The purpose of this chapter is to give the correct usage of many terms and expressions that are often misused because of inadequate knowledge of or sensitivity to proper idiom, or because of confusion with a word having a similar sound or meaning.
The list below contains nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that are often used with the wrong preposition or, in some cases, with some other, inappropriate part of speech. The correct usage is given in each case:
Accuracy is a measure of how closely a fact or value approaches the true value and the degree to which something is free of error. Precision is a measure of the fineness of a value. Thus, 6.0201 is more precise than 6.02, but it may not be more accurate (if one of the last two digits is incorrect).
Affect, as a verb, usually means influence.
As a verb, effect means bring about; as a noun, it means result, impact.
An allusion is an indirect reference; illusion applies to something appearing to be true or real, but actually not existing or being quite different from what it seems.
The primary meaning of alternate is by turns, first one then the other, or every other one; alternative refers to one of two or possibly more choices. The same distinction applies to the adverbial forms. Note, however, that alternate can also be used with the meaning of alternative.
Use amount for something considered as a mass or total; use number with people and things that can be counted.
Anyone (everyone, someone) can be used only to refer to people. Any one (every one, some one) is the correct form when referring to things. However, any one, etc. must also be used with people when the meaning is any single individual.
Appraise means set a value on; apprise means make aware of.
Approve means to sanction or to ratify; approve of means to think well of.
Apt means having a tendency (to) because of the subject’s character or suitability; liable expresses legal responsibility or the probability that the subject will suffer or be exposed to something undesirable; likely simply means that something is probable or likely to happen.
This construction must be completed with a finite verb.
The material following assume expresses a theory or even a hypothesis, whereas the words following presume express what the subject believes to be the case for want of proof to the contrary.
Presume can be replaced more readily by assume than the other way round.
To assure is to guarantee (a thing to a person) and to remove doubt, uncertainty or worry from a person’s mind. The primary meaning of ensure is to make sure or certain. Insure is related to insurance.
Attentiveness is the quality or state of being attentive or considerate. Attention refers to the ability to concentrate or the action or faculty of attending to a matter.
Beside is a preposition normally meaning by the side of or next to. Besides is an adverb meaning moreover or a preposition meaning in addition to.
Semi-annual means occurring every six months or twice a year. Biannual means occurring twice a year. Biennial means occurring every two years or lasting for two years (biennial plants).
The material following and should correspond syntactically to the material following both.
Do not write "Both . . . , as well as . . . ."
In expressions of time, by means not later than or at or before a specified time. Thus, by June 25 means on or before June 25, not just before June 25.
A characteristic quality is one that distinguishes and identifies. A distinctive feature denotes an attribute that sets a thing or person apart from a type or group. Typical relates to the characteristics peculiar to the type, class, species or group to which a thing or person belongs.
To cite something is to mention it or repeat it as proof of what is being said. To cite a person is to summon him or her before a court of law. To quote is to repeat something verbatim.
As adjectives, the words are partly interchangeable. Nevertheless, classic should be used when the meaning is a famous or supreme example of its type, while classical is preferred in reference to ancient Greek and Roman culture or to any music composed in a traditional, serious style.
Common means belonging to many or to all. Mutual means reciprocal.
Avoid using mutual redundantly, as in "Canada and Mexico entered into a mutual agreement."
Use compare when bringing out likenesses or similarities (with the preposition to) and when examining two or more objects to find likenesses or differences (with the preposition with). Use contrast to point out differences.
A compliment expresses praise, admiration or flattery. Things that are complementary may be different, but together they form a complete unit or supplement one other.
Comprise means consist of. Avoid the expression is comprised of. Constitute and compose mean make up, account for, form.
See also include, comprise.
To concern can mean relate to, involve the interests of and make anxious. One can be concerned for, about, over, at, by and with something. One can also be concerned that something might happen.
Care should be taken when using concern with the last-mentioned meaning of to cause anxiety or uneasiness in. Often this usage can cause ambiguity, as in the following examples:
While the distinction between these words can sometimes become blurred, the rule is that continual implies a close recurrence in time or a rapid succession of events. Continuous means uninterrupted in time or sequence.
A council is a governing or consultative body (city council, council of grand chiefs, student council) made up of councillors. Sometimes council is used synonymously with board (e.g., Council of Egg Marketing Authorities). Counsel pertains to advice and guidance, especially in law (counsel for the defence). In a formal context, counsel is provided by counsellors.
Although attempts are sometimes made to distinguish between to make and to take a decision, or to reject one in favour of the other, most modern dictionaries use them interchangeably in the sense of to decide about something.
Defective is that which is wanting in quality; deficient is that which is wanting in quantity.
Dependant is the noun, dependent the adjective.
The meanings of these words overlap to a large extent, but they cannot be used interchangeably in all contexts. As a general rule, different implies separateness or contrariness, while various stresses number and diversity of sorts or kinds.
Disinterested means unbiased, while uninterested means not interested in.
Grammatically, each must be treated as a singular and be used with a singular verb.
When the notion of plurality is pre-eminent, however, a plural verb is appropriate.
Economic relates to the economy, whereas economical refers to someone who is thrifty or to something that is efficient or avoids waste:
Effective refers to producing the desired result (effective ways of combatting pollution). It can also have the meanings of in force (a law) and actual (the effective leader was the commander of the armed forces). Efficient refers to the skilful use of time and energy to produce desired results with little effort.
The constructions either. . . or and neither . . . nor should be used to co-ordinate two words, phrases or clauses. Note that the constructions following these correlatives should be parallel and that the verb agrees in number with the nearer subject.
To emigrate is to leave a country or region to settle in another. To immigrate is to enter and settle in a country or region. To migrate means to move from one place to another (this can be seasonal and can apply to both people and animals). When deciding between immigrate and emigrate, the speaker’s perspective determines the choice of word.
This word should not be followed by as.
Exercise caution in using phrases such as as a matter of fact, in fact, the fact is and actually. They are often just an artificial means of assuring the reader that the writer is dealing with facts rather than theories and hypotheses, and may therefore be omitted in the interest of conciseness.
Fewer is used when referring to number; lesser and less are used for quantity, amount, size or number when the number is thought of as an amount.
These words are often wrongly used to convey the opposite of their real meaning. Figuratively means not literally, not really; literally means really, actually; virtually means almost entirely, for all practical purposes. Thus, the statement, "He was literally bowled over," is nonsensical. In the sentence, "The sinking of the Titanic was a virtual disaster," the adjective is gratuitous and even detracts from the magnitude of the disaster.
Although to some extent synonymous, financial has a broader meaning and refers to money matters or transactions on a large scale. Fiscal applies usually to public revenues.
Flaunt means display boastfully, whereas flout means treat with contemptuous disregard.
As a verb, flounder means struggle awkwardly without making progress. Founder means fill with water and sink (ship), fail (plans, etc.), break down or go lame (horse).
Forego means to go before or precede. It usually occurs in the forms foregoing and foregone. It also means to abstain from, go without, relinquish, and in this sense has the variant spelling forgo.
Former and latter refer to only two items. For a group of more than two, use first (or first-mentioned) and last (or last-named) to indicate order.
In recent years the use of gender has been broadened from the designation of grammatical categories to cover uses formerly limited to the word sex. However, the two words are not interchangeable. Sex should be used in reference to biological categories and sexually motivated phenomena or behaviour, whereas gender should be used for social or cultural categories.
Is the singular permissible in reference to products, wares and merchandise? In general contexts, the plural goods should be used or a singular noun such as product substituted. However, in specialized contexts the singular is sometimes used for convenience’s sake, as in "the tax applies to any good or service purchased in Canada."
Healthful means conducive to health; healthy means possessing health.
Historical is used in the general sense of related to history or having existed. Historic is preferred for something famous or important in history.
When referring to capital punishment, use hanged. In all other contexts use hung.
The abbreviation i.e. means that is and introduces a definition; e.g. means for example. Do not use e.g. (or for example or a synonym such as including) and etc. in the same sentence, since etc. would be redundant.
or better still
Imply refers to meaning intended by the speaker, whereas infer refers to meaning understood by the receiver of a message.
Include implies only part of a whole; comprise implies all.
The correct idiom is in or with regard to (singular). Note also without regard to and as regards.
The of in each of these expressions is superfluous.
Intense means existing in a high degree, strong, extreme; intensive means highly concentrated, thorough.
This is non-standard usage. Write regardless.
Its is the possessive form of it. It’s is a contraction of it is or it has.
Lay (past tense laid) always takes an object. Lie (past tense lay) does not take an object.
Lead is a present tense form of the verb to lead. Led is the past tense of the same verb, which is often misspelled with ea.
It is incorrect to use least when comparing only two persons or things.
These terms can both mean capable of being deciphered or read with ease. Readable also means interesting to read.
The traditional distinction is that loan is used principally as a noun, whereas lend is invariably a verb. Although this distinction is being blurred in current Canadian usage, it should be observed in formal writing.
Luxuriant refers to abundant growth; luxurious concerns luxury.
The term matériel (with or without the accent) is used for the equipment, apparatus and supplies of an organization (as distinct from personnel), especially in the military. In all other contexts, material is used.
Although usage is evolving, in the context of modern communications use media as the plural and medium as the singular.
Militate means act, work, operate (in favour of or against); mitigate means reduce the severity of. Note that mitigate takes no preposition.
Both needs and need are used as the third person singular of the verb to need, but in different contexts. Needs is the usual form in affirmative statements, either with noun objects or with to and an infinitive. Need is sometimes used as an auxiliary, followed by the infinitive without to, in negative statements and in questions. In formal English need may be used even when the negation is merely suggested by a word like only.
Avoid using this prefix to create new words when a suitable opposite already exists.
Un- has a negative connotation and means the opposite of, whereas non- means other than. Thus, non-scientific means not connected with science, while unscientific means lacking scientific rigour. Compare also un-Christian conduct and non-Christian religions; un-Canadian and non-Canadian; unserviceable (so worn that it can no longer be brought back into service) and non-serviceable (not meant to be serviced).
Use a plural verb after one of those who.
On the part of is often an awkward way of saying by or among.
The phrase peculiar to means characteristic of and has nothing to do with being peculiar or strange. Particular to is incorrect usage.
Practicable means that which can be done, which is feasible; practical means having to do with action or practice, fit for actual practice, and is the opposite of theoretical. Thus, it may be practicable to come to work in a dogsled, but it is not practical.
Preceding refers to what comes immediately before. Previous and prior, which are synonymous, mean existing or occurring (some time) before something else. Prior can also imply priority, as in a prior engagement.
The prefix is redundant. Planning is the correct term.
Principal can be an adjective meaning chief or leading; it can also be a noun meaning chief person or original sum of money (as in a loan). Principle can be used only as a noun, meaning universal law or rule of conduct.
The words are not interchangeable. A procedure is a set way of doing something. It stresses the method or routine followed. A process is a series of progressive and interdependent steps carried out to obtain a particular result.
In current usage the two words mean the same thing and are largely interchangeable. Proportional(ly) is more common, especially in set phrases such as proportional parts, proportional representation, proportional tax.
As a verb, raise takes an object, whereas rise does not.
Note their principal parts: raise, raised, has raised; rise, rose, has risen.
A sentence beginning "The reason . . . is (was)" should be followed by a noun, a noun phrase, or a noun clause usually introduced by that.
The word back is superfluous after refer.
Although largely synonymous, the two words are not interchangeable. Both express the idea of a connection between things or persons. Relationship tends to be preferred for human connections, relation for more abstract connections.
A requisition is a formal demand for the use of a vehicle, supplies or premises, especially in a military context. As a verb, requisition is transitive and should not be followed by for.
Indian reserve is used in Canada; Indian reservation is used in the United States.
Use the adjective responsible only with persons or corporate entities, not with things.
As a noun, sanction has two almost directly opposed meanings. It can mean official approval or authority as well as a penalty to enforce behaviour. As a verb, it can only mean to authorize or to legitimize.
Seasonal means of or occurring in a particular season; seasonable means normal for the time of year or timely. The corresponding adverbs are seasonally and seasonably.
Sensual means pertaining to the gratification of physical appetites as ends in themselves. Sensuous means pertaining to the senses, involving aesthetic pleasure.
Apart from specialized uses in finance and animal breeding, service is used mainly in the sense of to repair or maintain. The more general term—especially when used in relation to people—is serve.
These two verbs are rarely interchangeable. Set usually requires an object, whereas sit does not.
However, there are some exceptions: cement sets (no object) and one sits an exam (object).
If something is stationary, it is fixed or unmoving. Stationery is material used for writing, including paper, cards and envelopes.
Subject to, an expression widely used in administrative writing, is an adjectival or adverbial phrase meaning under the control of, bound by, likely to have, depending on. Subjected to is the past tense or past participle of the verb to subject to, which means to cause to undergo something, to bring under the control of.
A tendency is a leaning or inclination to do something. A trend is the prevailing direction or course of something or the current fashion.
Kind and sort are singular; these and those are plural. Write this (that) kind, these (those) kinds, this (that) sort and these (those) sorts. Another solution can be to rephrase your sentence.
Till and until are interchangeable as prepositions and as conjunctions, although the latter is somewhat more formal. Avoid ’til and up until.
Although both expressions are idiomatic, they are not always interchangeable. Try to is more appropriate to formal writing.
This is an absolute. Do not write very unique or rather unique. Similarly, many other absolute adjectives (perfect, empty, circular, perpendicular, right, eternal and so on), when used in their strict sense, should not be modified by a comparative or superlative adverb. Note that unique is preceded by the indefinite article a (not an).
The United States takes a singular verb, since the term designates a single country rather than a collection of states. The Netherlands and the United Nations are also treated as singular nouns.
Although many legitimate phrasal verbs include the adverb up, avoid the following, which are inappropriate in formal writing: choose up, finish up, listen up, practise up and wait up.
The proper meaning of utilize is to put to (unexpected) practical use or to make use of in a profitable way. Utilize and utilization should not be used as pompous substitutes for use, as in "The incumbent will be expected to utilize a word processor."
When expressing hypothetical conditions or conditions contrary to fact, use were.
He behaves as though he were a millionaire.
The last is a statement of a possible state of affairs relating to the past, and does not involve a hypothetical condition contrary to fact.
This phrase (as in Where are we at?) is colloquial and should not be used in writing.
The former is the subject of a verb, the latter the object. Although this distinction is widely disregarded in spoken English and informal written English, it should be observed in formal writing.
The form who’s is a contraction of who is. Whose is the possessive form of who.
This is widely misused in constructions such as "If I would earn an ‘A’ in the exam, I would be happy." The sentence expresses a hypothetical, though possible, condition and calls for the past tense, should or were to, in place of the first would.
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