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Writer's Handbook

Words Often Confused

affect, effect-Affect is a verb meaning "to influence" ("My lack of sleep didn't affect my
performance on the test") or "to touch the emotions" ("We were deeply
affected by the lawyer's plea for mercy"). In psychology, there's also a meaning
of affect as a noun, but it's so specialized that most people will never use it in
their entire lives. Effect is usually a noun, meaning "result" ("The effect of these
changes was an increase in productivity"). Effect can also be used as a verb,
meaning "to cause" ("The environmental group hoped to effect a lasting

all right, alright-Although usage is gradually changing, at this time alright isn't generally
accepted, especially in academic writing. All right is still the accepted form.

amount, number-Use amount before items that cannot be counted: amount of rain, amount of
time, etc. Use number before items that can be counted: number of people,
number of years, etc.

cite, site, sight-Cite means "refer to" ("Cite your sources using MLA format"). "Site" means
"location" ("The site of the World Trade Center tragedy is now known as
Ground Zero"). Sight can mean "to see" (as in "We finally sighted the lights of
the city in the distance") or it can mean "a view" (as in "The Grand Canyon is
an awe-inspiring sight").

compliment, complement-Compliment is a noun meaning "words of praise" ("She paid me a
very nice compliment") or a verb meaning "to praise" ("It's rare for
him to compliment students that way"). Complement is almost
always a verb meaning "to complete" or "to balance ("His
personality complements hers perfectly"). Compliment means "full
of praise" ("a complimentary statement") or "provided free of
charge" ("complimentary tickets"), while complementary means
"completing" or "balancing" ("The color schemes for their outfits
are complementary"). To keep the two straight, remember that
complement is related to the word "complete."

desert, dessert-As a noun, desert refers a dry, barren land ("Few people could stand to live in
the desert"), or occasionally to what is deserved ("He got his just deserts"). As
a verb, desert means "to leave" ("He decided to desert his wife and children").
Dessert refers to something sweet eaten after the main portion of the meal
("We had chocolate ice cream for dessert").

everyday, every day-Everyday means "ordinary" or "routine" ("I wore my everyday clothes
to the play"). Every day means "each day" ("I try to do my homework
every day instead of putting things off until just before exams").

fewer, less-Fewer should be used before nouns referring to things that can be counted ("fewer
books," "fewer students," etc.). Less should be used before nouns referring to
things that can't be counted ("less water") or before nouns expressing abstract
ideas (less patriotism).

imply, infer-Imply means "to insinuate or hint at" ("What he writes implies that he thinks they
were drunk at the time"). Infer means "to draw a conclusion based on evidence"--
the sort of thing we often mean by "reading between the lines" ("After reading his
report, I can infer that he wasn't really an eyewitness"). In general, speakers and
and writers imply, while listeners and readers infer.

its, it's-Its indicates possession ("The jury rendered its verdict"). It's means "it is" ("It's
awfully cold outside today"). If you can't substitute "it is" and have the sentence still
make sense, then you want its, not it's.

lay, lie-Although both words have other meanings, people confuse them only when the
meaning is "to rest or recline" or "to put or place." If you mean "to rest or recline," you
should use lie in the present tense ("I've decided to let it lie there for awhile"), lay in
the past tense ("Last night I just lay in bed without being able to sleep"), and lain in the
past participle-that is, with words like "has" or "had" ("The dog had lain in that same
spot every evening for the past month"). If you mean "to put or place," you should use
lay in the present tense ("Lay those papers on my desk") and laid in both the past ("I
can't remember where I laid my wallet") and the past participle ("I had laid the books
over in the corner, but they're not there now").

lead, led-As a noun, lead rhymes with "said" and refers to metal ("The table was so heavy
that it seemed to be made of lead"). As a verb, lead rhymes with "need" and means
"to guide" ("He will lead the team to victory"). Led (which also rhymes with "said")
is the past tense form of the verb lead ("Last year she led them to the state

medal, metal, mettle-Metal is the material often mined from the earth ("Gold is a highly
valuable metal"). A medal is an object made by humans, usually intended to honor
someone ("He won a silver medal in the Olympics"). Mettle is a person's inner
strength ("The difficult experience will test their mettle").

principal, principle-Principles are rules, standards, or beliefs ("These are the principles that
guide my behavior"). Principal, as a noun, can mean "chief officer" ("a
middle school principal") or "monetary capital" ("You should try to pay
off the principal of the loan"). As a verb, it means "primary" ("Outside
Wisconsin, the principal thing people know about Green Bay is that it's
the home of a football team called the Packers").

real, really-If you mean "very," use really, not real ("She did a really good job"). And to
assure that words like really and very retain their meaning, use them sparingly.

stationary, stationery-Stationary means "standing still" ("Don't be a stationary target").
Stationery means "writing paper and envelopes" ("We need to order
more departmental stationery"). To remember the spelling of the one
referring to writing paper, it may help to know that publishers,
booksellers, and sellers of writing paper were once called stationers.

their, there, they're-Their is the possessive form of they ("They must turn in their research
papers next week"). There refers to location ("I have lived there for over
ten years"). They're means "they are" ("They're all waiting for us").

who, whom-Who is the subject or subject complement in a clause ("The teacher was Ramon
Torres, who I believe is the best faculty member in the school"-who is the
subject of "is the best faculty member in the school"). Whom is an object ("Amy
Martin, whom I first met in 1999, is applying for a job here"-whom is the object
in "whom I first met in 1999").

whose, who's-Whose indicates possession ("Whose house was this in 1985?"). Who's means
"who is" ("Who's going to do it if you won't?").

your, you're-Your indicates possession ("Is that your coat?"). You're means "you are"
("You're going to waste a lot of money that way").