Tricky Words – Making the Distinction

The English language has many words that are similar enough to each other to cause confusion.  Here’s a list of some of them, and their correct usage. 

can/could
  • denotes ability or power to do something
may/might
  • suggests doubt; also expresses permission to do something
comprise
  • contains all the parts
include
  • contain some of the parts
consist
  • in means to exist in, to have as the essential feature
  • consist of means to be made up of
continual
continuous
  • frequently repeated (a dripping tap)
  • uninterrupted (Niagara Falls)
dependant (noun)
dependent (adj.)
  • one who depends on another
  • depending on
different from
different than
  • is used with a noun or pronoun
  • introduces a clause
affecteffect
  • to influence (nearly always used as a verb)
  • Refers to emotional reactions associated with an experience (usually qualified by an adjective)  e.g. The patient had a flat affect.
  • result (nearly always used as a noun), to bring about, used in context of power, influence, creation and administration (e.g. drug side effect)
effective
effectual
  • having an effect; coming into operation
  • answering its purpose
ensure
insure
assure
  • to make sure
  • to provide insurance
  • to remove worry or uncertainty
fewer
less
  • use with plurals: fewer courses
  • use with singulars: less elective
historic
historical
  • important or famous in history
  • about or based on history
it’s
its
  • abbreviation for it is (or it has)
  • belonging to it (held its own)
To lay something down (takes a direct object)
  • The nurse laid the instrument on the tray
precede
proceed
  • to go before
  • to go along, continue
specially
especially
  • for a particular purpose
  • to a great degree, outstanding
that –  often introduces an essential clausewhich –  introduces a non-essential or parenthetical clause Bwhich
who

that

 

  • one that defines the noun it is attached to and cannot be omitted: The office building that is painted blue is mine.
  • one that adds information that could be omitted without changing meaning. The office building, which was built in 2000, is blue.
  • normally refers to things but may be used of people in a body: She spoke to the room full of patients, which grew silent.
  • usually refers to people but sometimes to animals, especially those with names: Snip, who is 14, is a toy poodle.
  • refers to people or things: It was the doctor that (or who) spoke.
thankful
grateful
  • we are thankful that something has happened
  • we are grateful for something we have received

Excepted in part from the University of Ottawa, English Language Style Guide

 

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