There are a number of words that are frequently confused by some people, but there’s really no reason for that since, as you will soon see, those words are really easy to tell apart. Whenever possible I’ve provided a mnemonic device to make things easier to remember. As long as you can remember what’s in front of each dash, you shouldn’t run into any problems.
- 9 times out of 10, affect is a verb and effect is a noun. – In those other 1%-or-so cases, you’ll most likely use another word anyway (I always have), so you don’t probably need to worry about them.
- “You lay something down, and people lie down by themselves.” – Thanks, Grammar Girl, I’ve always had trouble with that one so I appreciate the tip.
- Than is a comparison (Ginger is much smarter than Patch). Otherwise use then. – To be more precise, then is used when talking about time (first this, then that).
The following are all commonly confused homophones (words that sound the same):
- It’s means “it is” or “it has”. In all other cases use its. – Adapted from Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynn Truss, a fantastic book I highly recommend to every English-speaking person on the planet.
- “They’re going to their house over there.” – They’re means “they are” or “they were”, while their means “belongs to them”, and there is a direction or place.
- Two is a number. Too means “also” or “more than enough” (I ate too much last Thanksgiving). Otherwise use to.
- Likewise, who’s means “who is” or “who has”. Otherwise use whose. – Whose is a possessive.
- You’re means “you are” or “you were”. Otherwise use your. – Your is a possessive.
In order to be understood, your writing must be readable in the first place. If readers have to work too hard to figure out what you’re trying to say, they won’t. So here are few tips to make sure everyone can read your writing:
- Start each sentence with a capital letter. A long string of lowercase letters is nearly impossible to read.
- Use punctuation. End each sentence with an appropriate terminal punctuation mark (period, question mark, or exclamation point), and use commas and other punctuation as appropriate. As above, long strings of words with no punctuation are really hard to read, especially since the same phrase can have multiple meanings depending on how it is punctuated. Imagine trying to read this article if I used neither capital letters or punctuation – I’ve seen far too many people on forums who do precisely that, and make themselves look both lazy and foolish in the process.
- Always – always! – put a space before an open parenthesis, and between sentences. I’m thoroughly baffled as to how the habit of not putting in those spaces became so common because it not only makes the writer look foolish, it makes the text much harder to read.
- Use paragraph breaks. Just among the people I know personally, at least a dozen, including me, can’t read walls of text – especially on screens. I can usually manage it on paper (which is good since I’m such a fan of Twain), but my eyes get easily lost on screens and trying to keep them on track always gives me a headache. Even readers who aren’t so afflicted will find your writing easier to read if you include paragraph breaks at logical points.
If you’re ever in doubt and don’t have a friendly grammarian handy, a search of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips should set you straight in no time.