More Commonly Confused Words

Nearly two weeks ago, I posted about some commonly confused words and how to choose the right one. Since then, I’ve had a few people ask about other commonly confused words, so I’ve compiled another list with suggestions for choosing the right word.

A/An/The – These three little words are called articles.  Some languages do not have articles, so when speakers of those languages learn to write in English, they also need to learn when to use each of these articles.  “A” and “an” are indefinite articles; that is, the noun that appears after them could refer to any ol’ thing, nothing definite. “The,” on the other hand, is a definite article. When a noun appears after “the,” the writer means for you to know that that noun is something specific.  For example, if I write, A court would hold the defendant liable, I’m saying any court, not a specific court, would hold the defendant liable. But if I write, The court would hold the defendant liable, I mean that a specific court would hold him liable, and which court that is would likely be clear from the context of the sentence in a larger document. As well, in both examples above, I’ve used the defendant, meaning a specific defendant about whom I am writing.

One other thing to note: “An” is used before nouns that begin with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u) or words that sound like they begin with a vowel, even if they don’t. An example would be: An honest person would return an item she found that didn’t belong to her. In that sentence, “honest” gets an “an” before it, even though it doesn’t begin with a vowel, but it sounds like it does. “Item” does begin with a vowel and gets an “an.” Conversely, some words that begin with vowels get “a” before them because they sound like they begin with consonants. E.g., There’s a one-hour delay for my flight.

Counsel/Council – In short, law students will become “counsel” when they become lawyers. This is because they will counsel their clients. They may also be called “Counselor.”  “Council” is a governing body of some sort, like a city council. A member of that governing body would be a councillor.

E.g./I.e. – “E.g.” means “for example” and “i.e.” means “that is.” In the “a/an/the” paragraph above, I offered an example of when a word that begins with a vowel gets the article “a.” I set up that example using “E.g.”  “I.e.” is used not to list specific examples, but to further define or clarify. The best way to make your writing better is to do a hard copy edit; i.e, print your paper and read each line. (See also my example of “i.e.” in It’s/Its below.)

It’s/Its – One way we use apostrophes is to form contractions; i.e., contract two words into one.  “It’s” is one such contraction.  “It’s” means one thing and only one thing:  It is. When you’re writing, if you mean to say “it is,” then use “it’s.” In all other cases, which is in most cases, you’ll use “its,” which is the possessive form of “it.”  For example, It’s hard to believe the court still has not issued it’s decision is wrong because for the second “it’s” I do not mean “it is.” That would make no sense.  It is hard to believe the court still has not issued it is decision.  Thus, the correct sentence would be, It’s hard to believe the court still has not issued its decision.

Principal/Principle – As some of us learned in grade school to remember the distinction, the principal was your “pal.” But “principal” has other meanings besides the person who is in charge of a school. “Principal” can also mean, in financial terms, the capital sum (as opposed to the interest). It can also mean “first,” “most important,” main,” or “primary.” As in, The principal reason I picked Marquette Law School is because of its friendly and intelligent faculty. “Principle” means “a fundamental truth or rule or proposition.” Thus, The court based its decision on two guiding principles of tort law.

Then/than – “Then” has a time element to it, while “than” is about comparisons. I researched the issue, then I wrote the brief. The time element is clear; I did one task (researching) before the other (writing). But if I want to compare the research and writing, I would write, But I like writing more than I like researching. (Sorry, Professor Behroozi!)

Utilize/Use – Both of these words mean pretty much the same thing. But for some reason, lawyers tend to favor “utilize.” While a lawyer might write, The court will utilize six public policy factors in this case, that same lawyer would likely not write, When you eat soup, utilize your spoon. Maybe because “utilize” is longer and sounds more “lawyerly,” lawyers think they need to utilize it in formal writing. Nonsense. It’s much more concise—in both sentences—to just use “use.”

You’re/Your – “You’re” is a contraction for “you are” and “your” is the possessive of “you.” If you mean “you are,” then use “you’re.” You’re going to graduate in May means You are going to graduate in May. “Your” would not be appropriate in that previous sentence. It is appropriate, however, when you need a possessive, such as in, Are you wearing your suit to the graduation ceremony?

I hope this post, and its predecessor, help writers choose the right word.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Angelina Joseph

    I liked this post a lot. I wanted to print it out for my 8-year-old granddaughter, who will enjoy reading this too.

    I would like to add another set of words to your list: affect/effect. Many times these words are used in wrong contexts.

  2. Bruce E. Boyden

    A few more:

    Tortious/tortuous. It doesn’t help that Microsoft Word “autocorrects” tortious to tortuous.

    Tack/tact. If you are shifting direction, you are taking a new tack — it’s a nautical term for a heading relative to the wind. Tact is the quality of being polite.

    Capitol/capital. The Capitol is the building in Washington DC where Congress meets. “Capital” is everything else.

    Motioned/moved. If you are motioning, you are waving your hand to get someone to go somewhere. “Moving” is what you do when you make a motion in court.

  3. Lisa A. Mazzie

    Affect/effect — “Affect” and “effect” are often confused. For the most part, though, “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun.

    “Affect” is most often used as a verb; that is, an action word. As a verb, it generally means “to influence or impress or change.” An example would be: The rain has affected my plans to go to the beach. “Affect” is used as a noun (a person, place, or thing) in psychology to refer to emotion. But mostly, it’s used as a verb.

    “Effect,” on the other hand, is mostly used as a noun, as in “the result, outcome, or consequence.” For example: Adding candles as party decorations created a stunning effect. Or: He likes to tease just for the effect. Lawyers might use “effect” as a noun to mean someone’s personal items. E.g., Please remove all your personal effects from the apartment. Periodically, lawyers use “effect” as a verb, and when used as a verb it means “to bring about.” Lawyers might effect an agreement between the parties.

  4. Lisa A. Mazzie

    @Bruce — thanks for the addition. A note about tortious and tortuous. Tortious is conduct that constitutes a tort. Tortuous refers to something that is morally deceitful or devious. (It also can mean full of twists and turns.) Certainly tortuous conduct can be tortious, but not always.

  5. Tom Kamenick

    Great post. I would’ve thrown in that “an hospital” (or horrific, horrible, hotel, etc.) is just wrong in American English, despite how people try to sound fancy by saying/writing it.

    Bruce, I think “capitol” can refer to any state’s central government building, not just D.C.’s. At least, Wisconsin government calls its building the capitol.

  6. Lisa A. Mazzie

    @Tom – I agree on both counts. On your first point, note that although those words begin with “h,” they sound like they begin with “h”; that is, with the sound of a consonant. That’s why “an” is wrong.

    I’d also like to add another set of words:

    Flesh/flush – Of late, many students say or write that they will “flush out” their outline. That may be what they mean, but I doubt it. “Flesh out” is more likely what they want. To “flesh out” means to add more substance, more meat (flesh) to the “bones” of an outline, idea, etc. To “flush out” that outline would mean to do away with it completely.

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