Introduction – Commonly Misused Terms and Phrases

When I woke up this morning my girlfriend asked me, “Did
you sleep good?” I said, “No, I made a few mistakes.”
—Steven Wright

This chapter is for everyone. We have all made the mistakes described herein. How many times have you found yourself puzzling over the distinction between “affect” and “effect,” “it’s” and “its”? It is not surprising that we maintain such uncertainties, because in any town in America you can find billboards and road signs and ads and newspapers with outright usage errors such as these printed boldly for all to see:

“Man Alright After Crocodile Attack” (“Alright” should be “All Right”)

“This Line Ten Items or Less” (“Less” should be “Fewer”)

“Auction at This Sight: One Week” (“Sight” should be “Site”)

“Violent Storm Effects Thousands” (“Effects” should be “Affects”)

Perhaps there is little need here to preach about the value of the material in this chapter. Quite simply, in formal writing, conventions have been established to aid us in choosing the best term for the circumstances, and you must make it your business to learn the rules regarding the trickiest and most misused terms. You can also dig up style handbooks with recommendations on using tricky terminology within your discipline. For instance, Geowriting: A Guide to Writing, Editing, and Printing in Earth Science, by Robert Bates, gives advice on using such terms as “areal,” “lithology,” “terrane,” and “zone”; medical students can turn to The Aspen Guide to Effective Health Care Correspondence or Writing, Speaking, and Communication Skills for Health Professionals for advice on commonly used contractual terms including ”yellow-dog contract” and “apostolate.” If you do not mind investing about 40 bucks, you could purchase The Chicago Manual of Style, essentially a bible for book publishers, which answers almost every conceivable style question. Finally, recognize that companies and institutions often develop their own style guides for internal use to address common issues. As an example, my home institution of Penn State publishes Editorial Style, which addresses local style issues related to such things as campus building names and academic titles. Never hesitate to look up a term for its proper usage if you are uncertain—there is a lot to be said for being correct.


For a searchable and comprehensive list of commonly misused words and phrases and some practice quizzes, visit these sites:

Common errors in English usage page from Washington State University

“Notorious Confusables” page from Capital Community College