Common Stumbling Blocks

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  • Adviser, Advisor

    Either is acceptable. However, the preferred spelling for a notice is "advisory."

  • Affect, Effect

    Affect generally is used as a verb meaning "to influence." Effect generally is used as a noun meaning a result. Effect also can be used as a verb meaning to cause or bring about.


    Bright light affects the eyes. The effects of the sun are detrimental. The attorney was called to effect a compromise.

  • Among, Between

    Use among to indicate relationship to three or more people or things, between for two only or for bilateral action in a group.

  • As

    Do not use in the sense of "because" or "since." It is a preposition meaning to the same degree.

  • Assure, Ensure, Insure

    Assure means to convince or give confidence, and it generally has no object. Ensure means to make certain, guarantee, or secure. Insure means the promise of compensation in the event of a loss of life or property.


    We assured the client that the cost would be competitive. Our efforts will ensure a quality publication. We insured our car the day we bought it.

  • Beside, Besides

    Beside means alongside; besides means in addition to.

  • Bring, Take

    Keep direction in mind when using these words. Bring generally indicates something coming toward; take indicates something going away or departing from.

  • Complement, Compliment

    Complement is a noun denoting completeness or a verb denoting the process of supplementing something. Compliment is a noun denoting an expression of courtesy or a verb denoting praise.


    His shirt complements his suit. The restaurant had a complement of 40 waiters. I received many compliments on my new haircut.

  • Comprise, Compose

    Comprise means contain, include or embrace, and it must be used in the active voice. It can also be used informally to mean form or constitute. Compose means to create or put together, and it can be used in either the active or passive voice.


    The zoo comprises mammals, reptiles, and birds. Mammals, reptiles, and birds comprise the zoo. The zoo is composed of mammals and reptiles.

  • Continual, Continuous

    Continual means regular, but not constant. Continuous means constant.


    Continual maintenance keeps machinery running smoothly.

    Our business has implemented continuous printing so that we may supervise print jobs around the clock.

  • Convince, Persuade

    People are convinced that something, or convinced of something. People are persuaded to do something.


    The student persuaded the professor to change his grade after the professor was convinced that the final exam had been marked incorrectly.

  • Disinterested, Uninterested

    Disinterested means impartial. Uninterested means indifferent. They are not interchangeable.


    Disinterested auditors serve stockholders well. Uninterested auditors may have to look for new clients.

  • Entitled, Titled

    Entitled means a right to do or have something. Do not use entitled to mean titled.


    I won the contest, so I was entitled to get a free book from the bookstore. The one I chose was titled, How to Have Better Luck.

  • Farther, Further

    Use farther to indicate distance. Further means in addition to.

  • Fewer, Less

    Fewer is used in reference to a number of separate items. Less is used for amount, degree or value.


    Fewer people means less applause after the play.

  • First-come, first-served

    This is the correct way to use this phrase.

  • First-year

    Incoming students at the University. Do not refer to incoming first-year students as freshmen.

  • Flier, Flyer

    Flier is an aviator or handbill. Flyer is the proper name of some trains and buses.

  • Fundraiser, Fundraising

    Do not hyphenate these terms or use as two words.

  • If, Whether

    If expresses a condition. Whether expresses an alternative. Do not use or not following "whether." It is unnecessary.


    If you come to the meeting, I’ll bring food. Then we’ll decide whether to include instructions with the software.

  • Imply, Infer

    To imply is to suggest or express indirectly. To infer is to deduce from the evidence at hand.


    John’s criticism of Mary’s performance implied that she had not met expectations. After listening to John’s comments, Mary inferred that her job was at risk.

  • Its, It’s

    Frequently confused, its is the possessive of the pronoun it. It’s is a contraction for it is or it has.

  • Just

    When used as an adverb, just means precisely, closely, or precisely at the time referred to (now). It is not a synonym for recently.

  • Lay, Lie

    Lay (laid) is an action verb meaning to place or put, and it takes a direct object. Past tense is laid present participle is laying. Lie indicates a state of reclining, and it does not take a direct object. Past tense is lay; present participle is lying.


    I laid the blanket on the bed. Then I lay on the bed for a quick nap.

  • More important, More importantly

    Use more important. In sentences beginning with importantly or significantly, recast the sentence to eliminate the construction.

  • Nor, Or

    Use or after negative expressions. In correlative construction, use or after either and nor after neither.


    He cannot read or write. But I think he refuses either to read or to write. Don’t you think it’s sad that he can neither read nor write?

  • Postdoctoral, Predoctoral

    Do not hyphenate these terms or use as two words.

  • Principle, Principal

    Principle is a noun meaning doctrine, law, or essential element or characteristic. Principal can be a noun or an adjective meaning first in importance or rank, or a noun designating money on which interest is computed.


    The principal showed he had principles when he requested a conference.

  • That, Which

    Which should be confined to introducing parenthetical construction. That should be confined to introducing.


    I’m returning this book, which I enjoyed. Do you remember this book that you let me borrow?

  • Toward, Backward, Forward

    No "s" on any of these words.

  • Whose, Who’s

    Whose is the possessive form of who. Who’s is a contraction for who is or who has.


    Whose book is that? Who’s going to claim it?