Common Errors in English by Paul Brians[email protected]
(Brownie points to anyone who catches inconsistencies between the main site and this
Note that italics are deliberately omitted on this page.
What is an error in English?
The concept of language errors is a fuzzy one. I'll leave to linguists the technical definitions.
Here we're concerned only with deviations from the standard use of English as judged by
sophisticated users such as professional writers, editors, teachers, and literate executives and
personnel officers. The aim of this site is to help you avoid low grades, lost employment
opportunities, lost business, and titters of amusement at the way you write or speak.
But isn't one person's mistake another's standard usage?
Often enough, but if your standard usage causes other people to consider you stupid or
ignorant, you may want to consider changing it. You have the right to express yourself in any
manner you please, but if you wish to communicate effectively you should use nonstandard
English only when you intend to, rather than fall into it because you don't know any better.
I'm learning English as a second language. Will this site help me improve my English?
Very likely, though it's really aimed at the most common errors of native speakers. The errors
others make in English differ according to the characteristics of their first languages. Speakers
of other languages tend to make some specific errors that are uncommon among native
speakers, so you may also want to consult sites dealing specifically with English as a second
language (see http://www.cln.org/subjects/esl_cur.html and
http://esl.about.com/education/adulted/esl/). There is also a Help Desk for ESL students at
Washington State University at http://www.wsu.edu/~gordonl/ESL/. An outstanding book you
may want to order is Ann Raimes' Keys for Writers. This is not a question-and-answer site for
Aren't some of these points awfully picky?
This is a relative matter. One person's gaffe is another's peccadillo. Some common
complaints about usage strike me as too persnickety, but I'm just covering mistakes in
English that happen to bother me. Feel free to create your own page listing your own pet
peeves, but I welcome suggestions for additions to these pages.
What gives you the right to say what an error in English is?
I could take the easy way out and say I'm a professor of English and do this sort of thing for a
living. True, but my Ph.D. is in comparative literature, not composition or linguistics, and I
teach courses in the history of ideas rather than language as such. But I admire good writing
and try to encourage it in my students.
Why do you discuss mainly American usage?
Because I'm an American, my students are mostly American, most English-speaking Web
users are Americans, and American English is quickly becoming an international standard. I
am slowly reworking the site to take note of American deviations from standard British
practice. However, the job is complicated by the fact that Canadians, Australians, and many
others often follow patterns somewhere between the two. If the standard usage where you
are differs from what is described here, tell me about it; and if I think it's important to do so,
I'll note that fact. Meanwhile, just assume that this site is primarily about American English.
Isn't it oppressive of immigrants and subjugated minorities to insist on the use of standard
Language standards can certainly be used for oppressive purposes, but most speakers and
writers of all races and classes want to use language in a way that will impress others. The
fact is that the world is full of teachers, employers, and other authorities who may penalize
you for your nonstandard use of the English language. Feel free to denounce these people if
you wish; but if you need their good opinion to get ahead, you'd be wise to learn standard
English. Note that I often suggest differing usages as appropriate depending on the setting:
spoken vs. written, informal vs. formal; slang is often highly appropriate. In fact, most of the
errors discussed on this site are common in the writing of privileged middle-class Americans,
and some are characteristic of people with advanced degrees and considerable intellectual
attainments. However you come down on this issue, note that the great advantage of an
open Web-based educational site like this is that it's voluntary: take what you want and
leave the rest. It's interesting that I have received hundreds of messages from non-native
speakers thanking me for these pages and none from such people complaining that my page
discriminate against them.
But you made a mistake yourself!
We all do, from time to time. Drop me a line if you think you've found an error in my own
writing. If I think you're right, I'll correct it; but be prepared to be disagreed with. If you write
me, please don't call me "Brian." My given name is Paul.
For instructions on how to write me, see the bottom of this page.
This resource is copyrighted by Paul Brians. Permission is granted to reprint or photocopy it
in its entirety or in part for all nonprofit, educational purposes provided that the author is
cited and the URL of this page is included. As a courtesy, please notify the author if you
copy or link to this material. Because the content changes frequently, and I need to maintain
control over the site, requests to create Web mirrors of the site are usually declined.
Recommended in "Yahoo Internet Life Magazine," July, 1997, pp. 82-83 and cited as a
Yahoo "Site of the Week." It has also been recommended in the pages of "The Weekend
Australian," "The Bangkok Post," the "Los Angeles Times," the "Seattle Times," the
"Indianapolis Star-Tribune," the "Halifax Chronicle-Herald," Ziff-Davis' "Inside the Internet"
newsletter, "Netsurfer Digest," and "The Web" magazine.
360 DEGREES/180 DEGREES
When you turn 360 degrees you've completed a circle and are back where you started. So if
you want to describe a position that's diametrically opposed to another, the expression you
want is not "360 degrees away" but "180 degrees away."
If the word following begins with a vowel, the word you want is "an": "Have an apple,
Adam." If the word following begins with a consonant, but begins with a vowel sound, you
still need "an": "An X-ray will show whether there's a worm in it." It is nonstandard and often
considered sloppy speech to utter an "uh" sound in such cases.
When the following word definitely begins with a consonant sound, you need "a": "A snake
told me apples enhance mental abilities."
See also "an historic."
"A.D." does not mean "after death," as many people suppose. "B.C." stands for the English
phrase "before Christ," but "A.D." stands confusingly for a Latin phrase: anno domini ("in the
year of the Lord"--the year Jesus was born). If the calendar actually changed with Jesus' death,
then what would we do with the years during which he lived? Since Jesus was probably
actually born around 6 B.C. or so, the connection of the calendar with him can be
Many Biblical scholars and historians, and archeologists prefer the less sectarian
designations "before the Common Era" (B.C.E.) and "the Common Era" (C.E.).
All of these abbreviations can also be spelled without their periods.
"AM" stands for the Latin phrase "Ante Meridiem"--which means "before noon"--and "PM"
stands for "Post Meridiem": "after noon." Although digital clocks routinely label noon "12:00
PM" you should avoid this expression not only because it is incorrect, but because many
people will imagine you are talking about midnight instead. The same goes for "12:00 AM."
Just say or write "noon" or "midnight" when you mean those precise times.
It is now rare to see periods placed after these abbreviations: "A.M.", but in formal writing it
is still preferable to capitalize them, though the lower-case "am" and "pm" are now so
popular they are not likely to get you into trouble.
Occasionally computer programs encourage you to write "AM" and "PM" without a space
before them, but others will misread your data if you omit the space. The nonstandard
pattern of omitting the space is spreading rapidly, and should be avoided in formal writing.
"Abject" is always negative, meaning "lowly" or "hopeless." You can't experience "abject joy"
unless you're being deliberately paradoxical.
People are able to do things, but things are not able to be done: you should not say, "the
budget shortfall was able to be solved by selling brownies."
"This isn't about you." What a great rebuke! But conservatives sniff at this sort of abstract use
of "about," as in "I'm all about good taste" or "successful truffle-making is about temperature
control"; so it's better to avoid it in very formal English.
Although it's "absorbed" and "absorbing" the correct spelling of the noun is "absorption."
Most people first encounter "obtuse" in geometry class, where it labels an angle of more than
90 degrees. Imagine what sort of blunt arrowhead that kind of angle would make and you
will understand why it also has a figurative meaning of "dull, stupid." But people often mix
the word up with "abstruse," which means "difficult to understand."
When you mean to criticize something for being needlessly complex or baffling, the word
you need is not "obtuse," but "abstruse."
If you drive too fast, you exceed the speed limit. "Accede" is a much rarer word meaning
"give in," "agree."
In what follows, "accent mark" will be used in a loose sense to include all diacritical marks
that guide pronunciation. Operating systems and programs differ in how they produce
accent marks, but it's worth learning how yours works. Writing them in by hand afterwards
Words adopted from foreign languages sometimes carry their accent marks with them, as in
"fiance" "protege," and "cliche." As words become more at home in English, they tend to
shed the marks: "Cafe" is often spelled "cafe." Unfortunately, "resume" seems to be losing its
marks one at a time (see under "vita/vitae").
Many computer users have not learned their systems well enough to understand how to
produce the desired accent and often insert an apostrophe (curled) or foot mark (straight)
after the accented letter instead: "cafe'." This is both ugly and incorrect. The same error is
commonly seen on storefront signs.
So far we've used examples containing acute (right-leaning) accent marks. French and Italian
(but not Spanish) words often contain grave (left-leaning) accents; in Italian it's a caffe. It is
important not to substitute one kind of accent for the other.
The diaeresis over a letter signifies that it is to be pronounced as a separate syllable: "noel"
and "naive" are sometimes spelled with a diaeresis, for instance. The umlaut, which looks
identical, modifies the sound of a vowel, as in German Fraulein (girl), where the accent mark
changes the "frow" sound of Frau (woman) to "froy." Rock groups like "Blue Oyster Cult"
scattered umlauts about nonsensically to create an exotic look.
Spanish words not completely assimilated into English like pinata and nino retain the tilde,
which tells you that an "N" is to be pronounced with a "Y" sound after it. In English-language
publications accent marks are often discarded, but the acute and grave accents are the ones
most often retained.
[Note: the accent marks in this entry may not display properly on all operating systems.
Consult the page on accent marks to see them properly.]
If you offer me Godiva chocolates I will gladly accept them--except for the candied violet
ones. Just remember that the "X" in "except" excludes things--they tend to stand out, be
different. In contrast, just look at those two cozy "Cs" snuggling up together. Very accepting.
And be careful; when typing "except" it often comes out "expect."
ACCESS/GET ACCESS TO
"Access" is one of many nouns that's been turned into a verb in recent years. Conservatives
object to phrases like "you can access your account online." Substitute "use," "reach," or "get
access to" if you want to please them.
There's an "ack" sound at the beginning of this word, though some mispronounce it as if the
two "C's" were to be sounded the same as the two "SS's."
You can remember this one by remembering how to spell "accidental." There are quite a few
words with -ally suffixes (like "incidentally") which are not to be confused with words that
have "-ly" suffixes (like "independently"). "Incidental" is a word, but "independental" is not.
ACRONYMS AND APOSTROPHES
One unusual modern use of the apostrophe is in plural acronyms, like "ICBM's" "NGO's"
and "CD's". Since this pattern violates the rule that apostrophes are not used before an S
indicating a plural, many people object to it. It is also perfectly legitimate to write "CDs," etc.
See also "50's." But the use of apostrophes with initialisms like "learn your ABC's and "mind
your P's and Q's" is now so universal as to be acceptable in almost any context.
Note that "acronym" was used originally only to label pronounceable abbreviations like
"NATO," but is now generally applied to all sorts of initialisms. Be aware that some people
consider this extended definition of "acronym" to be an error.
The chicken may have crossed the road, but did so by walking across it.
"Actionable" is a technical term referring to something that provides grounds for a legal
action or lawsuit. People in the business world have begun using it as a fancy synonym for
"doable" or "feasible." This is both pretentious and confusing.
"In actual fact" is an unnecessarily complicated way of saying "actually."
"Advertisement" is abbreviated "ad," not "add."
You can adopt a child or a custom or a law; in all of these cases you are making the object
of the adoption your own, accepting it. If you adapt something, however, you are changing
Do you find beer nuts addicting or addictive? "Addicting" is a perfectly legitimate word, but
much less common than "addictive," and some people will scowl at you if you use it.
You can minister to someone by administering first aid. Note how the "ad" in "administer
resembles "aid" in order to remember the correct form of the latter phrase. "Minister" as a
verb always requires "to" following it.
"Adultery" is often misspelled "adultry," as if it were something every adult should try. This
spelling error is likely to get you snickered at. The term does not refer to all sorts of illicit sex:
at least one of the partners involved has to be married for the relationship to be adulterous.
When you hear about something in advance, earlier than other people, you get advance
notice or information. "Advanced" means "complex, sophisticated" and doesn't necessarily
have anything to do with the revealing of secrets.
The word "adverse" turns up most frequently in the phrase "adverse circumstances," meaning
difficult circumstances, circumstances which act as an adversary; but people often confuse
this word with "averse," a much rarer word, meaning having a strong feeling against, or
"Advice" is the noun, "advise" the verb. When Ann Landers advises people, she gives them
"Adviser" and "advisor" are equally fine spellings. There is no distinction between them.
When they are acting as advocates for a cause, people often say they are "advocating for"--
say, traffic safety. This is not as widely accepted as "campaigning for" or "working toward."
Saying you are "advocating for the blind" leaves a lot of listeners wondering what it is you
advocate for them. If you can substitute "advocate" for "advocate for," you should do so: "I
advocate for higher pay for teachers" becomes "I advocate higher pay for teachers."
People often encounter these two words first in college, and may confuse one with the other
although they have almost opposite connotations.
"Aesthetic" (also spelled "esthetic") has to do with beauty, whereas "ascetic" has to do with
avoiding pleasure, including presumably the pleasure of looking at beautiful things.
St. Francis had an ascetic attitude toward life, whereas Oscar Wilde had
an esthetic attitude toward life.
There are four distinct words here. When "affect" is accented on the final syllable (a-FECT), it
is a verb meaning "have an influence on": "The million-dollar donation from the industrialist
did not affect my vote against the Clean Air Act." A much rarer meaning is indicated when
the word is accented on the first syllable (AFF-ect), meaning "emotion." In this case the word
is used mostly by psychiatrists and social scientists--people who normally know how to spell
it. The real problem arises when people confuse the first spelling with the second: "effect."
This too can be two different words. The more common one is a noun: "When I left the stove
on, the effect was that the house filled with smoke." When you affect a situation, you have
an effect on it. The less common is a verb meaning "to create": "I'm trying to effect a change
in the way we purchase widgets." No wonder people are confused. Note especially that the
proper expression is not "take affect" but "take effect"--become effective. Hey, nobody ever
said English was logical; just memorize it and get on with your life.
The stuff in your purse? Your personal effects.
Wealth brings affluence; sewage is effluence.
There have been several polite terms used in the U.S. to refer to persons of African descent:
"colored," "negro," "Black," "Afro-American," and "African American." "Colored" is definitely
dated, though "people of color" is now widely used with a broader meaning, including
anyone with non-European ancestry, sometimes even when their skin is not discernibly
darker than that of a typical European. A few contemporary writers like to defy convention
by referring to themselves as "negro." "Black," formerly a proudly assertive label claimed by
young radicals in the 1960s, is now seen by some people as a racist insult.
Some people insist on capitalizing "Black," but others prefer "black." The safest and most
common neutral term is "African American," but Americans sometimes misuse it to label
people of African descent living in other countries or even actual Africans. To qualify as an
"African American" you have to be an American.
Although it is traditional to hyphenate "African-American," "Irish-American," "Cuban-
American," etc., there is a recent trend toward omitting the hyphen, possibly in reaction to
the belittling phrase "hyphenated Americans." However, some styles still call for the hyphen
when the phrase is used adjectivally, so that you might be an African American who enjoys
African-American writers. Omitting the hyphen may puzzle some readers, but it's not likely
to offend anyone.
Both agnostics and atheists are regularly criticized as illogical by people who don't
understand the meaning of these terms. An agnostic is a person who believes that the
existence of a god or gods cannot be proven or known. Agnosticism is a statement about the
limits of human knowledge. It is an error to suppose that agnostics perpetually hesitate
between faith and doubt: they are confident they cannot know the ultimate truth. Similarly,
atheists believe there are no gods. Atheists need not be able to disprove the existence of
gods to be consistent just as believers do not need to be able prove that gods do exist in
order to be regarded as religious. Both attitudes have to do with beliefs, not knowledge.
"Agnostic" is often used metaphorically of any refusal to make a judgment, usually on the
basis of a lack of evidence; people can be agnostic about acupuncture, for instance, if they
believe there is not enough evidence one way or another to decide its effectiveness.
When you agree with someone you are in agreement.
In standard English you just "get hold" of something or somebody.
"Ain't" has a long and vital history as a substitute for "isn't," "aren't" and so on. It was
originally formed from a contraction of "am not" and is still commonly used in that sense.
Even though it has been universally condemned as the classic "mistake" in English, everyone
uses it occasionally as part of a joking phrase or to convey a down-to-earth quality. But if
you always use it instead of the more "proper" contractions you're sure to be branded as
An aisle is a narrow passageway, especially in a church or store; an isle is an island. Propose
to the person you're stranded on a desert isle with and maybe you'll march down the aisle
together after you're rescued.
ALL BE IT/ALBEIT
"Albeit" is a single word meaning "although": "Rani's recipe called for a tablespoon of saffron,
which made it very tasty, albeit rather expensive." It should not be broken up into three
separate words as "all be it," just as "although" is not broken up into "all though."
Put this word where it belongs in the sentence. In negative statements, don't write "All the
pictures didn't show her dimples" when you mean "The pictures didn't all show her
ALL AND ALL/ALL IN ALL
"The dog got into the fried chicken, we forgot the sunscreen, and the kids starting whining at
the end, but all in all the picnic was a success." "All in all" is a traditional phrase which can
mean "all things considered," "after all," or "nevertheless." People unfamiliar with the
traditional wording often change it to "all and all," but this is nonstandard.
ALL FOR NOT/ALL FOR NAUGHT
"Naught" means "nothing," and the phrase "all for naught" means "all for nothing." This is
often misspelled "all for not" and occasionally "all for knot."
ALL GOES WELL/AUGURS WELL
Some folks who don't understand the word "augur" (to foretell based on omens) try to make
sense of the common phrase "augurs well" by mangling it into "all goes well." "Augurs well"
is synonymous with "bodes well."
ALL OF THE SUDDEN/ALL OF A SUDDEN
An unexpected event happens not "all of the sudden" but "all of a sudden."
"All ready" is a phrase meaning "completely prepared," as in "As soon as I put my coat on, I'll
be all ready." "Already," however, is an adverb used to describe something that has
happened before a certain time, as in "What do you mean you'd rather stay home? I've
already got my coat on."
Seeking to avoid prejudging the facts in a crime and protect the rights of the accused,
reporters sometimes over-use "alleged" and "allegedly." If it is clear that someone has been
robbed at gunpoint, it's not necessary to describe it as an alleged robbery nor the victim as
an alleged victim. This practice insultingly casts doubt on the honesty of the victim and
protects no one. An accused perpetrator is one whose guilt is not yet established, so it is
redundant to speak of an "alleged accused." If the perpetrator has not yet been identified, it's
pointless to speak of the search for an "alleged perpetrator."
Pairs of words with the same initial sound alliterate, like "wild and wooly." Those who can't
read are illiterate.
"Alls I know is . . ." may result from anticipating the "S" in "is," but the standard expression is
"All I know is. . . ."
You can allude (refer) to your daughter's membership in the honor society when boasting
about her, but a criminal tries to elude (escape) captivity. There is no such word as "illude."
To allude to something is to refer to it indirectly, by suggestion. If you are being direct and
unambiguous, you refer to the subject rather than alluding to it.
An allusion is a reference, something you allude to: "Her allusion to flowers reminded me
that Valentine's Day was coming." In that English paper, don't write "literary illusions" when
you mean "allusions." A mirage, hallucination, or a magic trick is an illusion. (Doesn't being
fooled just make you ill?)
When a lawyer alludes to his client's poor mother, he is being allusive. When the mole
keeps eluding the traps you've set in the garden, it's being elusive. We also speak of matters
that are difficult to understand, identify, or remember as elusive. Illusions can be illusive, but
we more often refer to them as illusory.
Like "only," "almost" must come immediately before the word or phrase it modifies: "She
almost gave a million dollars to the museum" means something quite different from "She
gave almost a million dollars to the museum." Right? So you shouldn't write, "There was
almost a riotous reaction when the will was read" when what you mean is "There was an
almost riotous reaction."
ALONG THE SAME VEIN/IN THE SAME VEIN, ALONG THE SAME LINE
The expressions "in the same vein" and "along the same line" mean the same thing (on the
same subject), but those who cross-pollinate them to create the hybrid "along the same vein"
sound a little odd to those who are used to the standard expressions.
Perhaps this common spelling error began because there does exist in English a word spelled
"allot" which is a verb meaning to apportion or grant. The correct form, with "a" and "lot"
separated by a space is perhaps not often encountered in print because formal writers
usually use other expressions such as "a great deal," "often," etc. If you can't remember the
rule, just remind yourself that just as you wouldn't write "alittle" you shouldn't write "alot."
If you think Grandma allowed the kids to eat too much ice cream, you'd better not say so
aloud, or her feelings will be hurt. "Aloud" means "out loud" and refers to sounds (most often
speech) that can be heard by others. But this word is often misused when people mean
"allowed," meaning "permitted."
The correct form of this phrase has become so rare in the popular press that many readers
have probably never noticed that it is actually two words. But if you want to avoid irritating
traditionalists you'd better tell them that you feel "all right" rather than "alright."
An altar is that platform at the front of a church or in a temple; to alter something is to
When you have a concealed reason for doing something, it's an ulterior motive.
Although UK authorities disapprove, in U.S. usage, "alternate" is frequently an adjective,
substituted for the older "alternative": "an alternate route." "Alternate" can also be a noun; a
substitute delegate is, for instance, called an "alternate." But when you're speaking of "every
other" as in "our club meets on alternate Tuesdays," you can't substitute "alternative."
"Altogether" is an adverb meaning "completely," "entirely." For example: "When he first saw
the examination questions, he was altogether baffled." "All together," in contrast, is a phrase
meaning "in a group." For example: "The wedding guests were gathered all together in the
garden." Undressed people are said in informal speech to be "in the altogether" (perhaps a
shortening of the phrase "altogether naked").
We used to have "alumnus" (male singular), "alumni" (male plural), "alumna" (female singular)
and "alumnae" (female plural); but the latter two are now popular only among older female
graduates, with the first two terms becoming unisex. However, it is still important to
distinguish between one alumnus and a stadium full of alumni. Never say, "I am an alumni"
if you don't want to cast discredit on your school. Many avoid the whole problem by
resorting to the informal abbreviation "alum."
Most of the words we've borrowed from the French that have retained their "-eur" endings
are pretty sophisticated, like "restaurateur" (notice, no "N") and "auteur" (in film criticism),
but "amateur" attracts amateurish spelling.
Even though the prefix "ambi-" means "both," "ambiguous" has come to mean "unclear,"
"undefined," while "ambivalent" means "torn between two opposing feelings or views." If
your attitude cannot be defined into two polarized alternatives, then you're ambiguous, not
If you feel pulled in two directions about some issue, you're ambivalent about it; but if you
have no particular feelings about it, you're indifferent.
Some Canadians and many Latin Americans are understandably irritated when U.S. citizens
refer to themselves simply as "Americans." Canadians (and only Canadians) use the term
"North American" to include themselves in a two-member group with their neighbor to the
south, though geographers usually include Mexico in North America. When addressing an
international audience composed largely of people from the Americas, it is wise to consider
However, it is pointless to try to ban this usage in all contexts. Outside of the Americas,
"American" is universally understood to refer to things relating to the U.S. There is no good
substitute. Brazilians, Argentineans, and Canadians all have unique terms to refer to
themselves. None of them refer routinely to themselves as "Americans" outside of contexts
like the "Organization of American States." Frank Lloyd Wright promoted "Usonian," but it
never caught on. For better or worse, "American" is standard English for "citizen or resident
of the United States of America."
Although in America "amongst" has not dated nearly as badly as "whilst," it is still less
common in standard speech than "among." The -st forms are still widely used in the UK.
"Amoral" is a rather technical word meaning "unrelated to morality." When you mean to
denounce someone's behavior, call it "immoral."
This is a vast subject. I will try to limit the number of words I expend on it so as not to use up
too great an amount of space. The confusion between the two categories of words relating to
amount and number is so pervasive that those of us who still distinguish between them
constitute an endangered species; but if you want to avoid our ire, learn the difference.
Amount words relate to quantities of things that are measured in bulk; number words to
things that can be counted.
In the second sentence above, it would have been improper to write "the amount of words"
because words are discrete entities which can be counted, or numbered.
Here is a handy chart to distinguish the two categories of words:
amount vs. number quantity vs. number little vs. few less vs. fewer much vs. many
You can eat fewer cookies, but you drink less milk. If you eat too many cookies, people will
probably think you've had too much dessert. If the thing being measured is being considered
in countable units, then use number words. Even a substance which is considered in bulk
can also be measured by number of units. For instance, you shouldn't drink too much wine,
but you should also avoid drinking too many glasses of wine. Note that here you are
counting glasses. They can be numbered.
The most common mistake of this kind is to refer to an "amount" of people instead of a
"number" of people.
Just to confuse things, "more" can be used either way: you can eat more cookies and drink
Exceptions to the less/fewer pattern are references to units of time and money, which are
usually treated as amounts: less than an hour, less than five dollars. Only when you are
referring to specific coins or bills would you use fewer: "I have fewer than five state quarters
to go to make my collection complete."
The classy way to pronounce the first syllable of this word is "amf-," but if you choose the
more popular "amp-" remember that you still have to include the H after the P when spelling
it. U.K.-standard writers spell it "amphitheatre," of course.
AN HISTORIC/A HISTORIC
You should use "an" before a word beginning with an "H" only if the "H" is not pronounced:
"An honest effort"; it's properly "a historic event" though many sophisticated speakers
somehow prefer the sound of "an historic," so that version is not likely to get you into any
A humorist relates "anecdotes." The doctor prescribes "antidotes" for children who have
swallowed poison. Laughter may be the best medicine, but that's no reason to confuse these
two with each other.
AND ALSO/AND, ALSO
"And also" is redundant; say just "and" or "also."
The legal phrase "and/or," indicating that you can either choose between two alternatives or
choose both of them, has proved irresistible in other contexts and is now widely acceptable
though it irritates some readers as jargon. However, you can logically use it only when you
are discussing choices which may or may not both be done: "Bring chips and/or beer." It's
very much overused where simple "or" would do, and it would be wrong to say, "you can
get to the campus for this morning's meeting on a bike and/or in a car." Choosing one
eliminates the possibility of the other, so this isn't an and/or situation.
People who want to write about winged beings from Heaven often miscall them "angles." A
triangle has three angles. The Heavenly Host is made of angels. Just remember the adjectival
form: "angelic." If you pronounce it aloud you'll be reminded that the E comes before the L.
ANOTHER WORDS/IN OTHER WORDS
When you reword a statement, you can preface it by saying "in other words." The phrase is
not "another words."
In literature, theater, and film, an antihero is a central character who is not very admirable:
weak, lazy, incompetent, or mean-spirited. However, antiheroes are rarely actually evil, and
you should not use this word as a synonym for "villain" if you want to get a good grade on
your English lit paper.
Most people use "anxious" interchangeably with "eager," but its original meaning had to do
with worrying, being full of anxiety. Perfectly correct phrases like, "anxious to please"
obscure the nervous tension implicit in this word and lead people to say less correct things
like "I'm anxious for Christmas morning to come so I can open my presents." Traditionalists
frown on anxiety-free anxiousness. Say instead you are eager for or looking forward to a
Instead of saying "he was the worst of any of the dancers," say "he was the worst of the
"Anywhere," like "somewhere" and "nowhere," is always one word.
In the first place, the traditional (though now uncommon) spelling is as two words: "any
more" as in "We do not sell bananas any more." In the second place, it should not be used at
the beginning of a sentence as a synonym for "nowadays." In certain dialects of English it is
common to utter phrases like "anymore you have to grow your own if you want really ripe
tomatoes," but this is guaranteed to jolt listeners who aren't used to it. Even if they can't
quite figure out what's wrong, they'll feel that your speech is vaguely clunky and awkward.
"Any more" always needs to be used as part of an expression of negation except in questions
like "Do you have any more bananas?" Now you won't make that mistake any more, will
Though it is often compressed into a single word by analogy with "anywhere" and similar
words, "any time" is traditionally a two-word phrase.
"Anyways" at the beginning of a sentence usually indicates that the speaker has resumed a
narrative thread: "Anyways, I told Matilda that guy was a lazy bum before she ever married
him." It also occurs at the end of phrases and sentences, meaning "in any case": "He wasn't
all that good-looking anyways." A slightly less rustic quality can be imparted to these
sentences by substituting the more formal "anyway." Neither expression is a good idea in
formal written English. The two-word phrase "any way" has many legitimate uses, however:
"Is there any way to prevent the impending disaster?"
Paradoxically, the one-word form implies separation while the two-word form implies union.
Feuding roommates decide to live apart. Their time together may be a part of their life they
will remember with some bitterness.
Those of us named Paul are appalled at the misspelling of this word. No U, two L's please.
And it's certainly not "uphauled"!
First let's all join in a hearty curse of the grammarians who inserted the wretched apostrophe
into possessives in the first place. It was all a mistake. Our ancestors used to write "Johns hat"
meaning "the hat of John" without the slightest ambiguity. However, some time in the
Renaissance certain scholars decided that the simple "s" of possession must have been
formed out of a contraction of the more "proper" "John his hat." Since in English we mark
contractions with an apostrophe, they did so, and we were stuck with the stupid "John's hat."
Their error can be a handy reminder though: if you're not sure whether a noun ending in "s"
should be followed by an apostrophe, ask yourself whether you could plausibly substitute
"his" or "her" for the "s."
The exception to this pattern is personal pronouns indicating possession like "his," "hers,"
and "its." For more on this point, see "its/it's."
Get this straight once and for all: when the "s" is added to a word simply to make it a plural,
no apostrophe is used (except in expressions where letters or numerals are treated like words,
like "mind your P's and Q's" and "learn your ABC's").
Apostrophes are also used to indicate omitted letters in real contractions: "do not" becomes
Why can't we all agree to do away with the wretched apostrophe? Because its two uses--
contraction and possession--have people so thoroughly confused that they are always
putting in apostrophes where they don't belong, in simple plurals ("cucumber's for sale") and
family names when they are referred to collectively ("the Smith's").
The practice of putting improper apostrophes in family names on signs in front yards is an
endless source of confusion. "The Brown's" is just plain wrong. (If you wanted to suggest "the
residence of the Browns" you would have to write "Browns'," with the apostrophe after the
"S," which is there to indicate a plural number, not as an indication of possession.) If you
simply want to indicate that a family named Brown lives here, the sign out front should read
simply "The Browns." When a name ends in an "S" you need to add an "ES" to make it plural:
No apostrophes for simple plural names or names ending in "S," OK? I get irritated when
people address me as "Mr. Brian's." What about when plural names are used to indicate
possession? "The Browns' cat" is standard (the second "S" is "understood"), though some
prefer "the Browns's cat." The pattern is the same with names ending in "S": "the Adamses'
cat" or--theoretically--"the Adamses's cat," though that would be mighty awkward.
Apostrophes are also misplaced in common plural nouns on signs: "Restrooms are for
customer's use only." Who is this privileged customer to deserve a private bathroom? The
sign should read "for customers' use."
It is not uncommon to see the "S" wrongly apostrophized even in verbs, as in the mistaken
"He complain's a lot."
See also "acronyms and apostrophes."
When you estimate the value of something, you appraise it. When you inform people of a
situation, you apprise them of it.
"Apropos," (anglicized from the French phrase "a propos") means relevant, connected with
what has gone before; it should not be used as an all-purpose substitute for "appropriate." It
would be inappropriate, for example, to say "Your tuxedo was perfectly apropos for the
opera gala." Even though it's not pronounced, be careful not to omit the final "S" in spelling
Lots of people think it's just nifty to say things like "We're having ongoing discussions
around the proposed merger." This strikes some of us as irritating and pointless jargon. We
feel it should be "discussions about" rather than "around."
If there were such a word as "arthuritis" it might mean the overwhelming desire to pull
swords out of stones; but that ache in your joints is caused by "arthritis."
Although some brand names have incorporated this popular error, remember that the Arctic
Circle is an arc. By the way, Ralph Vaughan Williams called his suite drawn from the score
of the film "Scott of the Antarctic," the "Sinfonia Antartica," but that's Italian, not English.
AS FAR AS
Originally people used to say things like "As far as music is concerned, I especially love
Baroque opera." Recently they have begun to drop the "is concerned" part of the phrase.
Perhaps this shift was influenced by confusion with a similar phrase, "as for." "As for money,
I don't have any," is fine; "As far as money, I don't have any," is clumsy.
AS FOLLOW/AS FOLLOWS
"My birthday requests are as follows." This standard phrase doesn't change number when the
items to follow grow from one to many. it's never correct to say "as follow."
AS OF YET/YET
"As of yet" is a windy and pretentious substitute for plain old English "yet" or "as yet," an
unjustified extension of the pattern in sentences like "as of Friday the 27th of May."
AS PER/IN ACCORDANCE WITH
"Enclosed is the shipment of #2 toggle bolts as per your order of June 14" writes the
businessman, unaware that not only is the "as" redundant, he is sounding very old-fashioned