Competent writing is essential for any professional communicator.
Even with all our experience, sometimes we’re not sure we are using the
correct word (or punctuation mark) in the right way, and there isn’t always
a handy automated feature to come to our rescue.
Here are nine linguistic challenges with which we sometimes grapple—and
suggestions from renowned sources for getting them right:
Affect or effect?
“Choosing between affect and effect can be scary,” writes
Vocabulary.com. which offers a mnemonic device to help you use the two words correctly.
“Think of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe and his RAVEN: Remember Affect Verb Effect
Noun. You can’t affect the creepy poem by reading it, but you can enjoy the
effect of a talking bird.”
Toward or towards?
This one is easy, because either choice is right. “Toward and towards are both correct and interchangeable: you can use either
one because they mean the same thing,” says
Grammar Girl. [
Editor’s note: She also says “towards” is more common in British
English. AP style favors “toward.”
A part or apart?
“When you are saying that one thing belongs to another, you use a part,” writes
Odyssey. “When you are saying that something is away from something else, you use apart. If you think about it, a part and apart
are kind of opposites!”
[FREE GUIDE: 10 punctuation essentials]
Dash or hyphen?
“When you’re setting off a clause—this one is a good example—use the longer
dash, called an m-dash,” writes the
Harvard College Writing Center. “You can indicate this dash with two hyphens—like this—if you don’t have
an m-dash function on your computer. Be sure that the parts of the sentence
that precede and follow the dashes would make sense even if you removed the
dashes and the words they bracket. Whereas the m-dash is used to set off
parts of a sentence, hyphens are used to join words together:
‘broken-hearted,’ ‘two-thirds,’ ‘sister-in-law.’”
Which or that?
“The battle over whether to use which or that is one many
people struggle to get right,” according to
The Writer’s Dig. “It’s a popular grammar question and most folks want a quick rule of
thumb so they can get it right. Here it is: If the sentence doesn’t need
the clause that the word in question is connecting, use which.
Examples: Our office, which has two lunchrooms, is located in Cincinnati.
Our office that has two lunchrooms is located in Cincinnati.”
Lay or lie?
“Lie and lay both have many definitions, but they’re most
often confused where lie means to recline and lay means to put down,”
Grammarist. “But the distinction is simple: Lay needs an object—something
being laid—while lie cannot have an object. For example, you might
lay a book on the table, lay a sweater on the bed, or lay a child in her
crib. When you feel tired at the end of the day, you may lie down. But you
can’t lie a book anywhere, and you can’t lay down (no object) at the end of
Who or whom?
According to the
Grammarly Blog, who should be used to refer to the subject of a sentence and whom should be used to refer to the object of a verb or
preposition. “When in doubt, try this simple trick: If you can replace the
word with ‘he’ or ‘she,’ use who. If you can replace it with ‘him’
or ‘her,’ use whom.”
Less or fewer?
“If you want a simple rule, the difference between less and fewer is
straightforward: The traditional advice is that fewer is for
things you count, and less is for things you don’t count,” advises
Grammar Girl. “You can count M&Ms, glasses of water, and potatoes—so you eat fewer
M&Ms, serve fewer glasses of water, and buy fewer potatoes for the
salad. You can’t count candy, water, or potato salad—so you eat less candy,
observe that the lake has less water, and make less potato salad for the
Ensure or insure or assure?
These three words are similar but have different meanings.
Writing Explained suggests ways for remembering how to use each word correctly:
- A good way to remember ensure is that it has two “e’s” in it,
just like guarantee does. To ensure is to guarantee.
- You can remember insure because it deals with finances and
underwriting risks. You generally do this by taking out an insurance
policy. Both words start with insur.
- Assure is something that you tell to another person, something
that can feel doubt or uncertainty. This means you only assure
things that are alive. Both start with an A.
A version of this post first appeared on