One of the hardest things in English is word usage, but it’s also one of the most important. Using a word correctly and expertly–even when everyone else misuses it–shows mastery of the language and adds finesse to your writing and speech.
To make sure that people recognize you for the intelligent person that you are, avoid the following mistakes at all cost.
I Could Care Less
If you could care less, then you do care, at least a little. You might even care a lot, which is the opposite of what users of this phrase are trying to convey.
What people mean when they say, “I could care less” is that they actually don’t care at all. To get this point across, use “I couldn’t care less” instead.
Unfortunately, the word “literally” has been used so much as a way to add emphasis or exaggeration to a sentence that the word gods have redefined it to mean both, “in a literal, unexaggerated manner” and “virtually.” So technically it is acceptable to use “literally” to mean the opposite. But if you really want to sound smart, it’s still best to avoid this.
Before you use the word “literally” in a sentence, think about whether the thing or situation you’re describing is in fact literal. Is it real? Is it truly happening? Could you take a picture of it? If not, avoid the word “literally.”
To add emphasis to a phrase, use a qualifier like “really” instead. (I don’t always condone using qualifiers, but if it saves you from using “literally” incorrectly, please do.) Or use obvious exaggeration. For example:
“I really hate black eyed peas.” or “I’d rather eat worms than black-eyed peas.”
Comprises vs Composed Of
This is one I didn’t know until just a few years ago. Most of us use “comprised of” all the time. For example, “WritersDomain is comprised of writers from all over the world.” The correct term in this instance is actually “composed of.” “WritersDomain is composed of writers from all over the world.”
“Composed of” should be used when referring to one entity (WritersDomain) that is made of several parts (writers.) “Comprise” is used for several parts that make up a whole. So, “Writers from North America, the UK, and Australia comprise WritersDomain.”
Here’s a rule of thumb: If you can substitute “made of,” use “composed of.” If you can substitute “make up,” use “comprise.”
Nauseous vs Nauseated
Almost everyone says, “I feel nauseous” to describe that roller coaster feeling in their stomach. It’s so accepted that dictionaries now support this use, but did you know that “nauseous” actually means you make something else feel sick? If you feel sick to your stomach, the correct term is “nauseated.”
Here’s an example of the correct use of both:
“Black-eyed peas are nauseous. I ate some, so I feel nauseated.”
But, really, black-eyed peas are gross.
Ensure vs Insure
“Ensure” means to make sure of something. For instance, “After you’ve written a fantastic article with great ideation, please ensure that it is free of errors.” “Insure” refers to covering something with an insurance policy.
Ensuring something requires a personal effort while insuring something involves a business transaction. At one point these words were used interchangeably, and they sometimes still are colloquially, but most style guides and publications today differentiate between the two.
Effect vs Affect
To effect something is to create it or to lead it to a result. To affect something is to influence it or contribute to it.
One thing that helps me is to remember this line from The Princess Diaries: “You have the power to effect change.” Here, Lilly is telling Mia she can create change, not influence it.
Another way to remember the difference is to think, “Effect—‘e’ for effort. It takes more effort to create something than just to influence it.” (That’s not necessarily true all the time, but for the sake of memorization, this could help.). Regardless of any devices you use, take the time to commit this usage rule to memory.
Lay vs Lie
“Lay” is a transitive verb, meaning it has to have an object; you “lay” something else down.
Ex: “Lay those books right over there.”
“Lie” is intransitive, meaning there is no object. The person saying, “lie” is the one who is going to do the lying (referring to being prostrate, not “telling a falsehood”).
Ex: “I’m going to lie down.”
So far so good. The tricky part with these words is the past tense—because “lay” is the past tense of “lie.” Another one of the cruel jokes of the English language. We could come up with a mnemonic device for remembering the past tense of “lay” and “lie,” but it might be easier to just memorize them. Here’s a chart to help.
Okay, using “whom” these days can sound stilted in some situations. But you should at least know how so you can pull it out when it feels appropriate.
One reason we tend to avoid “whom” is that we think it’s difficult to figure out when to use it, but it’s actually pretty simple. “Whom” is a gender-neutral object pronoun, meaning it stands in place of the objects “him” or “her.” So, if you can answer a question with either “him” or “her,” you can use “whom” in the inquiry.
Here are a couple of examples:
“To whom are you speaking?” “To her.”
“Whom did you feed the black-eyed peas to? To him? Excellent.”
Remember that “whom” ends with an “m” just like “him” does, so if you can use “him,” you can use “whom.”
These are just a few of the most common usage errors. Are there usage errors that bother you?