Sunday, 24 April 2016

Common Word Confusions

There are plenty of words that confuse writers – some are obvious, some less so – but they’re part of a large group of words that make us stumble from time to time, and that’s because none of us is perfect. 
There are plenty of reasons why confusions arise. Some are caused by the English language having more than one meaning for a word – like chord and cord, while others cause hesitation because they sound and look the same but have different meanings. Writers just have to learn the differences and be able to spot them when editing.
It’s or Its
Let’s start with the most obvious – It’s versus its.  There is a very simple way to differentiate between the two. One is a contraction of ‘it is’ and the other is a possessive pronoun (belonging to or of), for example:
It’s a lovely day. (Contraction of it is a lovely day.)
The dog wagged its tail. (Possessive pronoun – the tail belongs to the dog).
Lie or Lay
You can lie down or tell a lie and you can lay (an object) down. These types of verbs confuse writers because often they mix lie and lay, depending whether they are writing in the past or present tense.
Lay and lie are verbs used in the present tense. The thing to remember about ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ is that ‘lay’ requires an object, but ‘lie’ does not. It does not require a direct object, therefore we don’t actually lay down, we lie down.  We don’t lie down a book on the table; we lay down a book on the table. So, for example:
I think I might lie down.
There is no object associated with the verb, so the correct use is ‘lie’. In the present tense, the word ‘lay’ means to put something (an object) down, for example:
I will lay the weapon on the table.
In this case, the object of the sentence is the weapon, which the character lays on the table. So far, so straightforward...
If you are writing in the past tense, however, then ‘lie’ becomes ‘lay’, for example:
He lay down and slept.
I lay awake.
And this is where writers come unstuck - the past tense of ‘lay’ becomes ‘laid’, for example:
He laid down the weapon.
She laid down the rules for them.
It’s also worth remembering that ‘laid’ is also the past participle of ‘lay’, and ‘lain’ is the past participle of lie, for example:
He had laid down the weapon.
She had lain down yesterday morning.
And of course, one last thing to note is ‘laid’ is often confused with the act of reclining. ‘He laid back’, for instance, is incorrect. It should be ‘He lay back.’ (Past tense of lie).
It’s understandable why ‘Lie’ and ‘Lay’ cause no end of confusion, but writers should try to learn the differences.
Sat or Sitting
This is another one that catches a lot of writers out and drives plenty of us crazy. But again, it’s all to do with tenses and sentence constructions.  
Writers often write something like this: ‘She was sat at the bus stop waiting for the bus.’
It looks okay, but ‘sat’ in this case is the past participle of the verb sit. While it might look fine to most people, grammatically it is incorrect. The correct form should be, ‘She was sitting at the bus stop waiting for the bus.’ And that’s because it shows the past continuous tense – in other words, in this example the act of sitting is a continuous action. More examples of past continuous tense:
She was sitting at her desk when the phone rang.
She was sitting by the bar when he walked in.
The simple past tense version of the bus stop example would be ‘She sat down and waited for the bus.’ This denotes a completed action, not a continuous one. More examples:
He sat down beside her.
She sat at the bar.
Accept or Except
This one fools writers because although they sound the same, they actually have different meanings.
The word ‘Accept’, which is a verb, has many different meanings, for instance it means to receive something, admit to something or consent to something, for example:
I accept your invitation.
He accepted the gift.
I accept I did wrong. I accept your position.
‘Except’, on the other hand has different meanings, as well as different functions. It can mean apart from, with the exception of or excluding, and it can be used as a conjunction or a preposition, for example:
It went well, except for the mishap with the broom.
The cars were all there, except mine.
She had everything except the passport.
Again, it’s all about learning about the differences between these words and knowing which one to correctly choose for your narrative.
Affect or Effect
They sound the same and with the exception of one letter, they look the same, but that’s where the similarity ends.
The word ‘Affect’ is a verb.  It means to change or influence something, to have an effect on something, usually emotionally, for example:
The loss of the house affected her badly.
He was affected after losing the game.
Effect, on the other hand is both a noun and a verb and it means to cause something to happen or as a result or consequence.
The new policies won’t effect change.
The freshly ground coffee had a positive effect on his mood.
There’s a reason why these two words are high up on the confusion list. The similarity they share fools writers into thinking they’ve chosen the correct word, when in fact they have used the wrong one. Again, it’s important to learn the differences and meanings.
If in doubt, consult a grammar book.
I’ve deliberately left out the top two words that confuse writers – That and Which – because there is so much to explain and these deserve an entire post dedicated to it...

Next week: Which or That – Does it matter?


  1. I have struggled with a few of these in the past. Most of all the "affect" and "effect." I would appreciate the "that" post next week. Thank you!

    1. The new article "that" tells you the difference, and "which" should prove helpful, is now available.

  2. I’ve always had trouble with “lay” and “lie.” My MS Word program keeps auto-correcting lay to lie just about every time I use it.

    1. MS Word correction can't tell the difference between 'it's' and 'its', so don't always reply on it! It can be a pain sometimes, so if in doubt, consult a dictionary or grammar book.

  3. Because of posts like this I surf the internet and when I found you, the time I felt I was wasting, just turned my thoughts around and now I am thinking I invested my time in something really interesting.