In COOL WRITING TIPS, we talked about some commonly confused word pairs. You'll find more here. Some of these are mainly confused in written English, sometimes mainly in spoken English, and in some cases, both.
Here, I offer more examples and tips with yet more commonly confused word pairs, to help you improve writing and understand usage. (All usage referred to is British English.)
Commonly confused word pairs
accept and except
The trick: Think that the ‘x’ in ‘except’ excludes something. Example: We accept your application and everything is in order except that your date of birth is missing from the application form.
a lot and alot
A lot – meaning ‘a large quantity’ – is written as two separate words. Always.
It is an informal phrase, which experienced fiction writers use sparingly, preferring to use ‘much’ (uncountable nouns*) or ‘many’ (countable nouns*), or using another turn of phrase altogether.
Instead of saying, He has a lot of money, a seasoned writer might say, ‘He is an enormously wealthy man’.
(*You'll find an explanation of Uncountable and Countable nouns here.)
advice and advise
Trick: There is a group of words in English that can be spelt with a ‘c’ or an ‘s’, depending on which part of speech they are. They follow the same rule.
Spelt with ‘c’ the word is a noun (n): advice.
How to check if a word is a noun? If you can use ‘the’, or an adjective (adj), or a pronoun before it, it is a noun:
The advice (n) he gave me was excellent.
He gave me excellent (adj) advice (n).
Spelt with ‘s’ the word is a verb: advise.
How to check if a word is a verb? If you can use ‘to’ before it, it is a verb:
If you are going to advise (v) me, advise (v) me well.
I advise (v) you to take my (pronoun) advice (n).
Some other word pairs that follow the rule ‘c’ = noun, ‘s’ = verb:
practice (n) - practise (v)
licence (n) - license (v)
device (n) - devise (v).
allusion and illusion
An allusion is an implied or indirect reference.
Example: Samantha’s allusion to Pinocchio’s nose when she shouted at Vince made us think she was calling him a liar.
The verb associated with allusion is allude, meaning ‘to make a reference to’.
She alluded to Pinocchio’s nose when she told Vince she didn’t believe him.
An illusion is a figment of one’s imagination, a trick.
Example: The magician’s illusion was pulling a rabbit out of the hat.
aloud and allowed
Aloud is an adverb – an adverb adds extra meaning to a verb.
Example: Please read the book aloud to me.
Aloud tells us how the book is going to be read, qualifying the verb ‘read’.
Allowed means permitted or accepted. It can be used as a verb or as an adjective (adj).
Example: I allow (v) the children to watch a movie. Smoking is not allowed at the office (adj).
I’m going to keep this one simple and divide the use of the apostrophe into two straightforward rules.
Contractions. A contraction is the short form of a word, where the apostrophe substitutes a letter.
don’t is the contraction for do not (the apostrophe replaces the ‘o’ in ‘not’
isn’t for is not
he’s for he is
you’re for you are
it’s for it is.
Trick: If you can make a meaningful sentence with the long form, then the apostrophe is being used correctly.
You’ll often see the apostrophe being used incorrectly.
Pizza’s and pasta’s is incorrect. It's simply the plural, pizzas and pastas.
The dog ate it’s dinner is wrong. You can’t say, The dog ate it is dinner. The correct form is The dog ate its (possessive pronoun) dinner.
But what about won’t for will not? Thank you, English! Here, we simply have to accept that English is idiosyncratic. By looking at the etymology of the word (the study of the origin of the word and how its meaning has changed throughout history), the explanation and logic can be discovered.
Possession (to mark ownership of something or someone).
Place the apostrophe before the ‘s’ to show singular possession.
Examples: the man’s peculiar laugh; the kid’s toy; Rupert’s white steed.
In the above examples, one man has a peculiar laugh. One kid has a toy. Rupert has a steed.
For simple plural possession, place the apostrophe after the ‘s’.
Examples: the boys’ toys; the actors’ cues; the lovers’ letters.
In the above examples, there are two or more boys and their toys, two or more actors and their cues, two or more lovers and their letters.
bring and take
Trick: When you move something (or someone) towards someone (or something), you bring it. When you move it away from someone (or something), you take it.
Example: Jonathan wants to buy Ming a ring and he needs her to try it on. The jeweller says to him:
Please bring Ming to buy the ring.
Back at home, Jonathan says to his partner, Ming, I'm taking you to the jeweller's to buy you a ring.
cannot and can not
Cannot means unable to do something. Example: I am working tomorrow so I cannot take you to see the gnu at the zoo.
Trick: If you can substitute can’t, it means the same thing. Can’t is the contraction (short form).
Used as two separate words, can not implies the speaker has the option of not doing something.
I would suggest not using it, as it is clumsy and can be confusing.
Example: Instead of, I’m eighteen and I can go to nightclubs, or I can not go to nightclubs if I choose, it would be clearer to say, I’m eighteen and I can go to nightclubs, although I can also choose not to.
continual and continuous
Continual means something that occurs again and again, but with time lapses between.
Example: The continual music next door made it the worst night of studying for Jasmine. This means that the music was playing on and off throughout the night.
Continuous means something that continues with no break in between. Sheena’s friend Gloria’s continuous talking gave her a headache. This implies that Gloria is giving Sheena an ear-bashing, that she just doesn’t stop talking.
could have or could of (also should have or should of, would have or would of)
Hearing could of or should of or would of is like fingernails being scraped across a blackboard for me!
Only could have, should have and would have are correct.
The reason the confusion arises is that in the spoken language, the contraction (shortened form), e.g. could’ve (could have) may sound like ‘could of’.
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