13 commonly misused words with tips on how to get them right

13 examples of commonly misused words

These 13 examples are among the mostly commonly misused words. Find out how to use them the right way, with tips to make it easier.

13 commonly misused words

Do you have to bite your tongue when you hear commonly misused words? We all get words wrong sometimes. Even when we know better. 

So rather than get myself worked up, I decided to create a list of commonly misused words instead.

Life is too short to sweat the small stuff. But if you want to tackle the problem, share the list!

1. Bought / Brought

Bought is often substituted incorrectly with brought.

It is correct to say you bought flowers from a florist.

It’s not correct to say you bought flowers with you to a dinner party.

The key difference – bought is the past tense of buy, whereas brought is the past tense of bring.

The spelling is the best way to remind yourself. Keep thinking BR – brought/bring.

2. Was / Were

Generally speaking, it’s I was, and you/we/they were.

But there’s an exception that is important.

For hypothetical situations or wishes, the was becomes were.

If I were a rich man

I wish I were famous

She wishes she were able to speak French.

If it were possible to fly, I would.

3. Toward / Towards

Good news – these are interchangeable, just like forward/forwards and backward/backwards.

So if you want to say I moved towards the table, go for it.

And you are also right if you say you want to move toward the table.

American and Canadian publications favor toward, while the UK and Australia prefer towards.

4. There / Their / They’re

These mistakes are more likely to occur through lack of attention. So they are important words to watch when editing your work.

They’re is a contraction of they are. You must be able to substitute it back to they are and still keep the same meaning.

Their shows possession of something by more than one person. Their house. Their car. Their dog. If in doubt, substitute their with our to make sure it still makes sense.

And there is is used to indicate a place or that something exists. Like, go over there. Or there are two dogs.

5. Affect / Effect

In modern usage, it’s more common that affect is a verb and effect is a noun. So the affect is the influence and the effect is the result.

In a sentence it looks like this:

The implementation of new speed limits will affect (influence) driving times.

Longer driving times were an effect (result) of new speed limits.

Effect can be used as a verb as well. In this case, it can be substituted with finished and looks like this:

The implementation of new speed zones will be effected (finished) within two weeks.

Using affect as a noun is much less common and generally describes a medical state.

If in doubt, substitute the word provided in brackets. If your sentence retains its original meaning you’ve got it right.

6. Its / It’s

Its without an apostrophe indicates ownership. The dog ate its bone. 

It’s with an apotrophe is a contraction of it is or it has. It’s eating the bone.

If in doubt, expand to it is. If it doesn’t make sense, you are using the wrong version. Like, the dog ate it is bone.

And you never use an apostrophe after the ‘s’. Just one of those little exceptions you have to learn about the apostrophe of possession.

7. To / Too

Too is an adverb. You can use it to indicate excess. Like too much water. Or you can use it to indicate an addition, like he is coming too.

To is a preposition, so it defines the relationship between two words. Like, he is married to her, or I’m going to work.

If in doubt, substitute one of the other words for too – like excessive, as well or very. If none of them work, it’s likely the correct choice is to, like I’m going very work. 

8. Amount / number

When it comes to amount or number, it’s all about whether you can count.

You would say there are a number of rabbits in the field. Because you can count them.

But you would say there is an amount of water in the sink, because you can’t count water.

If in doubt, ask yourself, can I count them.

9. Less / Fewer

Similer to amount and number, use less and fewer based on whether you can count things.

To use the same example, you would say there are fewer rabbits in the field today.

And it’s better to fill the sink with less water than more.

Use fewer if you can count things, less if you can’t.

10. Imply / Infer

To imply is to hint, whereas to infer is to make an educated guess.

The speaker implies – makes an indirection suggestion   whereas the inference is the conclusion drawn by the listener.

What are you implying? Subsitute suggesting to see if it still makes sense.

Am I to infer you think this is not a good idea. Substitute conclude to see if it still makes sense.

11. Farther / Further

Here’s another one that common usage allows us to interchange. 

But if you are a stickler, use farther for physical distance. And further for figurative distances.

Which would mean saying the airport is farther away than the trains station.

But if you wanted to say the stock market fell again today, you could say the stock market fell further.

12. A / An

This one’s easy isn’t it? A before consonants and an before vowels. Sorry, most of us believed that one for a long time. But it’s wrong.

It seems that it’s the sound not the spelling that matters here.

So do you say he has a unique perspective or an unique perspective. The correct choice is a unique perspective because the U in unique sounds like Y.

Here’s another one. You went to a hospital but had to wait for an hour. The H in hospital is distinct so you use a. But it’s an hour not a hour because the HO sounds like an OW.

Even these easy ones get complicated sometimes. Don’t get me started on I before E.

13. i.e / e.g

Now these are not interchangeable. If you want to provide an example, you use e.g.

If you want to provide a complete clarification, you use i.e.

Just in case you were wondering, i.e. and e.g. are both Latin abbreviations. E.g. stands for exempli gratia and means for example. I.e. is the abbreviation for id est and means in other words.

If in doubt, substitute ‘in other words’ and if it doesn’t make sense, you should be using e.g.

A bonus that is not part of the commonly misused words

And just to bust one more myth before we wrap up the commonly misused words. It’s not always wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Did you think I forgot I / me? I’ll spare you the long explanation and jump straight to an easy way to test you’ve made the right choice. Take out the other person. If you started with Jane and me went to a movie, take out Jane, and you just have me went to a movie. Clearly wrong, easy as that. You often hear people say things like: “They are having dinner with my husband and I.” Try applying the test above and see if you think that is right or wrong.

Some of these commonly misused words are bad habits or misinformation. But you can also see that commonly misused words can have slightly tricky applications. We’re all going to make mistakes with them sometimes, but with the help of a few tricks to remember the right choice, writing gets a lot easier.

Got questions about commonly misused words? 

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