AP style rules for commonly confused words

To decrease stress, consider ‘laying’ down your smartphone and ‘lying’ on the beach. However, if your concern is the ‘effect’ of not knowing the correct terms to use, this guide can help.

AP style confusing words

Using the wrong word in your copy can be embarrassing, but it’s a mistake to which many communicators can relate.

In a recent Twitter chat, AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke set the record straight about many terms that are often used incorrectly.

If you don’t know whether your latest PR campaign is “complimenting” or “complementing” your organization’s marketing efforts, consider these AP style guidelines for commonly confused words:

Effect vs. Affect

“Effect” means to cause (if using as a verb) or the result (if using as a noun). As a verb, “affect” means to influence. Most communicators should avoid using the latter as a noun.

Lay vs. Lie

Though both words are verbs, “lay” takes a direct object.

Froke explained:

If you cannot remember which to use, substitute with the word “put.” If the sentence is correct with the substitution, use “lay.” For example:

Correct: I will put the book on the table. (I will lay the book on the table.)

Incorrect: He puts on the beach all day. (He lies on the beach all day.)

Compliment vs. Complement

Use the latter term when you’re referring to an object that supplements or completes another (or the act of doing so):

Ensure, Insure and Assure

AP style has a quick guide for using all three terms:

Accept vs. Except

Many have used these terms interchangeably, but their meanings are not the same:

Expect vs. Anticipate

Merriam-Webster defines “expect” as follows:

To anticipate or look forward to the coming or occurrence of; suppose, think; to consider probable or certain; to consider reasonable, due or necessary; to consider bound in duty or obligated

Those who “anticipate” also expect something, but they prepare for that event or thing.

Connote vs. Denote

Though both terms refer to unambiguously expressing the subject’s meaning or intent, to “connote” suggests or implies an additional element.

Compose, Comprise and Constitute

“Compose” means to produce something by combining or creating. “Comprise” means to contain or include all. If neither term makes sense to the sentence, use “constitute”:

If you’re inclined to use the word “include,” follow this rule:

Discreet vs. discrete

The former shows prudence (important when you are attempting not to stand out). The latter refers to individual items:

Allude vs. Elude

These terms sound similar, but “allude” means to refer to something indirectly. To “elude” a situation, perception or object means to escape or avoid that thing.

Cannon vs. Canon

The first term is a weapon.

The second refers to a regulation decreed by a church, a collection of written works (such as J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series or the list of books accepted as a religion’s sacred scripture), a music composition or an accepted rule or standard of judgment.

Agnostic vs. Atheist

These terms both refer to a person’s belief (or lack thereof) in a God, but they are not interchangeable.

Continual vs. Continuous

Use “continual” when referring to a repetition. “Continuous” refers to something that is uninterrupted:

Disinterested vs. Uninterested

These terms are commonly swapped for one another, but “disinterested” also means unbiased (as in an opinion or ruling). AP style suggests the former is often the term you should use:

Averse vs. adverse

Froke gave this advice for telling the similar adjectives apart:

If a sentence has you stuck, test a substitution. If “unfavorable” reads correctly, use “adverse.” If “opposed” fits the sentence, select “averse.” Here are examples:

Correct: She was not opposed to taking chances. (She was not averse to taking chances.)

Correct: The jury heard testimony unfavorable to the defendant’s position. (The jury heard testimony adverse to the defendant’s position.)

Which confusing terms would you add to this list?

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