Common Errors Between Word Pairs
These COOL WRITING TIPS discuss some of the common pairs of words that people confuse because they’re not sure of the correct usage. You'll find more here.
As writers whose work will potentially reach a wide audience, let's learn to use language responsibly by understanding these differences.
Cool Writing Tips and Examples
Here are a few of the most commonly misunderstood word pairs. Usage is British English.
Some of the pairs below are misused so commonly that your immediate reaction might be to debate the point!
among or between
Use between when there are two people or things.
Party example using between: “Rebecca and Marty shared the wine between them.”
Use among when there are three or more people or things.
Cool example using among: “If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.” H L Mencken
While we’re on the subject of among, how about amongst? Take your pick! Both of these prepositions are grammatically correct, although among is more commonly used.
back yard or backyard
Yard is a noun. When used as two separate words – back yard – back is an adjective describing or qualifying yard. It makes it clear that it is the yard behind the house rather than the yard in front of the house.
Silly example: “Sumatran tigers live in the back yard.”
Cool simple tip: If you can use the article ‘the’ or ‘a/an’ on its own before a word, then that word is a noun. Example, “The yard”, “A yard”.
Backyard is an adjective.
Boring example: “Our backyard barbeque was a gift from Grandma.” Here, backyard describes the barbeque, specifically, the location of the barbeque.
lie or lay
Lay is a transitive verb, meaning that it needs a subject and one or more objects. Its present tense is lay and its past tense and past participle is laid. (“Fulberto lays the table”; “Fulberto laid the table yesterday”; “Fulberto has laid the table so we can now dish up”.)
Let’s break it down: “Fulberto lays the table.” ‘Fulberto’ = subject; ‘the table’ = the object.
Lie is an intransitive verb, meaning it needs no object. Its present tense is lie, its past tense is lay, and its past participle is lain. (“I lie down to sleep”; “I lay down to sleep last night”; I have lain down to rest because I’m very tired”.)
Silly example: “‘Assume a horizontal position,’ said the sergeant. ‘What do you mean?’ replied the cadet. ‘Lie down, you fool!’ shouted the sergeant.”
affect or effect
Effect is both a verb – meaning ‘to bring about’, ‘to accomplish’, and a noun – meaning ‘result’.
Cool quote using effect: “Surrealism had a great effect [noun] on me because then I realised that the imagery in my mind wasn’t insanity. Surrealism to me is reality” – John Lennon.
Cool simple tip: Bear in mind that English often is not logical and sometimes you have to memorise usage. If you are going to use ‘the’ before one of these words – the noun – then the right word to use is ‘effect’!
Affect is a verb – meaning ‘to influence’.
Cool quote using affect: “Nothing can affect my voice, it’s so bad” – Bob Dylan.
compliment or complement
A compliment is a kind or flattering statement, and can be used as a noun or as a verb. When Tony says to Claire, “You look stunning in that dress,” he is paying her a compliment.
When two things complement each other, each makes the other complete, or provides balance to the whole. Complement can be used as either a noun or a verb. “Rhonda and Josh are a couple who get on very well in all ways; they complement each other perfectly.”
Make Every Word Count
Make every word count when you are writing. Avoid wordiness with the overuse of words like ‘very’ and ‘certainly’.
Be ruthless. When you read over a sentence that you have written, if a word does nothing to move the story along or advance the theme, remove it! Better still, think about whether you can change the sentence around and make it a great one, rather than a colourless one. Your writing will be richer for it.
Mark Twain said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
The following example, with a mundane sentence followed by a more compelling one, illustrates how much richer your writing can be with just a little effort and imagination.
Standing beside John as they queued for lunch, Emily noticed that he was very tall and she thought he was very handsome.
There is no point of comparison for the reader to know just how tall John is, or how others might perceive his looks.
Emily was five foot eight but standing beside John as they queued for lunch, she noticed that she barely reached his shoulder. He wasn’t good looking in the drop-dead-gorgeous conventional sort of way – his mouth was a little too large and his eyes a little too widely spaced – but Emily was instantly attracted by his easy manner, his wide humorous grin, and the way his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled.
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Give me a call on 0405 695 534 or drop me an email to have a chat about your writing. Asking is free!
Gail Tagarro IPEd Accredited Editor (AE)