There are a number of words that people often misuse in writing and speech. On this page we discuss many common mistakes that people make, and what is the proper use of the words in each case. Our explanations are fairly informal. To get a more formal and complete explanation on word usage, we recommend that you look at a good English language usage guide such as the American Heritage Book of English Usage. This same resource is also available online.

Here is a listing of the words that we find people misuse:

affect / effect
The words "affect" and "effect" are often confused because their definitions seem related. "Affect" is a verb that means to have an influence on something. It would be used in a sentence like this:

The company’s warning that it would not meet people’s expectations for its quarterly earnings affected the stock price negatively.

"Effect" is a noun. It is a result or an outcome. This is the word that is used in the expression "special effects".

Gary was surprised at the effect that the movie had on him.

between / among
It’s usually pretty clear that people use the word "between" to indicate a choice between two items:

I was torn between the coffee and mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Unfortunately, we can’t just say that we should use "among" when there are more than two items. It’s a little more subtle than that. "Between" should be used, even when there are multiple entities, in cases where each entity is considered distinct:

I didn’t have time to catch a nap between classes.

Among is used when there are multiple entities, and those entities are supposed to be considered as a group with no distinct boundaries. The American Heritage Book of English Usage gives this example:

The balloon landed among the houses.

In this sentence, we’re talking about landing in the general location of the houses, including landing on top of any one house.

capital / capitol
We believe that people confuse these words just because they don’t realize that the two are spelled differently. The word "capitol" is used to describe a government building. The word "capital" is used in pretty much every other case — capital letters, capital punishment, and capital gains.

compose / comprise
Between the two words, it is "comprise" that is most often misused. People understand how to use the word "compose" in a sentence like this one:

A computer is composed of many parts, such as the hard drive, CPU, and motherboard.

Many people try to use the word "comprise" in the same way, saying that a computer is comprised of many parts. This use of comprise is incorrect. The correct use would be written like this:

A computer comprises many parts, such as the hard drive, CPU, and motherboard.

If you try to substitute a synonym of "comprises" like "contains", you see why you can’t say "is comprised of". Just remember to use "comprises" instead of "is comprised of" and you should be okay.

e.g. / i.e.
People confuse the terms "e.g." and "i.e.". "E.g." should be used before an example. "I.e." should be used to further clarify what you’re saying.

"E.g." is an abbreviation from the Latin phrase exempli gratia, which means "for example".

Even if you don’t have a 20% down payment for a house, there are still many ways to convince the lender to give you a mortgage (e.g., get PMI, apply for a second mortgage, etc.).

"I.e." is an abbreviation from the Latin phrase id est, which means "that is".

The hotel is closed during the off-season, i.e., from October to March.

hanged / hung
The verb "hang" has two different forms of past tense: "hanged" and "hung". Essentially, we just use "hanged" when we’re talking about execution. "Hung" is used in all other senses.

The bandit was hanged yesterday.

The pictures were hung on the wall.

its / it’s
Apostrophes are used to indicate possession as well as the removal of letters in contractions. With the word "it", we use an apostrophe in only one of the two cases — the contraction. "It’s" always means "it is", whereas "its" is used to indicate possession.

It’s a beautiful day today

The car lost its bumper in the accident.

farther / further
While most people will use "farther" and "further" interchangeably, "farther" should be used to indicate literal distance, and "further" is used in a figurative sense.

The next gas station was farther than we expected.

The pastor expounded further on his sermon.

This rule is being relaxed more and more over time.

fewer / less
Use the word "fewer" when you are discussion countable items; use less when you’re just talking about magnitude.

I used less sugar in this batch of cookies.

I had fewer items in my grocery cart than the ten item limit.

lie / lay
The words "lie" and "lay" are confusing because even though they are two separate verbs, the past tense of "lie" is also "lay". The past tense of "lay" is "laid". "Lie" means to recline (like when you lie down on a bed). "Lay" means to place (like when a chicken lays an egg).A number of examples are necessary to make this clear. Here are examples of "lie" and its various forms:

I like to lie down after I eat.

After I lay (past tense of lie, not present tense of lay) on the bed, I fell asleep.

She had lain awake on the bed for hours before getting bored.

And here are some examples of "lay":

Each night I lay my clothes on the dresser for the next day.

Unfortunately, he laid the wet paintbrush on the new carpet.

me / myself / I
The main confusion here is when to use “me” and when to use “I”. We’ll discuss “myself” separately. There is a very complete explanation of when you use "me" or "I", which centers around when you want to use the objective or nominative form of the personal pronoun in the American Heritage Guide to English Usage (see the link in the title of this section).

We think that most people just get confused when using "me" or "I" with another name.

Agnes and I like our website.

If you want, you can email Agnes or me to give us compliments.

In the second sentence, some people erroneously say "Agnes or I". You can hear the problem if you remove everyone from the sentence, except for yourself. "You can email me" sounds right, but "You can email I" is obviously wrong; therefore, the right phrase is "You can email Agnes or me".

We’ve noticed people using the word "myself" in place of "I" or "me", possibly to avoid choosing between the two. We’ll hear, "Come talk to myself or Bernard". This is wrong. "Myself" should be used in place of "me" when the sentence refers to the same subject again. This happens when "I" appears earlier in the sentence. A more complete explanation can be found here.

I told myself that I wouldn’t laugh.

Finally, it is considered more polite to put yourself last in a list of people. Say "Tell Agnes and me what you’re thinking" instead of "Tell me and Agnes what you are thinking".

principal / principle
These two words are easy to use correctly when you understand which word corresponds to each definition.

"Principle" is used to mean ethics or rules. "Principal" is used to mean the head of a school, or as an adjective, primary. The word "principle" is never used as an adjective.

I would not want to compromise my principles.

The principal told me to come to his office.

The principal ballerina twisted her ankle.

scan / skim
People use the word "scan" when they mean "skim". "Scan" means to examine closely; "skim" means to read quickly.

I skimmed the magazine article to see if there was anything noteworthy.

I scanned the horizon closely for any sign of the ship.

than / then
“Than” and “then” are completely unrelated words. They just happen to be spelled similarly. "Than" should be used in a comparison.

My golf ball landed closer to the pin than his.

"Then" should be used to mean "in that case" or "at that time".

If you’re unsure what a word means, then you should look it up in the dictionary.

I went to the store, then I dropped by the dry cleaner’s.

that / which
"That" and "which" are often used interchangeably to further describe the object of a sentence. For instance, one may write this example sentence:

I was bitten by the dog that had brown spots.

The words "that" and "which" cannot quite be used interchangeably though. If you substitute "which" in the sentence you get this:

I was bitten by the dog, which had brown spots.

The meaning is different. The first sentence identifies the dog as one that is distinguished by the fact that it has brown spots. The second sentence talks about being bitten by a dog that just happens to have brown spots. If we were to remove the last part of the sentence starting with "which", the meaning of the sentence doesn’t fundamentally change. In general, if the clause that follows that/which is not fundamental to the meaning of the sentence, you should use "which".

who / whom
Many people use "who" all of the time, and almost never use "whom". "Whom" should be used in case where "me" is the appropriate answer.

With whom did you leave the package?

"Whom" should also be used in the expressions "to whom", "from whom", etc. Generally it should be used whenever you are describing the object of a verb, rather than the subject.

whose / who’s
"Whose" describes possession. "Who’s" is a contraction meaning "who is". They are used very differently.

I couldn’t figure out whose finger prints were on the glass.

Who’s the best person for the job?

In the first sentence, “whose” refers to the person who possesses the fingerprints. In the question, we are asking "Who is the best person for the job".