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Punctuation Guide


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There is a whole slew of words that are easily misused and misspelled in the English language. I will try to address the ones I see most frequently here. If you wish to have one added, by all means contact me using the link above.

affect / effect

The confusion between these two words is probably the most common error in the English language. Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that it comes first, even though I am doing this alphabetically. There are a couple simple mnemonics that can help you to remember, though.

  • Affect is a verb or an action. You can affect something or someone. A synonym of affect is influence.
    • To affect is "to have influence on": Ron's loving words in her ear had a direct affect on the speed of her recovery.
    • Affect, used in psychology, means "emotion."

  • Effect is a noun . . . mostly. It is used as a verb very rarely (see example below). In noun form, which most people will use, it means result or consequence and is used to refer to something that is produced by an action or cause.
    • To effect is "to cause something to happen": She effected a solution through researching the problem thoroughly.
    • Effect is also a noun that means "result": The spell had the desired effect.

allusion / illusion / elusion

  • An allusion is a reference to something: She smiled like the Cheshire Cat alluded to in Alice in Wonderland.
    • To understand the allusion, one must have read Goblet of Fire.

  • An illusion is a false impression: The most impressive sight she had ever seen was the illusion of the nighttime sky above their heads in the Great Hall.

  • An elusion is an escape from something: They were barely able to elude the Dark Lord.
    • The whole point of the lecture completely eluded Ronald Wealey, which did not surprise her in the least.

although / though / while

  • Although and though are synonymous and may be used interchangeably in informal and formal writing.

  • While denotes events that are happening at the same time.
    • Although I liked him a lot, I didn't want him kissing me.
    • While he was kissing me, he put his hand on my thigh.

altogether / all together

  • The adverb altogether means wholly or totally: I do not altogether agree with you.

  • All together means everybody taken together or at the same time: They huddled all together in the middle of the battlefield.

as if / as though / like

  • As if and as though can be used interchangeably to mean "as something/someone would be/do/look if different conditions were true."

  • Like used to mean (in old English writing) as "in the same manner," "similar," or "such as." This is reserved for formal writing today. Informally, it is still debatable whether or not it can be used in lieu of "as if" or "as though."

awhile / a while

  • Awhile is adverbial: Let's stop here awhile.

  • A while, the two-word version, is a noun phrase that follows the preposition "for" or "in": We'll be leaving in a while.

because / since / as

  • When the words because or since are used to mean "for the reason that," they are interchangeable.

  • Avoid using since when it could mean "because of" or "from the time of."

  • Avoid using as in lieu of "because" to prevent the reader from stumbling. Depending on the context it could be confusing. In the following example, "as" could end up meaning "because" or "during the time" and could confuse the reader.
    • He couldn't hear the ambulance siren as he was listening to the car radio.

complement / compliment

  • Complement is something that accompanies, strengthens or enhances something else.

  • Compliment is praise.

empathy / sympathy

  • Empathy is putting yourself in someone else's shoes to understand that person's situation.

  • Sympathy is compassion or sorrow one feels for another.

in / into

  • In means located inside an area or limits.
    • He walked in to see what was going on.

  • Into means in the direction of the interior or toward something.
    • They walked into the bar.

make up / make-up (or makeup)

  • Make up in its verb form means to put together, to form or to resolve a quarrel.
    • The best thing about arguing was making up.

  • Make-up or Makeup (either is correct) can be cosmetics, the way something is composed or arranged, or a special examination for a student who has missed or failed the first one.
    • She sat down in front of the mirror to apply her makeup.
    • Lying is not in her makeup.

may / might

  • May:
    • To be allowed or permitted to: May I take a swim? Yes, you may.
    • Used to indicate a certain measure of likelihood or possibility: It may rain this afternoon.
    • Used to express a desire or fervent wish: Long may he live!
    • Used to express contingency, purpose, or result in clauses ingroduced by that or so that: ... expressing ideas so that the average person may understand.
    • To be obliged; must. Used in salutes, deeds, and other legal documents.
  • Might:
    • Past tense of May
    • Used to indicate a condition or state contrary to fact: She might help if she knew the truth.
    • Used to indicate a possibility that is wearker than may: We might discover a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
    • Used to express possibility or permission in the past: She told him yesterday he might not go on the trip.
    • Used to express a higher degree of deference or politeness than may, ought, or should: Might I express my opinion?
      *Thank you to dictionary.com for this bit of clarity.

than / then

  • Than can be used as either a conjuntion or a preposition. It indicates difference or contrast and can be used interchangeably with 'when.'
    • He draws quite differently than she does.
    • I can run faster than Joe.
    • Harry had scarcely Apparated onto the scene than (when) the fighting began.

  • Then is an adverb and sometimes an adjective (the then headmaster of the school). It is used to mean 'at that time,' 'in addition,' 'moreover,' 'besides,' 'as a consequence,' 'in that case,' and 'therefore.' It is also used to indicate something that occurs next in time.
    • If you study late, then set two alarms for the morning.
    • Come after my last class; I will be ready then.
    • The subject, then, is closed.
    • We watched the movie and then went to bed.

that / which

  • That is used restrictively (meaning that it introduces material that is essential to the meaning of the sentence) to identify a particular item being talked about.
    • Any tree that is as dangerous as the Whomping Willow should be avoided.

  • Which is used non-restrictively (meaning it gives extra material to the sentence in a way that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence or is parenthetical). It is always preceded by a comma when used non-restrictively.
    • The tree, which stood starkly against the horizon, swung its branches to and fro.

  • Which should be used restrictively only when preceded by a preposition. It is not necessary to precede the phrase with a comma.
    • The situation in which we found ourselves was dire.

    It needs to be noted that in British English, writers and editors do not necessarily recognize the difference between that and which. However, Fowler (of Fowler's Modern English Usage) notes that '... and if writers would agree to regard that, as the defining (restrictive) relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining (non-restrictive), there would be much to gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.'

To be continued . . . This is a work-in-progress that will be expanded as I feel the need (or as requested). ;)

The material above, save for the examples that were all mine, was taken from
The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage, First Edition, 1994, and The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, 2003.

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