Word Usage Tips


Choice of words

Be careful with the choices of words. Most words are loaded with political, social, historical, aesthetic, or moral values. A good writer tries not to offend anyone by trying to avoid such words, and using value-neutral words as far as possible.

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Which or that?

Usually which and that can both be used in a sentence structure. The only time they create confusion is when they are used as relative pronouns to introduce clauses.

Which is used with non-essential clauses. For example: ‘The places, which I visited, were beautiful’. Here the clause is not essential, it has only been added for further information.

That is used with essential clauses. For example: ‘The places that I told you about were interesting’. Here the clause is essential because it tells us that we are talking about particular places.

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Use of adjectives

Do not use a lot of adjectives. Adjectives are good to describe your people, places, or things, but their overuse makes your writing stagnant. Try using strong, descriptive verbs instead.  

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Starting a sentence with ‘it’

Do not start a sentence with ‘it’ unless the word or concept it refers to, is very clear. Specific words are always better than vague words.

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Who and whom

Who and Whom often cause confusion. Remember this:

Who is used when it is the subject of a sentence, or when it is a subject-case pronoun. Example: Who is at the door?

Whom is used as the object of preposition, or when it is an object-case pronoun. Example: To whom did you give the bag?

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Big words, impressive words?

Sometimes writers think big words look impressive. It’s not true. Use only those words which you know how to use and your readers can understand

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‘Corrupted’ words

Watch for commonly used ‘corrupted’ words. If you are not sure about them, confirm before using them. Examples: ‘preventative’ for ‘preventive’, or  ‘dependency’ for ‘dependence’.

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Affect and effect

Affect and effect are commonly confused words. Remember:

Affect is a verb, meaning ‘to influence’. Example: The medicine did not affect him.Effect is a noun, meaning ‘result’. Example: This medicine has no side effects.

The only time effect is a verb is when it means ‘to bring about’. Example: The principal has effected some new rules.

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Careful use of words

Do not write the first word that comes to your mind. Search for a better one – one that adds more information, color, feeling, or opinion to your story.

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Graceful alternatives to negations

Avoid using the word “not” when presenting an idea that involves negation. Use a more direct and graceful alternative instead. For example: If he does not respond to your question …….. can better be written as If he fails to respond to your question……….

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Don’t mix up lie and lay.

To lie is an intransitive verb meaning ‘to recline’. Its conjugations are: I lie on the bed (present); I lay on the bed (past); I will lie on the bed (future); I am lying on the bed (right now); I have lain on the bed (continuous).

To lay is a transitive verb meaning ‘to place’ or ‘to put’. It needs a direct object because it describes an action that is ‘done to’. Its conjugations are: I lay the book on the table (present); I laid the book on the table (past); I will lay the book on the table (future); I am laying the book on the table (right now); I have laid the book on the table (continuous). Here the word ‘book’ is the direct object to which the action has been done to.

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Into versus in to

Do not confuse ‘into’ with ‘in to’.

‘Into’ is a preposition meaning ‘from outside to inside’. Example: He walked into the classrom.

‘In to’ is the adverb ‘in’ followed by a preposition or first word of an infinitive ‘to’. Example: He walked in to tell the class about the program.

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Using due to

‘Due to’ means “caused by” and NOT “because of”. Hence,

‘The game was postponed due to rain’ is incorrect.

‘The game was postponed because of rain’ is correct

But, ‘The game’s postponement was due to rain’ is correct.

In short, use ‘due to’ only if it can be substituted with ‘caused by’.

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Farther or further

Do not confuse the words “farther” and “further”.

“Farther” refers to physical advancement in distance. It is the comparative form of “far” when referring to distance. For example: His house is farther than John’s.

“Further” refers to advancement to a greater degree. It is the comparative form of “far” when referring to degree or extent. For example: He decided to go ahead without any further delay. 

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All together or altogether

All together and altogether mean different things, so be careful in their use. All together means ‘together in a group’, while altogether means ‘completely’.

For example: “The students stood all together on the issue”.  Here all together is a phrase meaning the students were acting collectively as one group. All and together can be separated by other words. Like:  “All the students stood together on the issue”.

“She was altogether wrong”. Here altogether is an adverb meaning “completely”.

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Till or Until

In modern English, till and until are interchangeable, except when used as the first word in a sentence when until is preferred. Which one to use is most often decided by the rhythm of the sentence. Until is also sometimes considered more formal, which is why it turns up more often in edited prose.

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Fiscal versus financial

Do not confuse the words ‘fiscal’ and ‘financial’. ‘Fiscal’ is related to government expenditures, revenues, and debt; while ‘financial’ is related to finance, finances, or financiers. For example:

The government’s new fiscal policy has helped achieve price stability.

The company’s financial condition has improved since the new management took over.

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“Bring” or “take”?

Whether to use “bring” or “take” depends on the direction of the action.

For example: “I will bring her with me to the party”.  Here the action is towards the party. Hence, the word ‘bring’.

“She plans to take just one suitcase with her to London”. In this sentence, the action is away from where you are. Hence, the word ‘take’.

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Oral versus Verbal

Oral and verbal do not mean the same thing. Oral refers to the spoken words or “by mouth”. For example, an “oral test” is a spoken test; or an “oral presentation” is a presentation made through speaking. However, verbal means “in words”, or anything expressed in words – whether spoken or written. For example, “verbal communication” means communication through words; or a “verbal agreement” is an agreement in words, which may be spoken or written.  

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Do not confuse “envelop” with “envelope”

Do not confuse envelop (without an ‘e’) with envelope (with the ‘e’).

Envelop (without the ‘e’) is a verb, is pronounced en-VELL-uhp, and means “to wrap”, “to conceal” or “to cover”. For example: As the lights go off, darkness envelops us.

Envelope (with the ‘e’) is a noun, is pronounced either EN-vuh-LOP or AHN-vuh-LOP, and means the paper container used for letters or papers. For example: He kept the letter in the envelope, sealed it and then went to mail it.

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Disinterested or uninterested

Do not confuse disinterested with uninterested.

Disinterested means “impartial” or “unbiased”. For example:

A disinterested mediator helped settle the dispute. (He did not take sides)

Uninterested means “not interested” or “indifferent”. For example:

This student is uninterested in chemistry. (The student has no interest in chemistry)

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Majority – singular or plural?

“Majority” may be used either as singular or plural. When used to describe a collective group, it is singular. When used for a collection of individuals, it is plural. For example:

The majority elects the president of the organization. (‘Majority’ here is singular as it is used to describe a single collective group. Hence, the verb elects.)

The majority of the students come to school by bus. (Here ‘majority’ is plural since it is used to describe a collection of individuals, the students. Hence, the verb come.)

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