verb) is to embarrass or confuse. A phase is a state of being (noun) or to graduatlly adopt (verb).

feel - An emotion, not to be confused with think or believe.

few - Avoid as imprecise in journalistic writing. Use a number instead.

fewer / less - In technical writing, use fewer when referring to a plural noun or a number of items. Use less when referring to a singular noun or unit of measure. Using fewer numbers or few in number is therefore redundant.

The magazine has fewer subscribers this year.

I need less than six feet of wood.

We need less documentation and fewer documents.

fiancé / fiancée - An engaged male is a fiancé. An engaged female is a fiancée.

figuratively / literally - Avoid literally unless there is doubt that the statement is true. Use figuratively to introduce analogy.

finalize - Use finish for complete and finalize for approval or acceptance of a finished product.

firstly - Use first, second, third. Firstly sounds awkward and pretentious and leads to using secondly and thirdly, which is even more awkward than firstly.

flautist / flutist - Flutist is proper, flautist looks antique.

flounder / founder - Flounder means to struggle, founder means to sink or fail.

As their ship began to founder, hapless crew members floundered in the water.

foreword - Material appearing before the text of a book. See introduction and preface.

forward / forwards - According to Bryan A. Garner, in American English, forward is preferred. In British English, forwards is preferred. The same rule holds true all directional words: upward, downward, backward, toward.

free gift - Redundant; a gift is free. If you pay for something, it wasn’t a gift.

fun - Avoid when possible. Fun is overused.

- G -

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I]
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gage / gauge - Gage is a financial security or a pledge of honor. A gauge is a measuring device. Technical writers often use gage in error. In American English, gage might become common in all writing.

gantlet / gauntlet - A gantlet is a difficult ordeal. A gauntlet is a heavy glove.

general public - Redundant. Use public.

The general public does not understand most legislation.

Edited:

The public does not understand most legislation.

get - Use obtain when possible unless no effort was made to receive something.

He will get permission to go with us.

Edited:

He will obtain permission to go with us.

gibe / jibe - To gibe is to taunt; to jibe is to shift direction. Jibe also means to match or agree.

gobbledygook- Often misspelled, gobbledygook is the language of a bureaucracy.

good / well - Good is an adjective, never an adverb. For an adverb, use well. Good means acceptable or average. See well.

He is a good person. He treats others well.


Incorrect:

The student did good on the spelling test.

Edited:

The student did well on the spelling test.


Incorrect:

He did not feel good.

Edited:

He did not feel well.

gourmand / gourmet - A gourmand likes food. A gourmet is a judge of fine food, an expert.

graduate from - One graduates from a college or university. Dropping the from is nonstandard and considered incorrect.

gray / grey - Either is considered proper when referring to color, with gray preferred by most. As an adjective in American English, gray is used.

The color grey was long a favorite of the gray-bearded writer.

grisly - Often mistaken for grizzly, which means gray in color and is a type of grayish bear. Use grisly for “horrible or gruesome” sights.

The grizzly bear attack resulted in a grisly scene.

grow - Grow is typically an intransitive verb (used without a direct object). Modern transitive uses of grow, such as grow the economy or grow the business are trendy jargon and should be avoided. When grow is used as a transitive verb (used with a direct object) it means “to cultivate” or “to allow to grow.”

guarantee / guaranty - Guarantee is common in American English. Guaranty is used in the names of financial firms.

Acme Guaranty Bank offers no guarantee on returns.

guerrilla - The preferred American spelling for a rebel soldier or extreme military tactics.

- H -

half - The proposition of is not needed without numbers. If a number is used, half of is acceptable. Also see cut in half.

Half the students were early.

Five is half of ten.

hanged / hung - Hanged is the past-tense form of the verb, hang, meaning "to execute." Hung is the past-tense form of the verb hang, meaning "to fasten or suspend." Items are hung, people are hanged.

The delinquent would not be hanged for his theft of clothes hung on the line.

hardly - Hardly means "scarcely or rarely" and is treated as a negative. Can't hardly and not hardly are therefore double negatives and are incorrect.

hardly ever (or never ) - Use seldom.

hazardous condition - Use hazard.

heart attack - Use a technical term when possible.

hereinafter - One word.

heretofore - One word, meaning before now.

heroic - Use with care, not every good deed is heroic. A heroic action is beyond normal for a particular person or profession. A heroic act requires greater personal risk than normally expected; the risk may be to body, mind, or career.

The fireman’s rescue of his colleagues was heroic.

Revealing the murderer’s identity cost the heroic priest his position.

Hispanic - Hispanic is not an ethnic description, but refers to any Spanish-speaking culture. Some consider this offensive and prefer origin-specific ethnic descriptions. We aren’t positive readers are so politically correct.

She was Hispanic.

Optionally:

She was a Mexican-American.

hisself - Nonstandard. Use himself.

historic / historical - Important events are historic in nature, while historical events are any past events.

The signing of the treaty was historic.

Historical evidence revealed violations of past agreements.

home / house - A home is an occupied dwelling, a house is a stand-alone building.

She planned to make the house a home for her new family.

homicide / manslaughter / murder- Homicide is a killing, manslaughter is homicide without premeditation, and murder is premeditated homicide. A victim is said to have been killed until there is a legal conviction.

homosexual - Applies to men and women attracted to the same sex, not only men. Some editors prefer gay and lesbian, but we leave it to the author.

hopefully - Means "in a hopeful manner." Avoid using hopefully as a sentence adverb for clarity reasons. In writing, it is always preferable to specify who is doing the hoping.

Hopefully, your dog will come home.

Better:

I hope your dog will come home.

however - At this time, writing and style experts suggest placing however in a sentence according to your intended meaning, even if the word appears at the beginning of the sentence. In the past, beginning a sentence with however was not recommended. Where you position the word changes the intended meaning of the sentence.

howsoever - One word; a conjunction meaning in whatever way.

hung - See hanged.

- I -

I - Use careful grammar when selecting I or me. I is a subject, me an object.

i.e. - id est, meaning “that is.” See e.g.

ideology - A system of political beliefs. Do not use for non-political systems.

if / whether - Whether is preferred when offering alternatives. Use if for conditional statements.

I am unsure whether or not I will go.

Conditional:

If the writer receives a Hugo he can decide whether or not to attend the ceremony.

illegible / unreadable - Illegible means difficult to decipher due to poor handwriting, printing, or damage. Unreadable means dull or poorly written.

The illegible note had been retrieved from a puddle.

His dull prose was unreadable.

illusion - A deception, particularly to the senses. See allusion.

impact - To either strike with force or compress. Impact is not influence or effect. Use affected or influenced.

Weather is impacted by global warming.

Edited:

Weather is influenced by global warming.

immoral / amoral / unmoral - Immoral means "contrary to accepted standards." Amoral and unmoral mean "without regard to moral standards."

Society considered murder immoral, but sociopaths are amoral and do not care.

imply / infer - To imply is to hint, suggest, or indirectly state. To infer is to conclude rightly or wrongly.

She implied he was not in her home, but from her trembling voice we inferred he was hiding there.

in / into - Use into with verbs of motion. Use in as a preposition for location.

The writer jumped into his car eager to leave, but his keys were in the house.

in close proximity - Redundant.

in effect - Do not set off by commas. Synonymous with implying.

When telling his agent he was tired, the author was in effect saying his deadline would not be met.

in nothing flat - Cliché. Avoid.

in order to - Use to.

in regards to - Use in regard to or as regards.

in routine fashion - Use routinely.

in spite of - Cliché. Use despite.

in the final analysis - Cliché. Avoid.

in view of - Cliché. Use since or because.

in which - Avoid.

inasmuch - One word. While correct, avoid. Superfluous.

indexes / indices - Indexes is now common, however, indices should be used in technical writing.

Indian - Avoid for Native American, unless writing a Western novel or quoting.

indigenous - Scientists argue there are few indigenous people because most human populations migrated from other locations.

infectious - Infections are carried by organisms and may or may not be contagious. See contagious.

ingenious / ingenuous - To be ingenious is to be clever, talented, or intellectual. To be ingenuous is to be innocent, artless, generous, noble in character, or of excellent quality. In Roman literature, to be ingenuous was to be of free or honorable birth.

irregardless - Not a word. See regardless.

We will act irregardless.

Edited:

We will act regardless.

insure - To insure is to financially guarantee. See ensure, assure.

interested / intrigued - To be interested in a topic or event is to have a feeling of concern or curiosity. An intrigue, however, is typically an underhanded or scheming plot involving politics and/or power. As a verb, to intrigue is to trick, deceive, cheat, entangle, or cause to be involved (OED). To be caught in an intrigue with someone may also mean they were caught in a liaison or illicit sexual affair. Although the last definition for intrigue in the OED is “to excite the curiosity or interest of,” we prefer to separate the use of interest and intrigue for clarity.

interesting - Overused.

into / in to - Into is a preposition while in to is the adverbial use of in followed by the preposition to. Also, in is a final location, into follows a verb and indicates movement, change, or contact. A rule of thumb: if the “in” can be dropped, then use in to, oterwise use into.

Earlier in the day, she ran into a parked car. The mystery writer turned herself in to the police. An officer allowed me in to see her.

it goes without saying - Then why are you saying it? Avoid.

its / it’s - Its is a possessive pronoun. It’s is a contraction for it is.

It’s unwise to separate a dog from its food.

- J -

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jail / prison - jail is short-term local holding, while prison is where a convicted felon is sent.

judgment - Correct American English spelling.

just - Avoid unless referring to honor or trust. Usually redundant.

- K -

karet - see carat.

kind of / sort of - Do not use kind of or sort of if your intended meaning is somewhat. Only use kind of if you are specifying a type, and do not add an a after either phrase.

know - Avoid when possible, especially within essays and non-fiction. See believe.

As you know, eliminate some phrases for concise writing.

Edited:

Eliminate some phrases for concise writing.

- L -

lay / lie - To lay an object requires a subject, object, and usually a preposition describing the destination for the object. To lie is to recline or rest, which is something a subject does alone.

to lie:

I shall lie on my couch to rest.

She is lying in bed.

to lay:

I will lay the kitten in its bed.

lead / led - Lead is a metal, chemical symbol Pb an atomic number 82. Led is the past tense of to lead (verb).

learn / teach -To learn is to actively gain knowledge. To teach is to impart knowledge.

leave / let - To leave someone alone means “to isolate” or “to go away from.” To let someone alone means to avoid bothering or imposing upon the person. Diana Hacker's Pocket Guide specifies that leave means “to exit” and let means “to permit.”

We decided to leave him alone in the library after he screamed, “Let me alone!”

less - See fewer.

liable - To be liable for something is to be held legally responsible. Do not use liable to mean likely.

libel - Libel is to defame using any medium such as a news broadcast. See slander.

liberal - Technically liberal means open-minded. Most Americans associate the term with pro-labor and pro-government political beliefs. See conservative.

lightening / lightning - Lightening means to reduce the weight. Lightning is a flash in the sky.

literally / figuratively - See figuratively.

loath / loathe - Loath is an adjective that means reluctant. Loathe is a verb meaning to hate or detest.

The writer was loath to criticize another even though she loathed his novel.

loose / lose - Loose (adjective) means not firmly or tightly fixed in place. Lose (verb) means to be deprived of or cease to retain something.

My gloves are loose so I will probably lose them in the wind.

- M -

mad - Insane. See angry.

madam / madame - Madame is a formal title. Use madam for the mistress of a whorehouse or a polite address. You’re expected to be polite in a brothel.

mantel / mantle - A mantel is a shelf and a mantle is a facade or cloak.

Taking his pipe from the mantel, he wore the mantle of a scholar.

may - May is permission granted or a polite request. If there is not request, use can or might. See can, might.

“You may write the article,” said the editor, “but I might not publish it.”

May Day / mayday - May Day is the international workers’ holiday, which was really a pagan holiday. Mayday is an Anglicized version of the French phrase m’aidez, meaning “help me!”

may of / might of - Misuse of may have and might have.

maybe / may be - Maybe is an adverb meaning “possibly” whereas may be is a verb phrase.

media / medium - Media is the plural of medium.

Midwest - A region of the United States.

might - Use might for a hypothetical condition.

I might help edit the story if he asks nicely.

Mohammed - The preferred spelling according to the Associated Press. See our Style Guide.

Moslem - The traditional British term for an adherent of Islam. The Associated Press prefers Muslim.

motor - A motor converts electrical energy to mechanical energy. Also, a motor receives power externally. See engine.

Ms. - Avoid when possible. According to American Usage and Style, the salutation Ms. first appeared in the Standard Handbook for Secretaries (1956) as a way to address a woman in formal correspondence when her marital status was unknown.

much - Avoid, much is imprecise. How much? Why? To what extent?

Muslim - Preferred term for an adherent of Islam according to the Associated Press.

must - Avoid when possible. Someone must do something rarely, since it implies an ultimatum has been issued.

must of - Misuse of must have.

myself - Do not use myself when I or me can substitute. Myself is a reflexive pronoun and should be used as such.

I wrote this myself.

[Usage N-Z]


Our guide to word usage is based on American Usage and Style, by Roy H. Copperud. We could compare various dictionaries and grammar guides… if we had a year or two. Copperud compares at least nine sources, noting when major references differ. We also use the Associated Press Stylebook , which is the primary style guide for reporters and editors at daily newspapers and many periodicals. The AP is not the Modern Language Association, nor does the AP adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style so many graduate students have struggled to master. Never assume the style of a publication, publisher, or university. Always ask for the name of the current standard to save yourself rewrites or rejection.

A complete bibliography appears at the end of this usage guide.



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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 30-Nov-2013
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach