Struggling to use the correct words in your writing? You’re not alone. There are many pairs of words in English with similar spellings or pronunciations that cause confusion in written communication. Here are five pairs that frequently cause trouble, along with some quick tips to help you the next time you need to choose between them.
Its vs. it’s
‘Its’ is the possessive form of ‘it’. In other words, when you use ‘its’, you’re referring to something that belongs to the item in question. ‘It’s’ is a contraction of the words ‘it is’.
Incorrect: I think its going to rain this afternoon. The cub followed it’s mother into the woods.
Correct: I think it’s going to be a long meeting this afternoon. The board gave its recommendations to the president.
Tip: If you can substitute the words ‘it is’ in the same place in your sentence, you should use the contraction ‘it’s’.
Use of i.e. versus e.g.
Many people confuse these two abbreviations, but there’s an easy way to remember which is which. The abbreviation ‘e.g.’ means ‘for example’ (it’s short for the Latin exempli gratia), whereas ‘i.e.’ means ‘that is’ or ‘in other words (from the Latin id est). The easiest way to remember this one? Think of e.g. when you need to provide an ‘eg-xample’ of something.
Affect vs. effect
These two words are often confused. As a general rule, ‘affect’ is usually an action (or verb), while ‘effect’ is usually a noun and/or a result of something else. For instance:
- I wonder how this arrangement will affect the company?
- What is the effect of this arrangement on the company?
Here’s a tip for remembering which to use: If you’re describing something you’re going to do, use ‘affect’. If you’re describing something you’ve already done, use ‘effect’.
Less vs. fewer
This one can be a bit tricky, but the key is to remember that ‘fewer’ applies to things you can actually count, while ‘less’ describes the extent of something. Therefore, the popular sign at grocery stores that states ‘Ten items or less’ is actually incorrect – it should be ‘Ten items or fewer’!
Incorrect: Did he make less mistakes on this test in fewer time?
Correct: He made fewer mistakes on this test, even though he had less time to take the exam.
Note: In cases where you’re referring to time or money, ‘less’ is used because the concepts are considered to be continuous: ‘In less than two weeks, he will have less money than he started with.’
Accept vs. except These two words have a number of different meanings, but the word ‘accept’ is usually used correctly; the trouble often comes with ‘except’. To accept is to receive, and except is to exclude. To accept is to take or receive something like food or a beverage, a gift, etc.; if you’re debating about which one to use, it may help to remember the word ‘exception’.
Incorrect: He excepted the gift from his aunt. I like all of the dresses accept this one.
Correct: Except for this one, all of the customer surveys have been sent. I decided to accept the position with the new accounting firm.
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