Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Confusing Words: How to Tame the Problem Children of the English Language

by Sandy Tritt

Some pairs of words—for various reasons—give us headaches. Sometimes it’s because they are spelled similarly; sometimes it’s because they have common tenses; and sometimes it’s because the rules have changed somewhere along the way. And sometimes it’s because certain words simply are born like that. 

I’ve made a list of the brats I see most often, as well as the tools you need to keep that problem child on his or her best behavior. 

Further/Farther – Without further ado, let me state the not-so-obvious: further and farther are not swappable—they are not synonyms. Further (as in “further ado”) refers to ideas. Farther (which contains the word “far” in it—hint, hint, hint) refers to distance. So, we travel farther to further our growth as humans. 

I’m convinced these next two sets of twins delight in getting each other in trouble. Because the first pair contains a word that isn’t a word, and since this pair is similar in construction to the subsequent pair, we become confused and believe it’s already that isn’t a word. But already is a word! Here’s how to keep these little rascals separated and behaving: 

Alright/All rightAlright is never all right. Alright is not a word. Therefore, you don’t have to remember the differences between these words. You only have to remember that alright is never all right. 

Already/All readyAlready is an adverb that means “prior to a specific time.” All ready is a term that means “completely prepared.” “I’m all ready to go.” “Too late now. We’ve already left.” 

Lay/Lie/Lie - If you have trouble with these troublesome triplets, you’re not alone. They have kept writers awake well past bedtime. Here’s their story:

Lay means “to put” or “to set.” “I’m going to lay my lunch on the table.” Lay is a transitive verb, which means it requires an object (this book).

Lie means “to recline or rest.” “I’m going to lie down for a bit.” Lie is an intransitive verb, which means it does not require an object—the action occurs to the subject of the sentence. 

Now, we can complicate this situation a bit more by adding a different definition of lie—the one that means “telling a fib.”

But it’s when we look at their tenses that we grow tense, so let’s perform a simple conjugation of these verbs:

To put or set
To recline or rest
To fib
Present tense
Past tense
Past participle
Has laid
Has lain
Has lied
Present participle
Is laying
Is lying
Is lying

If you look through the various tenses, you’ll see the past tense of lay is laid. And the past tense of lie is lay. Yes. Lay. So now you understand the problem with these problem children. If you need to, print this little chart and keep it next to your computer—or save it to your “things to remember” document (you do have one of those, right?). 

Affect/Effect – These are the hooligans who have caused me the most trouble. I think the reason is because I grew up in West Virginia, where it’s common for folks to pronounce these two words the same. But they surely are not. Affect is a verb meaning “to influence or make a difference to.” Effect is usually a noun and means “a result or influence.” Of course, the powers that be have mixed it up a little to keep us on our toes, so effect can also be used as a verb meaning “to bring something about as a result.” And the effect of that decision continues to affect us today. 

Then/Than – These imps behave badly throughout the world, but in some areas of the country, they are pronounced the same—and that makes our intuitive feeling for a word lose its intuition. Then is usually used as an adverb and refers to time. Than is a conjunction that shows comparison. If you experience problems with these little guys, practice pronouncing them correctly. If you do that consistently, then they’ll behave much better than they did in the past. 

Lose/Loose – Again, I believe the problem we have with these guys is based upon pronunciation. Lose rhymes with blues and means “to misplace something” (and you’ll have the blues if you lose something important). Loose rhymes with caboose and is an adjective that means “not tight”: if the pants on your caboose are too loose, you might lose them. Easy peasy, right? Well, fasten your seatbelts, because we’re going to race right past these guys to the next disturbing duo.

Past/Passed – These evil urchins are pronounced exactly the same—and that’s only the beginning of their orneriness. The word past has several meanings, but it usually refers to “time before the present” or indicates “movement from one side of a reference point to the other side of that point.” Past can be used as an adjective, an adverb, a noun or a preposition

The word passed is the past tense of the verb “to pass.” To pass often means to move past, and this is where we get confused by this pair’s antics. Of note, to pass can also mean to race past, to fly past, to sprint past or to any-other-movement-verb past. To help keep these twins in their appropriate corners, remember this: if you’ve already used a verb that indicates motion, you’ll want to use past and not passed.  

Its/It’sIt’s always its—unless you can substitute the word “it is” for the “its.” In that case, you need the apostrophe to show the missing letter—no missing letter, no apostrophe. 

I realize these represent just a few of the delinquents who taunt us. What problem children provoke you while you’re writing? Be sure to comment below or email us at and we’ll be happy to address your concern. If we get enough comments, we’ll run another blog on the subject. 

If you have a multitude of miscreants, please consider hiring one of our supernannies—er, I mean, editors—to get those brats back in line. You don’t want your reader or potential agent/publisher to be the first to scowl at your problem child. 

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