Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Is This Right? A Commonly Misused Words Quiz

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Take this quick quiz to see if you know how to use these five commonly misused words.

Being a writer is all about using the right word for the job, but there are some words that trip up just about everyone. Words such as farther or further, lay or lie, and the always troublesome affect or effect. I can’t tell you how often I’ve puzzled over that last one, since it’s particularly tricky.

It doesn't help that these words are frequently used incorrectly in the real world, either. We get so used to seeing the wrong usage that we don't even noticed it when we goof up.

Take this quiz and see how well you know your commonly misused words:

I’ll also share my little tricks for remembering which word to use when.

1. Lay vs. Lie

A. Bob wanted to lie down after hacking up the zombies.
B. Bob wanted to lay down after hacking up the zombies.
C. The zombie head lay over by the desk.
D. The zombie head laid over by the desk.
E. Jane laid the zombie head on the desk.

Which are correct?

If you answered A, C, and E, pat yourself on the back. Lie is used when the subject is doing the action. Lay is used when the subject is being acted upon.

The trick I use to remember this: Chickens lay eggs, but dogs lie down. Chickens put the egg on the ground, dogs put themselves on the ground.

2. Farther vs. Further

A. Bob wanted to go farther into town before stopping for the night.
B. Bob wanted to go further into town before stopping for the night.
C. Sally didn't think she could handle Jane's glares any further this evening.
D. Sally didn't think she could handle Jane's glares any farther this evening.

Which are correct?

Kudos to those who answered A and C. Farther is used when you can actually measure what you're talking about, such as feet or miles. Further is used for abstract things, such as time or patience.

The trick I use to remember this: How far do we have to go? Far = distance = something measurable. If you can count it, use farther.

(Here’s more with The Grammar Chicken: Helping Writers Write)

3. Fewer vs. Less

A. Bob had fewer bullets than Jane.
B. Bob had less bullets than Jane.
C. Sally had less skill with the shotgun than Jane.
D. Sally had fewer skill with the shotgun than Jane.

Which are correct?

You're right if you said A and C. Same thing as farther and further; fewer is when you can count the items, less is for more abstract things such as time. You'd have fewer hours, but less time.

The trick I use to remember this: It takes less time to count fewer things. You can also try counting whatever you're referring to. One hour, two hours, etc. Not one time, two time.

4. Bring vs. Take

A. Bob asked Jane to bring him the shotgun shells.
B. Bob asked Jane to take him the shotgun shells.
C. "Are you bringing those shells to Sally?" Jane asked.
D. "Are you taking those shells to Sally?" Jane asked.
E. "Are you bringing those shells to me?" Sally asked.

Which are correct?

Points if you said A, D, and E. The key thing to remember here is who is speaking. Bring is used when something is coming toward the speaker, take is used when it's going away from the speaker.

The trick I use to remember this: You take a vacation. Vacations are usually away from you, and you have to go to them.

Bring that to me. Bring comes toward the person asking for it. For Monty Python fans, “Bring me a shrubbery” also helps keep these straight.

5. Affect vs. Effect

A. The serum affected the zombie.
B. The serum had little affect on the zombie.
C. The affect of the serum was worse than the zombies.
D. Bob hoped the serum would effect a change in Jane soon.
E. The effects of the serum test were less than optimal.

Which are correct?

This one’s a toughie, so points to those who said A, D, and E. The key thing to remember here is whether or not you want a noun or a verb. Effect is usually used as noun to show “the result or outcome,” while affect is usually a verb that means “to influence.” However, effect is sometimes used as a verb meaning “to bring about” or “accomplish,” as in option D.

Which is why using “impact” or “change” to test which version is right can get you into trouble. While “change” is a verb (and thus affect), “a change” is a noun (and thus effect). Try adding the article next time to see the difference.

The trick I use to remember this: Affect = action. If you can replace affect with a more specific action, such as “The serum burned the zombie,” affect is correct. You wouldn’t say “The burns of the serum test were less than optimal.”

Don't fret over getting these right as you’re writing—you don’t want to lose your writing momentum—but search for them after the draft is done. After a while, you’ll start using them correctly without even thinking about it.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and check your manuscript for these words to see if you’re using them correctly. Edit as needed.

What words do you mix up? Do you have any tricks for remembering which one’s correct?

*Originally published June 2011. Last updated March 2021.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Words like practise and practice/ license and licence. I was taught 'c' was for the noun and 's' was for the verb but I see them used interchangeably so much that I wonder if I dreamed it. Is this rule taught in the United States or fallen out of practice?!

  2. I need some work on "lay" and "lie." Another one that baffles me is "pique" vs. "peak."

    I always thought it was

    The book with the red cover piqued my interest.

    However, I see peak used like this:

    The open jewelry box peaked my interest.

  3. This post reprises some of my pet peeves. Catierhodes, "piqued" is correct in the examples you have given. You could say "My interest peaked"--that is, reached a high point; but "piqued" is the transitive verb where something arouses your interest.

    Anonymous, "practice" is used as both a verb and noun in American English, while apparently "practise" is the verb form in British English. Similarly, in American English, "license" is used for both noun and verb, while it appears that the noun form is spelled "licence" in British English.

    One that tends to befuddle me, because I see it used both ways, is whether you "pore over" or "pour over" a document when you examine it closely. The dictionary tells me "pore over" is correct. Perhaps the key is to imagine you're looking so closely you see all the tiny holes in the document!

  4. My trick is Google...usually if you type in a phrase, the first page that pops up is one on grammar.

    I still seem to manage to mix up lose/loose at least once a manuscript, and then hit my head on the desk.

  5. Thanks so much. I think there are a few copy editors out there who should be reading your lay/lie examples.

    And I also see too many peaks that should be piques. And another one that shouldn't get by editors: 'baited breath'

    I thank my editor for catching discrete/discreet errors in a recent manuscript.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. Janice, may I just say that you are an amazing teacher? You seem to be able to explain ANY writing concept in the clearest, simplest terms I have ever read anywhere. Thank you!

    Quick Question: I think one of the reasons so many people mix these up are due to common usage errors... That being said, I would feel comfortable using the wrong word in dialogue, if my character would speak that way (e.g. I have less bullets than she does!).

    What do you think about using the 'wrong' words in dialogue?

  7. Anon: Looks like Penny has the answer there (thanks!) I've never heard that, so it might not be a US thing.

    Catierhodes: I see piqued used wrong all the time. Your example is the right one. Peak is used for the high point of something. But you could probably say "that was the peak of my interest" to show the interest in waning.

    Penny: Thanks for the clarifications :) I've never seen pored over used that way, though your explanation as to why cracks me up. I didn't know pore could be used in that way. Though I bet folks who do use it that way get dinged by crit groups for being wrong, LOL.

    MK: That's a good trick. Lose and loose get me, but I think it's more a "not hitting the o key twice" thing. Maybe you're doing that too :)

    Terry: "baited breath" LOL. That reminds me of the old Mork and Mindy show where Mork says: "I shall wait with worms on my tongue"

    Bran Flakes: Thanks so much! You could use wrong words in dialog, but I'd treat them like dialect. A little for color is fine, but too much starts to get distracting. You'd also want to make sure it's clear to the reader that the person speaking is getting it wrong (they're dumb, uneducated, cultural things, whatever), not you making a mistake. I have a few "none" in stead of "any" for my protag because it sounds better, and she has very little formal education so it fits her.

  8. This is awesome information. I love this. Everyone should mark this to come back to.

  9. Excellent post! I have a horrible time with lay and lie.

  10. i say it don't matter as long as you know yourself what it means that you whote and like it

  11. Orlando: Glad it worked for you :)

    Rachel: So did I for a long time until I figured out the chicken/dog thing. That made it so much easier.

    Anon: If you're writing for yourself, sure, it doesn't matter. But if you hope to be a published author one day, it matters a lot. Depends on what your goals are.

  12. Yay, I got these right. :) I pride myself on being good at copy-editing stuff for my critique partners, so it's good to know I'm not 100% delusional (maybe only 99% or so). LOL! Thank you so much for these quizzes and examples.

  13. Jami: Yay! And you are most welcome.

  14. These are all great in helping me! My current headache is "in to" vs. "into"

    1. The difference on that one:

      Into usually is for things you can get inside of. It went into the box, she went into the pool, Jane vanished into thin air, Bob turned into a dragon.

      In to is for things that you can't get inside of. He turned his ticket in to the attendant, the waitress came in to pick up the check.

      Does that help any?

  15. "Lay is used when the subject is being acted upon." I don't really understand this one - I thought the subject was defined as the thing doing the action?

    1. Yes, in a sentence structure way. In this case, I meant "subject" as in "the thing being interacted with or used."

      You lay down a book. The book is this thing (subject) you're acting on.

      If you're affecting something else, it's lay. If you're affecting yourself, it's lie. And by "you're" I mean whoever is doing the "action." The dog lies down is the dog affecting itself.

      Does that clear it up?

    2. I think so, thanks! "If you're affecting something else, it's lay. If you're affecting yourself, it's lie." That's a really helpful way to remember :) I guess I just get confused when grammar words are used with their non-grammar meanings! (Same when people say 'passive voice' to mean boring)

  16. Some good suggestions good mnemonic devices
    One question Catierhodes?