Commonly Confused Words–Part 1

Sit or set?Janet and I are members of the South Arkansas Writers, a critique group which meets monthly. Not long ago Janet presented a program on Commonly Confused Words. With her permission, I am considering Janet to be a guest blogger and have included here the handout that she prepared for our group:

ACCEPT vs EXCEPT:

Accept means to receive or take what is offered.
“I accept your kind offer of a new car.”
Except means to leave out, with the exclusion of, or but.
“I like all kinds of pie except coconut.”

LIE vs  LAY, LAIN  vs  LAID:

Lie means to recline.  Participle is lying, past tenses are lay and lain.  The subject of the verb is doing something to himself or herself.  (Intransitive verb, no direct object.)
“I want to lie down for an hour before the meeting.”
“The dog is lying on the rug.”
“They lay on the beach and enjoyed the sun.”
“We had lain in the shade without talking.”

Lay means to put something down.  Participle is laying, past tense is laid.  The subject of the verb is doing something to something else.  (Transitive verb, requires a direct object.)
“I will lay the book down on the table.”
“The hen is laying an egg.”
“They laid the blanket on the beach.”
“We had laid the present on the floor.”

Thus, “We laid the blanket on the sand and lay down on it.”

SIT vs SET:

Sit means to take a seat.  Past tense is sat.  The subject of the verb is doing it himself or herself.  (Intransitive verb, no direct object.)
“Please sit down.”  (‘You’ is the implied subject.)
“We can sit in the garden until dinner is ready.”
“The dog sat in the shade.”

Set means to put or place something. Past tense is also set.  The subject of the verb is putting or placing something else.
“She sets the book on the table.”
“She is setting the book on the table.”
“She set the book on the table yesterday.”
Thus, “Sit down and let me set the scene.”

Set also refers to what a chicken does when she gets broody.
“The hen sets on the eggs she laid.”

ALL   READY vs  ALREADY:

All  ready means prepared, set to go.
“Dinner is all ready to eat.”

Already means by this time.
“Dinner was already finished when we got there.”

EVERY   DAY vs  EVERYDAY:

Every  day means each and every day, no exceptions.
“We’ve had a meeting every day this week!”

Everyday means ordinary, routine, or unremarkable.
“It was just an everyday event, nothing to get excited about.”

ANY   ONE vs ANYONE:

Any one means any single person or thing out of a group of people or things.
“Any one of those dresses would look great on you.”

Anyone means any person
“Anyone can win the lottery, if they’re lucky.”

ANY   MORE vs  ANYMORE:

Any more means something further or additional.
“I couldn’t eat any more dessert!”

Anymore means any longer, nowadays.
“I don’t eat desserts anymore, not since I started my diet.”

BESIDE vs BESIDES:

Beside is a preposition and means next to.
“They parked beside the shed.”

Besides is an adverb or a preposition and means in addition to.
“Besides running out of gas, we had a flat tire, too.”

FEWER vs LESS:

Fewer is how many.  Use fewer for things you can count.
“That pot makes fewer cups of coffee than mine.”

Less is how much.  Use less for things you can only measure.
“That pot makes less coffee than mine.”

“Fewer than 20 items” is correct, “Twenty items or less” is incorrect – but commonly used.

AFFECT vs EFFECT

Affect is a verb and usually means to influence, cause a change; it can also mean to act on someone’s emotions.
“How do the budget cuts affect your staff?”
“Your story affects me deeply.”

Effect is usually a noun meaning influence or a result.  Use effect whenever any of these words precede it: a, an, any, the, take, into, no. These words may be separated from effect by an adjective.
“The budget cuts had a terrible effect on our travel plans.”
“The law comes into effect at midnight.”

Effect is also sometimes used as a verb meaning to bring about.
“The company instituted layoffs designed to effect savings.”
“He effected a dramatic exit.”
[You’re better off not using effect as a verb.]

THEIR, THERE, THEY’RE:

Their is the possessive form of they.
“Their house is at the end of the block.”

There indicates location.  Think:  here and there, both mean somewhere.
“Our house is over there across the street.”

They’re  is a contraction for ‘they are.’
“They’re going to go shopping.”

A sentence beginning with There is or There are is called an expletive sentence.  Some books say this structure is incorrect or awkward, others say it’s OK.  Usually you can rewrite the sentence so it sounds better.  “There is a pizza restaurant in town that all the kids like.”  Compare to the rewritten:  “The local pizza restaurant attracts all the kids in town.”

Special note: Except for the “pizza” example just above, Janet wrote all the example sentences. She would like to credit the source of the “pizza” example, which she found online, but she doesn’t remember where she found it. She apologizes to the writer and if anyone can tell us the source, I’ll revise this post to provide proper credit.

Keep reading/keep writing – Jack

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2 thoughts on “Commonly Confused Words–Part 1

  1. I see some of these mistakes all the time. The annoying thing is that they’re made by teachers, not students! Hmmmm….

    Anyway, in the interest of livening things up, I’m going to take issue with one of the points. ;)

    I’ve never heard of a specific guideline against starting a sentence with “there” before. I guess if overused, it can be tedious and uninformative, but that’s true of almost anything. Even a vital component like pronouns can be overused. (Funnily enough, there is a similarly strict and specific “rule” in some inaccurate/outdated/misleading English guides, such as Strunk & White, against an inanimate object subject with an active verb. The rewritten sentence is a perfect example of what one isn’t supposed to do according to those folks. It’s a silly rule as far as I’m concerned.)

    I have to go to a lot of effort to teach my students how to use what are sometimes called “empty subjects” in order to sound more natural. They have a lot of trouble constructing sentences such as the following:
    There’s a chance of rain tomorrow.
    There’s no paper in the printer.
    It’s snowing!
    It’s a wonderful life.
    There’s something I have to show you.
    There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

    The above are natural English sentences. If we rewrite the sentences, I don’t believe there’s a clear pattern of benefit:
    Tomorrow, rain is possible. (Stilted.)
    The printer has no paper. (This is different, and also violates a different, though similarly arbitrary and prescriptivist rule.)
    Snow is falling! (Odd.)
    Life is wonderful. (Fine, but a different feeling.)
    I have to show you something. (Maybe this one is better and not just worse or different, but I’m not convinced.)
    – I’m not touching the last two, because they are the opening lines of Voyage of the Dawn Treader and of 1984. ;)

    I found another example online in a writing guide which did, indeed, advise against this usage:
    Expletive: It was her last argument that finally persuaded me.
    Correction: Her last argument finally persuaded me.

    Okay, fine: if your piece of writing needs to be shorter and more direct, the last one is better. If it’s more conversational or building up to a point, the first one may still be better. My point is that this is a STYLE issue. There is absolutely no grammar rule in English against starting sentences with “it” or “there.” Usually the sentence is fine, but in some cases, individual people may overuse it or the style of an individual piece may call for it to be avoided.

    At any rate, it is definitely not incorrect. Sources that say it’s incorrect are wrong. Sources that say it’s always awkward and should always be changed are kidding themselves. In the grand tradition of prescriptivist writing, I would bet money that if I checked the authors’ regular writing, I would find empty subjects all over the place. (Since English forces subjects on you even when it’s clearly unnecessary, unlike Spanish or Japanese, it’s inevitable.)

    OK, that was more than enough on something completely unimportant! Keep up the posts!

    P. S. If you know anyone who’s stuck on Strunk & White and is finding it either doesn’t meet their needs or is causing problems for other people by sticking to far more ridiculous rules, I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. This book is the only really grounded, thoughtful, and accurate (American English) language guide out there. It was recommended to me by the linguistic researchers and writers over at Language Log. Sorry if it’s come up before!

  2. I don’t think there is a rule against using “there.” As I just demonstrated, sometimes it’s easier to say that way. Of course, being easier to say is not a good excuse for sloppy writing. A lot of errors make their way into common spoken language because they are easier to say than to use the correct construct. Maybe someday they won’t be considered errors. Sometimes the rewritten sentence sounds very awkward, or as you pointed out, sometimes the meaning changes. Sometimes a sentence can be deliberately rewritten in a way that sounds worse. But I find that often the sentence can be rewritten in a way that sounds clearer, better, doesn’t change the meaning, and avoids the ambiquity of “there.” The lack of a rule isn’t what keeps writers from using the same word umpteen times in the same paragraph. The same is true of avoiding sentences that begin with “there.”

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