Correct Word Usage Help (page 2)

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 13, 2011


Homographs are words spelled alike but have a different pronunciation or meaning (e.g., the bow [bou] of a ship, a bow [b ] that decorates something.


    We walked to the bow of the ship.
    Wrap that gift with a bow.

Changing pronunciation affects meaning. To show the differences in meaning, transliteration (loosely defined) is used to show pronunciation in the list that follows. The sounds of the letters are written in more easily recognizable form. Capital letters indicate the accented or stressed syllables. Then the homographs are used in sentences to clarify meaning.

    Affect: 1. ehFEKT—to change; 2. AFFekt—a person's feelings or emotion
  1. My budget definitely affects how much I go out to dinner each month.
  2. Following the tragedy, her affect was distinctly subdued.
    Alternate: 1. ALternit—the next choice; 2. ALternait—switch back and forth
  1. Carl is running as an alternate in the race.
  2. In this recipe, alternate the addition of the flour and the eggs.
    Bass: 1. BASE—a string instrument; 2. BASS (rhymes with mass)—a fish
  1. We wondered how a child could play the bass, such a large instrument.
  2. Bass seems to be a favorite fish choice in restaurants.
    Close: 1. CLOZE—to shut; 2. CLOS—near
  1. Close the door, please!
  2. Our children are playing close by.
    Desert: 1. dihZURT—to leave; 2. DEZert—arid region
  1. Please don't desert me when I need your help.
  2. The Arizona desert is a beautiful place when the cacti bloom.
    Dove: 1. DUV—a bird; 2. DOEV—jumped off
  1. The dove has become the symbol of peace and love.
  2. A foolish child dove off the high bridge.
    Excuse: 1. EKskyooz—to let someone off; 2. ekSKYOOS—a reason or explanation
  1. The judge said, "I'll excuse your speeding this time, but don't let it happen again!"
  2. He continued, "No excuse will be acceptable."
    House: 1. HOWS—a building that serves as living quarters; 2. HOWZ— to provide with living quarters
  1. Our house is more than a hundred years old.
  2. We can't house any more pets.
    Invalid: 1. inVALid—not valid; 2. INvahlid—an ill person
  1. You haven't paid your bill, so your membership is invalid as of today.
  2. He became an invalid after a massive stroke.
    Lead: 1. LEED—to guide; 2. LED—a metallic element
  1. I will lead you to the exit.
  2. We found lead in the old paint.
    Minute: 1. MINNit—sixty seconds; 2. myNOOT—tiny
  1. It takes one minute to drive from Exit 10 to Exit 9.
  2. Your contribution to this class has been minute.
    Perfect: 1. PERfekt—exactly correct; 2. perFEKT—to make correct
  1. My spelling is not always perfect.
  2. I'm trying hard to perfect it.
    Produce: 1. PROdoos—vegetables; 2. proDOOS—bring forth
  1. My favorite place in the market is the produce aisle.
  2. My friend's son produces CDs.
    Record: 1. RECKord—a list; 2. RECKORD—best yet; 3. reKORD— to write down
  1. I've kept a record of all my lunch and snack expenses for six months.
  2. We made the trip in record time.
  3. Record your voice for me.
    Row: 1. ROH—a line; 2. ROUW—a fight
  1. I planted a row of annual flowers.
  2. What a row they had! Finally the police came to break up the fight.
    Separate: 1. SEPerATE—to divide into groups; 2. SEPret—not joined together
  1. SEPerATE the cotton and the wool socks into two piles.
  2. The dark socks were kept SEPret from the white ones.
    Tier: 1. TEER—layer; 2. TYER—a person who ties
  1. The first tier of the cake was pure chocolate.
  2. Can you imagine being known as the best tier of bows?
    Tear: 1. TARE—to rip; 2. TEER—fluid in eye; flow fluid from eye
  1. If you tear the package at the perforation, it's much easier to open.
  2. The pollution made my eyes tear.
    Wind: 1. WHINEd—to coil up; 2. WINd—the blowing air
  1. I dislike having to wind the kite string.
  2. The wind lifted the kite high into the sky.
    Wound: 1. WOOND—to injure; 2. WOWND—coiled up
  1. Tim didn't mean to wound the animal with the BB gun.
  2. A bandage was wound around the dog's leg.

Incorrectly Used Words and Phrases

We all know of words or phrases that are frequently misused. For example, consider the use of anxious and eager. These two words are misused on a regular basis.

    Incorrect: I'm anxious to meet your family.

Do you mean that you are nervous, worried, or uneasy about meeting the family? If you do, then use the word anxious—think anxiety. If not, choose a more precise word.

    Correct: I'm eager to meet your family.

Are you excited, ready, or enthusiastic to meet the family? That's what eager means.

On the other hand, misused words and phrases present an additional challenge. There is no single list of words and phrases to study; there are books of them. How can you learn more about these frequently misused words? People are usually unaware of this type of error (that's why people keep saying irregardless). If you are lucky, someone will point out your errors; if not, you have to make an effort to find them. You might want to buy a book about word usage or use the Internet to find lists of errors and their corrections. An excellent book source is The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1996 and New York:, 2000). If you buy this book or log on to the website, you will find much more than just help with homonyms. The information addresses grammar, style, pronunciation, and spelling as well as other topics.

The following is a list of commonly misused or confused words and phrases.

  • aggravate (make worse), annoy (infuriate)
  • The third fall on the same knee really aggravated the injury.

    The noise from the upstairs apartment finally began to annoy us.

  • among (compares three or more), between (compares two or more)
  • Among all six counties, ours is the most progressive.

    Child care is divided between the parents.

  • amount (quantity), number (figure used in counting)
  • The amount of paper we use is staggering!

    The number of sheets in a package is 200.

  • anxious (feeling nervous), eager (enthusiastic and excited)
  • anywhere (There is no such word as anywheres.)
  • We'll meet you anywhere you say.

  • As (adverb, equally), like (preposition, similar to)
  • We use like or as to say that things are similar. Use like before a noun or pronoun.
    Incorrect: She looks as her sister.
    Correct: She looks like her sister.
    Correct: He ran like the wind.

On the other hand, as is used like a conjunction before a clause.

    Correct: Nobody loves her as I do.
    Correct: Do as I do.
    In informal English, you will often hear like used as a conjunction instead of as. However, the following use of like is still neither standard nor accepted.
    Incorrect: Nobody loves Gary like I do.
    Correct: Nobody loves Gary as I do.
    Correct: Monty does as Pat does.
    Correct: Aidan looks like his mother.
  • bring versus take
  • Incorrect: When we go to the mountains on Saturday, let's bring our skis.

    When you are viewing the movement of something from the point of departure, use take. When you think of moving something from the point of arrival, use bring.

    Correct: When you come to the party, please bring a bottle of wine.

  • fewer versus less
  • Incorrect: Ten items or less. Sign at the checkout in a supermarket.

    You can count the items, so you need to use the number word, which isfewer.

    Correct: Ten items or fewer.

    If you can't count the substance, then you should use less.

    Correct: You should eat less meat.

    This sentence is correct because meat is uncountable.

  • have versus of
  • Incorrect: I never would of thought that he'd behave like that.

    Use would have.

    Correct: I never would have/would've thought that he'd succeed.

    Use should and could correctly.

    Incorrect: He should of come with me.

    Correct: He should have/should've come with me.

    Incorrect: She could of had any job she wanted.

    Correct: She could have had any job she wanted.

  • double negative
  • Incorrect: I'm not speaking to nobody at this party!

    Since not is a negative, you cannot use nobody in this sentence.

    Correct: I'm not speaking to anybody at this party!

  • went versus gone
  • Incorrect: I should have went to work yesterday.

    The correct form is should + have + past participle (review Chapter 3 if you have any problem with this concept).

    Correct: I should have gone to work yesterday.

  • awful (terrible) versus very (extremely)
  • Correct: His speech was awful.
    Correct: His voice was very weak.
    Incorrect: His voice was awful weak.
    Correct: His voice was awfully weak.
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