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Spelling "Be"
2006, Q1 (February 19, 2007)
By Andrea Wenger, Senior Chapter Member

I remember my dismay upon learning at the age of six that potato did not start with a B, nor dress with a J. When it came to spelling, I couldn’t rely on my ears. And with homophones, I couldn’t rely on my eyes, either. Even if I spelled the word correctly, it still might not be the right word. Professional writers, despite many years of experience, may nevertheless struggle to constrain (or is it restrain?) the sprawling English language. Here is a list of commonly confused words particularly pertinent for technical communicators.
  • Affect/Effect—When the meaning is “influence,” affect is the verb, effect the noun and effective the adjective. Effect as a verb means “produce” (to effect change). Affect, with the emphasis on the first syllable, is a noun meaning “emotion”; its use is best limited to the field of psychology.
    Affective is the adjective form, as in seasonal affective disorder.
  • Assure/Ensure/Insure—Assure means “reassure,” and it requires an object (let me assure you…). Ensure means “make certain,” and it’s often followed by that (ensure that the door is closed). Insure is best used only when referring to the insurance field.
  • Refer/Reference—Reference as a verb means “cite,” not “consult.” We instruct users to refer to Figure 3, not to reference Figure 3.
  • Use/Utilize—Simple words enhance readability. Use, in its verb and noun forms, is preferred over utilize or utilization.
  • Comprise/Compose—Comprise means “contain or include” (the manual comprises the installation and programming instructions); compose, “to form a whole” (the manual is composed of installation and programming instructions). The phrase comprised of is improper usage.
  • Alternate/Alternative—Alternate refers to substitution or taking turns; alternative, to a choice between two or more things.
  • Continual/Continuous—Continual means “occurring repeatedly”; continuous, “occurring without interruption.”
  • Discrete/Discreet—Discrete means “separate or individual” (discrete units), while discreet means “tactful or circumspect” (discreet assistant).
  • Complement/Compliment—A complement is an object or idea that completes or perfects another; a compliment is an offer of praise. Be careful not to tell your customers that your products are complimentary (free), when you mean that they’re complementary (designed to work together).
  • i.e./e.g.—Careful writers avoid these altogether, using “that is” instead of i.e., and “for example” instead of e.g.
  • About/Approximately—Use approximately in scientific writing. Otherwise, use about.
  • Farther/Further—Farther refers to spatial distance, while further refers to degree or extent.
    She further considered moving farther from town.
  • Flammable/Inflammable—These words are synonyms, but they sound like antonyms. Flammable is now standard; don’t use inflammable. The standard antonym of flammable is nonflammable.
  • Preventive/Preventative—Preventative is a corruption. Use preventive.
  • As per—Ugh! No. Use according to. The same goes for per alone in this sense.
    Install the widget according to the procedure on page 7.
  • Anticipate/Expect—Anticipate means “prepare in advance or foresee.” Don’t use it as a synonym for expect.
  • If/Whether—If is conditional, while whether is alternative. When using whether, leave off “or not,” unless you mean regardless.
    Let me know if you need a ride. (Don’t call me unless you need a ride.)
    Let me know whether you need a ride. (Call me either way.)
    We’re making the trip whether or not it rains.
  • Can/Could—Use can to express certainty, could to express uncertainty or conditionality.
    I can have an answer for you by noon.
    If you could send me the information today, I could distribute a draft on Tuesday.
  • May/Might—Use may to express possibility, might to express doubt. In the negative, use might not; may not implies a lack of permission. Also use might to express a hypothetical that’s contrary to fact.
    An aspirin may have saved his life. (The pill could account for his survival.)
    An aspirin might have saved his life. (He didn’t have to die.)
  • Can/May—Use can to express ability, may to express possibility or permission. Note that may is weaker and less exact, so in cases where either word is suitable, use can.
    You can sort the data using the Tools > Sort command.
  • On/Upon—Use upon when introducing an event or condition. Otherwise, use on.
    Please send payment upon receipt of the invoice. Be sure to put your account number on the check.
  • And/Or—Under most conditions, using and/or together is redundant. Be especially careful to avoid and/or when writing for translation; the combination is awkward in other languages. If neither word suffices alone, trying using or…or both.
    Use a wrench or a screwdriver or both to pry off the old widget.
  • Between/Among/Amid—It’s often stated that between is used with two objects, and among with three or more. But this can be misleading: Use between with one-to-one relationships, among with collective relationships and amid instead of among with mass nouns. Avoid amidst and amongst.
    Trade flourishes between the nations of North America.
    Tulips grow among the hyacinths, and daffodils bloom amid the lawn.
  • Less/Fewer—The signs in the grocery store ought to read, “Ten items or fewer.” Use fewer with plural nouns (fewer cars) and less with singular nouns (less traffic). Also use less with units of measure (less than two miles).
  • Backward/Backwards—As with other directional words (forward, toward, upward, downward), the preferred American usage is without the s. Preferred British usage is with the s.
  • Who/Whom—Who is the subject; whom is the object. Still, it can be tricky. For instance, in the sentence, “Who shall I say is calling?” who is the subject of is calling, not the object of shall say. In some cases, it may be preferable to use who and be incorrect than to use whom and sound pretentious. Follow your style guide.
  • Based on—This term can correctly serve as a verb or an adjective. It cannot serve as an adverb or a preposition (which would result in a dangling participle).
    The committee based their decision on the treasurer’s recommendations.
    She wrote a memoir based on her experiences in China.

    The committee expected about a hundred attendees, based on previous years.
    Based on the treasurer’s recommendations, the committee raised the admission fee.
  • Each other/One another—Traditionally, each other is used when referring to two people or things; one another, when referring to three or more.
  • Imply/Infer—The speaker implies (suggests); the listener infers (deduces).
  • Lay/Lie—Lay takes a direct object, while lie does not: I lie down to sleep, but I lay me down to sleep. If that’s not confusing enough, lay is the past tense of lie; laid is the past tense of lay.
  • In regard to—While this phrasing is correct (in regards to is not), a one-word substitute, like regarding, is preferred.
  • Despite/In spite of—Shorter is better. Use despite.
  • Its/It’s—Possessive pronouns don’t take an apostrophe. Its is the possessive of it, while it’s is a contraction of it is or it has.
  • Whose/Who’s—As above, whose is the possessive of who, while who’s is a contraction of who is or who has. Note that whose can refer to things, while who and whom can only refer to people.
  • Tortuous/Torturous/Tortious—Tortuous means “twisting”; torturous, “relating to torture”; tortious, “relating to torts.” The Autocorrect feature in Word unceremoniously changes the legal term tortious to the more common tortuous—so if you write about torts, be sure to add tortious to your custom dictionary.

One Word or Two?

  • A lot/Allot—A lot means “a large quantity.” Allot means “dole out.” Alot is not a word. I have a lot of Halloween candy to allot to the neighborhood children.
  • All ready/Already—All ready means “completely prepared.” Already means “at the present time.”
    My husband already left; once the kids are all ready, we’ll meet him at the ball park.
  • All right/Alright—All right is the correct form in American English. Alright is gaining acceptance in British English.
  • All together/Altogether—All together means “in one place or at one time”; altogether means “completely or entirely.”
    The congregation sang all together; it was an altogether beautiful hymn.
  • On/Onto/On to—On used alone suggests location, while onto implies movement. On to is correctly used as two words when on is part of a phrasal verb and to is a preposition.
    The cat dozed on the chair.
    The cat jumped onto the chair.
    At the vet’s office, the cat hung on to her carrier for dear life.
    Follow the same guidelines for in/into/in to.
  • Everyone/Everyone—Every one is used in place of each to provide emphasis; everyone is a synonym for everybody.
    As everyone sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, my father said, “Every one of us has much to be grateful for this year.”

English comprises over 400,000 words—probably the largest vocabulary of any language. Fortunately, there are good reference materials to help writers navigate the nuances of meaning. Among them are The Chicago Manual of Style by The University of Chicago Press and Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner. Lovers of language will find them fascinating as well as informative.

Andrea can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

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