Commonly Confused Words That Bring Bumps to Writing



The English language—its words, its structure, its stylistic possibilities—is rich, descriptive, and versatile. It can communicate with precision and convey vivid, persuasive thoughts and ideas.

At times, it can also confuse. Those not familiar with the nuanced or multiple meanings of many English words and the finer points of grammar can sometimes trip where they’re looking to stride in their writing. The good news is removing such stumbling blocks requires only that we identify those that often appear.

We’ve singled out several speed bumps that remain frequent throughout current communication, including blogs, websites, magazines, newspapers, business correspondence, and even novels. Discussing and distinguishing them allows us to better smooth the road for writing that glides.

Speed Bump: That and Which 

These pronouns are still often used interchangeably, and some style arbiters will even say that’s okay today. We say let’s keep their correct original functions so we can write more concisely.

Compare the following sentences:

I want the train set that is in the store window.
I want the train set which is in the store window.

In spoken language, you’ll probably be understood either way. In writing, however, the door opens for ambiguity if we don’t correctly distinguish and punctuate that and which.

That is a restrictive pronoun that limits or identifies the word or phrase it modifies. Which is a non-restrictive pronoun that doesn’t limit or identify.

If we want the specific train set that is displayed in the window to the exclusion of any other set in the store, we would use that because it defines.

If we’re referring to a train set without excluding others—any train set in the store that is like the one displayed in the window will do—we would use which set off with a comma: I want the train set, which is in the store window. The non-restrictive which also introduces information that enhances but may not be essential. I want the train set is the main, unrestricted thought; which is in the store window further clarifies but is not required for understanding.

Speed Bump: Lay and Lie 

We’re all familiar with this enigmatic pair dating back to grade school. Even after decades of reading and writing, some of us can still get caught on whether to use lay or lie in a sentence.

The best way to distinguish the two is to remember that lay is a transitive verb, i.e., one that requires an object to complete its meaning: lay the book on the desk. Its conjugations are lay (present tense), laid (past tense), and laid (past participle).

Lie is an intransitive verb, which doesn’t require an object for completion: The sofa lies between the end tables. Its conjugations are lie (present tense), lay (past tense), and lain (past participle).

The most common mix-up involves using laid to mean layShe laid down next to her childhood teddy bear. What we really mean to express is She lay down next to her childhood teddy bear.

Speed Bump: Continual and Continuous 

Continual means over and over again with expected or inherent lapses in time. Continuous means unbroken with no lapses in time.

The continual disagreement among the board members last year prevented them from achieving the quorum they needed. 

The family eventually moved to a different location because of the continuous traffic noise from the nearby interstate highway.

Speed Bump: Envy and Jealousy 

Envy means discontented longing for someone else’s advantages. Jealousy means unpleasant suspicion or an apprehension of rivalry.

Seeing the Joneses driving new cars and wearing designer clothes fueled the Smiths’ envy.

Seeing Mr. Jones speak to Mrs. Smith every morning outside before work began to fill Mr. Smith with jealousy.

As devoted grammarians and observant communicators, we have the focus and the tools to smooth these bumps in our writing. The result is thoughts and ideas that both transmit more clearly and perpetuate precision through proper usage.

Posted on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, at 9:07 am

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