Commonly Confused Words: Close but Not Quite

Many years ago, when I started my first job after college, I noticed that a lot of people who had been with the company for a while called me Susan—but my name is Stephanie. I couldn’t figure out what was going on until one day, some months later, when I met a lady in another office who had been there for a while and who had the same last name as me. And her first name was—you guessed it—Susan. Since we had the same last name, and both our first names started with S, it was completely understandable why people would mix us up.

The commonly confused words we’ll look at today are a lot like that. You may remember that last time we considered homophones—that is, words that sound alike, even though they have different spellings and meanings. So now let’s widen our scope a little more and examine pairs or groups of words that are close in sound and sometimes meaning as well. You could think of these as close—but not quite. 

adverse/averse – This is a pair that is very close indeed…but not the same. Adverse, meaning “hostile,” “unfavorable,” or “harmful,” describes an objective quality that anyone can observe. Averse, however, refers to a person’s subjective feeling of dislike or distaste.


Some prescription drugs unfortunately have adverse side effects, such as weight gain or nausea. (Everyone can observe these undesirable side effects.)

As a result, many people grow averse to the idea of using them. (Now we’re describing an emotional reaction.)


affect/effect – Oh my goodness, does this pair give me headaches! And I know I’m not alone. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve looked these two up. But here’s a good starting point for sorting them out: affect is usually a verb—“to produce an influence upon or alteration in”—while effect is usually a noun—”a change that results when something is done or happens.”


Everyone knows that your mood can dramatically affect your performance at work. (Affect is a verb.)

Mark’s cheerful attitude always has a good effect on his co-workers. (Effect is a noun.)  


assure/ensure/insure – It’s easy to understand why this group causes confusion, because they all basically mean “to make a thing or person certain.” The easiest one to distinguish is assure, because it implies a 100% guarantee. Ensure often carries a connotation of a guarantee as well, although not quite as strong as assure. Of all the words in the group, insure has the least feeling of guarantee; instead, it usually implies that some sort of preparation or precaution must be taken beforehand. So that’s why we insure a car or a house: we have to make the preparation of giving a little money to a company who will (hopefully) pay off if we end up in a situation where we need a lot of money. To keep things simple, I’ve always gone along with the advice you’ll find in some style guides: to use insure only in financial contexts and ensure more generally (this is what I’ve done in the examples below). You can’t go wrong that way.


The movers assured us that our heirloom china closet would not be damaged in the move. (They gave us their guarantee.)

But just to be on the safe side, we ensured that it was well packed. (We checked how they packed it to make ourselves feel better.)

And we insured it for its replacement value. (We called our insurance company and added a rider to our homeowner’s policy.)

collaborate/corroborate – Finally, a pair that’s easier to distinguish because they have very different meanings. But they still sound enough alike to cause confusion. Collaborate means “to work together,” “to cooperate,” while corroborate means “to support with evidence,” “to make more certain.”


Scientists often collaborate on important studies.

The results of those studies sometimes corroborate the preliminary results of earlier studies.


elicit/illicit – These two also sound similar but have very different meanings. And wait, there’s more—elicit is a verb: “to call out” or “to bring forth.” But illicit is an adjective: “unlawful, illegal.”


Engaging in illicit (illegal) activites such as drug trafficking will elicit (bring forth) a response from the authorities.  


farther/further – There’s an interesting backstory to this pair. You might be familiar with the common rule of thumb that farther is used in contexts expressing distance, while further expresses addition. So far so good—but according to Merriam-Webster Online, previously they were almost synonymous. The distinction we now tend to make between the two is a relatively recent development in English usage.


The rest stop is ten miles farther down the road. (distance)

You don’t have to convince me any further to stop there—I need coffee! (addition)  


stanch/staunch – This pair is much like elicit/illicit that we discussed above: they are quite similar in sound, yet very different in meaning. And like elicit, stanch is a verb: “to check or stop a flow;” “to check or stop the course.” But staunch, like illicit, is an adjective: “steadfast, faithful, loyal.”   


Someone please help me stanch the bleeding from this cut!

Oh, thank you for helping me—you are indeed a staunch friend!

I hope I haven’t worn you out too much, because our last pair for the day, flaunt/flout, is somewhat controversial. Wait, what—controversy in grammar? Yes, believe it or not. Here’s the traditional distinction between the two: flaunt means “to show off,” but flout means “to treat with contempt.” So you could say something like The woman flaunted (showed off) her beautiful body by wearing revealing clothes, and flouted (treated with contempt) the rules of propriety by having numerous affairs.

However, flaunt has also been used in the same way as flout—”to treat with contempt”—so much since at least the 1940s that some authorities now concede that this usage is not necessarily wrong. And chances are good that if you do a fair amount of reading, you’ve come across this yourself, most likely in a phrase such as to flaunt the rules (whereas traditionally it should be flout). But most style guides still recommend preserving the distinction, especially in more formal writing.

In my research of this dispute, I came across a great mnemonic for this one on the Grammar Girl website (which I highly recommend): to remember that flout is the one that involves ignoring rules, connect the out in flout to outlaw or being outside society.  

By now you know the drill: besides these pairs of easily confused words, there are many more out there. So if you’re ever in doubt whether you’re using the correct one, look it up. You might find, as with flaunt and flout, that in some cases there are differences of opinion on acceptable usage. When you encounter controversy, it helps to consult more than one source. You also have to keep in mind that some dictionaries merely document how language is used: their inclusion of a particular word or definition doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good usage. Your goal should always be clear, concise writing that leaves no possibility that you’ll be misunderstood.

So enough philosophizing! Are there any other close-but-not-quite pairs that often trip you up? Have you ever seen any of these used incorrectly in published writing? (Once you start looking, you’ll find them!) Please feel free to share them below!

Commonly Confused Words: Homophones

Anyone know if this instrument is for real? I have my doubts! Image by Schwoaze from Pixabay

Finally, I’m back! My apologies for the long hiatus—I was busy with several family matters. But everything is fine and now returning to normal, so it’s time to pick up where we left off way back in March (I can’t believe it’s been that long!)

Feel free to have a look back at our last installment to refresh your memory: we started a series on pairs or groups of words that are often confused because they sound the same, even though they’re spelled differently. The technical name for these is homophones. (I have to admit, as someone with a music background, that word has always made me chuckle—it makes me think of saxophone and xylophone and Sousaphone and so on. And by the way, I have no idea if the instrument in the photograph above is for real or not; it looks pretty fanciful, doesn’t it?)

Anyway, the homophones we focused on last time were relatively easy to recognize and sort out because one in each group has an apostrophe: it’s/its, who’s/whose, you’re/your, and they’re/their/there. So this time let’s broaden our scope a bit and look at a few more without apostrophes that are frequently used and frequently confused.


awhile/a while – This one is particularly tricky—you can find plenty of mistakes with these two even in published writing. And I must confess that I have to look it up every time! Awhile is an adverb—a word that modifies a verb (action word) and expresses when the action is done. But a while is a noun phrase meaning “a period of time,” and—here’s the best way to keep these straight—is usually used after a preposition—especially for—or before the words ago or back.


                I’m going to sit and read awhile(no preposition or ago or back)

                This is so relaxing that I’m going to read for a while longer.  (after the preposition for)

                I finished the other book a while back.  (before back)


compliment/complement – A compliment is an expression of praise or flattery, while a complement is something that completes or perfects something else. They are also verbs: compliment means “to praise or flatter,” while complement means “to complete or to make better or perfect.” Here’s a mnemonic (memory device) that helps me keep these two straight: for compliment, think of the i in praise, while for complement, think of the e’s in complete.


                The reviewer complimented the author on her effective use of imagery.

                Her latest novel complements her series of books about life in old Florida.


 discreet/discrete – Unlike our previous two pairs, which are often confused because the meanings of the words are similar, discreet and discrete have very different meanings: discreet means “prudent, unnoticeable, or modest,” while discrete means “separate, distinct, unconnected.”


                A good editor must be discreet about discussing any details of an unpublished manuscript. 

                Many editors break down the editing process into discrete stages, first correcting major mistakes such as factual errors and inconsistencies, and only later fixing grammar and punctuation.    


peak/peek/pique – The two words of this triplet that are most often confused are peak and peek. A peak is “an uppermost point or tip,” while a peek is “a quick, sneaky glance.” You can keep these two straight by thinking of peek—with two e’s—as something you do with your eyes—which also has two e’s. Pique as a noun means “resentment,” but is most often confused with the other two in its verb form in the phrase to pique one’s interest—in other words, to arouse it.


                I just read a fascinating book about an expedition to the peak of Mount Everest.

                If you have a quick peek at the book’s table of contents, I’d bet it will pique your curiosity.


principle/principal – Here’s another pair of words that are often confused even in published writing. A good place to start is to remember that principle, which means “a rule or law,” can only be a noun (a thing). Principal, on the other hand, can be a noun meaning either “an authority”–most often encountered as the school principal–or the main chunk of money you have to pay off when you take out a loan. As an adjective (descriptive word), principal means “most important.”


                An important principle in journalistic writing is to summarize the whole story in the first sentence or two.

                The high school principal approved the creation of a school newspaper and appointed a popular English teacher as the principal advisor for the project.  

rein/reign – In its most basic meaning, a rein is the leather strap you use to steer a horse while you’re riding it, but it can also figuratively mean “restraint.” Reign, however, means “authority,” such as that held by a king or monarch, or the time that such a ruler holds power. I don’t have a very good mnemonic for this one, but the -gn- in reign might make you think of the -ng in king.


                Incompetent rulers often kept a tight rein on their subjects.

                People were usually freer and happier during the reign of wise and benevolent kings.


sight/site – The word sight has many meanings, but all of them are connected with seeing: “something that is seen;” “the power or process of seeing;” “perception by the eye,” and so on. But site has nothing whatsoever to do with seeing—it means only “a place” or “location.”


                While walking through the city, I caught sight of the new bookstore construction site


strait/straight – As with sight/site, this is another pair with distinct meanings. A strait is a narrow channel between two large bodies of water. Its only figurative use is in the phrase dire straits (a situation of distress). But straight, which literally means “free from curves, bends, or irregularities,” has many figurative usages, most of them having a connotation of correctness or directness, such as keeping everything straight and a straight answer.


                After passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, the ship sailed straight across the Mediterranean Sea to the Greek islands. 


There are many, many, MANY more homophones—I just picked a few that I’ve seen more frequently than others. If you can’t get enough homophones, there are lots of lists on the Internet–check out this one, this one, or even this one. The main takeaways are to remember that homophones out there (maybe it’s because of our crazy spelling in English?) and to always doublecheck with a dictionary that you’re using the right one—even if you have to every time!

Which homophone pairs constantly trip you up? Or do you have any good tricks or memory devices for keeping everything strait straight? 😉 Please share them below!

More Basics: Commonly Confused Words–Apostrophes vs. Possessive Pronouns

Image by Jill Rose from Pixabay

In previous posts I believe I’ve mentioned that my husband and I love to play tennis. Most weeks we get to play at least three times, sometimes more. And since we’re always looking to improve our games (especially me—I’m pretty bad), we often go to a clinic for adults on Monday evenings. This week the coach decided to shift gears a little bit and work on the nitty-gritty basics of our forehands and backhands. I have to admit, it was a bit tedious, and for me frustrating at times, yet you have to pay attention to all those details in order to ultimately play better.

It’s much the same way with grammar and writing: it’s a lot of fun to spin a fanciful, creative yarn about whatever interests you, but unless you also understand and check over the grammar underpinning your writing, your reader could get confused or lost, and you will never grow and improve as a writer. You’ll probably get tired of hearing me say this, but whenever you have even the tiniest bit of doubt whether you are using a word correctly, look it up. Even if you have to every time! 

Last time we covered one of those basics of good writing: words and phrases that can easily be cut or changed. Today let’s start on a series about another common stumbling block: pairs or groups of words that are often confused. There are lots of reasons why writers often mix them up, but as we’ll see, in many cases it’s because the words in question sound similar or even the same. And once again we’ll categorize these examples in order to make them easier to remember.


The first category of commonly confused words is easy to spot because one word in each pair or group contains an apostrophe: it’s/its, who’s/whose, you’re/your, and they’re/their/there. The key to untangling these is to remember the function of the apostrophe: it means that there’s something missing. In other words: 

it’s = it is

who’s = who is

you’re = you are

they’re = they are

The other member of these pairs, without the apostrophe, are possessive pronouns—they show to whom or what something belongs:

its – belonging to it

whose – belonging to who

your – belonging to you

their – belonging to them

So here is a simple test you can use to make sure you have the right word. If you have the word with the apostrophe, substitute the full expression. If the sentence makes sense—hooray, it’s correct! But if not, check if the sense is that of belonging to: 

It’s a great day for tennis. (Substitute the full expression) It is a great day for tennis.  This makes sense, so it’s correct. But…

Please check my racquet—I think it’s grip needs to be replaced.  (Substitute the full expression)  *Please check my racquet—I think it is grip needs to be replaced. Oops, that doesn’t make sense. (That’s what the asterisk at the beginning of the sentence means.) So here we need the possessive form without the apostrophe its—and yes, the sentence is talking about something that belongs to it—so it should be Please check my racquet—I think its grip needs to be replaced.

This works the same way for who’s/whose and you’re/your:

This is my friend who’s on my team. = This is my friend who is on my team.

Does anyone know whose bag this is? – the speaker is asking who the bag belongs to, so no apostrophe. (It wouldn’t make sense to say *Does anyone know who is bag this is?)

You’re the best player on our team! = You are the best player on our team!

Your coach must be so proud of you. – the coach belongs to you. (It wouldn’t make sense to say *You are coach must be so proud of you.)


Things get a little trickier with they’re/their/there since there are three words involved, but let’s start with the two that work the same way as the others, they’re/their:

They’re great doubles players. = They are great doubles players.

Their record this season is five wins, one loss. – the record belongs to them. (It wouldn’t make sense to say *They are record this season is five wins, one loss.)

So far so good—but what about there? There has nothing whatsoever to do with they or them—it means only a place. You could substitute the words in that place for there to make sure your sentence is correct:

Court number 5 is there, past the locker rooms. = Court number 5 is in that place, past the locker rooms.

I hope this has helped clear up any confusion you might have had with these pairs and groups of words. Do you have any other tricks to help you check that you’re using the correct word? Please share them below!

I’ll be back next time to start delving into pairs or groups of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.

Back to Basics

Image by Katie Phillips from Pixabay

When I looked back over my last few posts, I realized that we’ve been working on some complicated topics: writing a strong start to a sentence, organizing ideas in a sentence or group of sentences, and using the passive voice. I think it’s time to take a little break and get back to basics, with some quick and easy ways to trim down your writing and make it more effective.  

Lists of common words and phrases to cut are all over the Internet, but instead of just listing them, I think it’s more useful to categorize them according to the kinds of changes that improve them. So let’s start with some easy ones. The first two categories include words or phrases which you can almost always remove from your writing without altering the meaning:  

Fillers that add nothing: accordingly; actually; as necessary; all things being equal; for all intents and purposes; for the most part; in fact; in terms of; of course.  

Words that are often redundant: absolutely; completely; entirely; possibly. At first you might take issue with calling these words “redundant,” but think about it: do you really need to say completely full? Or entirely certain? The words full and certain already contain the idea of completeness.

Cutting words from just those two categories will save you a lot right off the bat. But let’s go on to the next step: phrases that can be trimmed down. Sometimes you can simply cut some words:

Instead of…

Change to…

at the rate of


connected together


end result


for a period of


if at all possible

if possible

in an area where


in an effort to


it is often the case that


with the aid of



But more often you have to reword a bit:

Instead of…

Change to…

at the same time as


due to the fact that 


if that were the case

if so

in a timely manner

on time, promptly

in close proximity to

close to, near

in the near future


in the absence of


it is essential

must, need to

it is important to note that


of considerable magnitude


Especially in more formal writing we often tend to use relatively weak verbs with adjectives or abstract nouns when a strong verb would be much more effective—such as:  

Instead of…

Change to…

bring to a conclusion

conclude, end

exhibit a tendency


(to be) in possession of


involves the use of

uses, employs

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Now it’s your turn to take a shot at this! Here are some phrases to be trimmed down or reworded—see what you can come up with:

Instead of…

Change to…

for this reason


in regard/reference to


in the course of


it can be seen that


is capable of


is responsible for


had a discussion/conversation about


make a decision


So be on the lookout for these phrases and others like them in your writing. We all have our own pet phrases that we overuse—I struggled for the longest time with getting rid of actually. If you know or suspect that you’re too fond of a particular word or phrase, a good practice is to run a “find”—you might be surprised how often the offender comes up! And here’s another tip: I noticed when looking at an extensive list put together by another editor that many of these overly wordy phrases start with in… or it is…

Oh, and the answers to the quiz? My suggestions are below. If you come up with others, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Don't peek below this line until you're ready to see the answers!

Suggested answers to the quiz:

Instead of…

Change to…

for this reason


in regard/reference to

about, concerning, on

in the course of

during, while

it can be seen that


is capable of


is responsible for


had a discussion/conversation about


make a decision



Off to a Good Start

Image by M Harris from Pixabay

Happy New Year!

I’m sure we all have high hopes for 2021 and for a fresh new beginning now that we’ve finally escaped the clutches of 2020. So it seems only fitting to think about how we can also get our writing off to a good start.

Let’s look back on what I posted just a little over a year ago  on this same subject. It’s important to get right down to business at the start of a sentence, especially when you need to get your message across quickly and clearly. Watch out for empty hedge words that add no meaning but only bulk to your writing, such as: almost; apparently; comparatively; fairly; in part; it could be argued that…; it seems that…; I/we/most people think that…; I would argue that…; nearly; partially; predominantly; presumably; rather; relatively; seemingly; so to speak; some say that…; somewhat; sort of; to a certain degree; to some extent.

To see this principle in action, consider the following sentence:

It seems that a COVID-19 vaccine has just become available.

The phrase It seems that adds absolutely nothing to this sentence—we all know that the vaccine is now being given in many places. (To my great relief, my elderly mother in a nursing home in Pennsylvania got her first shot just before New Year’s.) It’s much more effective to simply say: 

A COVID-19 vaccine has just become available.

If there is a reason that you need to qualify what you’re saying, be specific about that reason:

Although a COVID-19 vaccine has generally become available, it has not yet reached some areas of the country.

You also have to be careful when you have a sentence that includes a dependent clause. A dependent clause is one that, even though it has a subject and a verb, can’t stand on its own as a sentence. For example:

*When I finish editing the book

*If there’s nothing that needs to be changed

These clauses clearly can’t stand on their own—they need another clause to round out the story. (The asterisk at the start means that they’re ungrammatical sentences.) Starting off a sentence with a dependent clause, especially if it is long, can leave the reader in suspense, such as in this sentence:

Because in all her short five years of life she had never seen even a picture of one, little Maggie was amazed at the size of the elephant at the zoo. 

As you start reading this sentence, don’t you get the feeling that you’re being kept in the dark? Who’s the five-year-old-girl? A picture of what? You have to hold all of this in your memory as you work your way through the sentence until you finally get to the main clause with its clear reference to the subject, little Maggie.

The solution is simple—just flip the order of the clauses:

Little Maggie was amazed at the size of the elephant at the zoo because in all her short five years of life she had never seen even a picture of one.

Much better, isn’t it? We know right away exactly what’s going on.

For one more example, let’s round out one of the dependent clauses mentioned above:

If there’s nothing that needs to be changed, the book will be published early this year.  

Again, leading off with the dependent “if” clause could puzzle the reader for a short while—what kind of changes, and to what? The mystery isn’t solved until the second part of the sentence, when it becomes clear that we’re talking about a book. So it’s better to put it the other way around:

The book will be published early this year if there’s nothing that needs to be changed.

And if you’ve been paying attention to detail (good for you!) and wonder why the first versions of these two sentences needed commas, but the flipped versions didn’t, check out this post. 

The main takeaway here is to start your sentences off with a clear picture of what’s going on. Of course you can switch things up every once in a while to keep from sounding monotonous, but in general, you don’t want to leave your reader wondering what you’re talking about.

Please feel free to share any good (or bad!) examples of these principles that you find “in the wild” below!

Christmas Wishes

Certainly, no one needs reminding that this holiday season is going to be quite a departure from the norm. If you ordinarily enjoy large gatherings of family or friends but will be unable to this year, my heart goes out to you. Our celebrations in recent years have usually been pretty quiet, but I have fond childhood memories of big Christmas dinners with a house full of relatives.

But fortunately, here in the virtual world I can still send my holiday wishes for you, as well as some ideas for presents you can give yourself or the writer in your life!

I wish for you to be curious about English and the way it works. It’s a fascinating language that has some unusual features—but if you’re a native speaker, I would bet that you’re so accustomed to them that you’ve never given them any thought. For example:

Why do we use the word do so often in questions and negative sentences, although it really doesn’t have any meaning? (And there’s proof—I just used it twice in that sentence: in Why do we use and really doesn’t.)

Why does English use what’s called the progressive tense so much? This is the verb tense made of a form of the verb to be plus a main verb ending in -ing: I am going; you were reading; they will be coming. You can find the answers to both these questions in a fascinating book with a very interesting name: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

Why do we sometimes say I see a man, but in other contexts I see the man? This one is covered in a book I’ve recommended here several times: The Sense of Style. (By the way, I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for any of these endorsements.)


I wish for you to stop thinking of grammar as iron-clad laws that cramp your style because they must always be obeyed to the letter. It’s actually a set of guidelines that can help you produce your best writing ever. Despite the fact that we are often casual with grammar rules these days in settings such as social media, grammatically correct writing is still important. Employers usually do not have a favorable opinion of resumes with grammatical mistakes, and a study in the UK proved that consumers are less likely to patronize a business whose website contains grammar and spelling errors.

A good basic grammar that lays out the rules in a very accessible and enjoyable way is—believe it or not—The Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style. After covering all the basic rules well, it goes on to the next steps of putting good sentences together and developing a writing style.  

If you have a decent grasp of the basics, a great book to take you to the next level is The Sense of Style (the same one mentioned above). As with all the books listed here, this is not a dry, stuffy grammar—it’s engaging and even laugh-out-loud funny at times. This is the book for you if you’ve ever found yourself in this situation: you read a sentence and recognize quickly that it’s not written well, but you can’t figure out exactly what’s wrong with it.  


I wish for you to read, read, and READ—it’s one of the best ways to become a better writer. And when you read, try at least occasionally to read analytically: why did the writer choose those particular words, or why did he or she construct a sentence a particular way. One device we’ve examined briefly in this blog is placing a word at the end of a sentence for maximum impact. But even if you get drawn into the story or the subject matter and find yourself reading just for enjoyment, don’t worry—you’ll still subconsciously absorb what’s going on in the writing.

And most of all, I wish for you to have a holiday season that’s as enjoyable as possible under COVID-19 circumstances. I hope that you will be able to spend quality time with family and friends, virtually or live. I wish you peace, health, and happiness—and let’s all hope that the new year brings better days.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Tight Prose!

Image by Simon Steinberger from Pixabay

Don’t Be So Negative

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

As any parent will tell you, negation is not a difficult concept for children to learn. Two-year-olds are particularly fond of it, using that powerful word “NO!” at every opportunity. Maybe it’s because we learn negation so easily that we usually don’t give it much thought. It’s simple, right? You have no and not to use with nouns and verbs, respectively:

We have no milk today.

We do not have milk today. (usually contracted in colloquial speech into We don’t have milk today.)

And of course there are a whole bunch of other clearly negative words: neither, never, no one, nobody, none, nor, nothing, nowhere. When we talk, it’s not usually too difficult to figure out which part of a sentence is being negated: we have the context of the conversation and can add emphasis to the word or words in question. But since we can’t do that in writing, it can sometimes get difficult to figure out what exactly is being negated. Consider this example:

I didn’t see a man in a blue T-shirt.

This could mean any of the following!

I didn’t see the man, but everyone else did.

I didn’t see him, but you thought I did.

I didn’t see him; I was looking away.

I did’t see him; I saw another man.

I didn’t see a man in a blue T-shirt; it was a woman.

I didn’t see a man in a blue T-shirt; it was red.

I didn’t see a man in a blue T-shirt; it was a polo shirt.

Whew! This is an extreme example, but it points out the importance of placing negatives carefully in your writing. Usually it’s best to put the negative as close as possible to the part of the sentence that you want to negate. Take, for example, this sentence:

All dogs don’t like cheese.

This certainly isn’t true—I’ve owned many dogs, and cheese has been a favorite treat of every one of them. What the author probably meant was:

Not all dogs like cheese. 

If moving the negative is not possible, then consider adding more to the sentence to clarify it:

I don’t play tennis.

Does this mean something like I don’t play tennis because I never learned, but I like to watch it? Or is it more along the lines of I don’t play tennis; I play soccer (emphasizing which sport the speaker plays). Whichever variant you intend, the fuller version of the sentence will be clearer.


In addition to the clearly negative words listed above, there are others that, while not overtly negative on the surface, in practice carry a negative connotation: few, hardly, little, least, rarely, scarcely, seldom, and verbs such as doubt, deny, refute, avoid, and ignore. Be wary of using any of these or similar words in connection with a negative—the end result can be confusing:

Few people would not deny that they like tripe.

There’s a lot to sort out here! We have two of the negative connotation words: few and deny, as well as a clear negative, not. It’s much clearer to use a positive verb:

Few people would admit that they like tripe.

(And my apologies, by the way, to anyone who does like tripe. I’m a pretty adventurous eater, but that’s one food I just can’t do.)


In my opinion, the absolute worst examples of sentences overloaded with negative connotation words that cause confusion are those describing legal decisions:

The appeals court struck down the town’s restrictions banning giant inflatable Santa lawn decorations.

Wait, what?! What the heck does this mean? Do I have to run outside and take mine down right now? Let’s start at the end of the sentence and work backwards to pick this one apart. First, we have the restrictions banning the decorations. Makes sense—restrictions often ban something—but to help keep things clearer, let’s change it to a more neutral word: regulations. So, the town had regulations in place saying that you can’t have them—but now a higher court has struck down those regulations—they are no longer in force. So we’re in the clear, and we can keep Santa on the lawn, hooray!  

So keep a sharp eye on your negatives and on those words with negative connotations. And be on the lookout for confusing examples in the wild—please feel free to share them below!

We’re In Agreement

By Paulo Ordoveza from Washington, DC - Pandora Are Serious Cat, CC BY 2.0,

You most likely remember that about ten to fifteen years ago there was an Internet phenomenon known as LOLcats: memes featuring pictures of cats with silly, grammatically challenged captions. Perhaps the idea behind the bad grammar was to imitate baby talk—but whatever the reason, it worked. We all laughed at them and probably shared many of them on social media.

Of course all native speakers of English, as well as non-natives who have mastered the basics, recognize that these sentences are not grammatically correct: 

I are serious cat.

Nobody hear you scream.

The problem here is that the subject and verb do not agree: singular subjects need a verb with a singular ending, and plural subjects need a verb with a plural ending. If we were to correct those examples, they would look like this:

I am [a] serious cat.

Nobody hears you scream.

And in English, we actually have it pretty easy when it comes to verb endings: in the present tense, almost all verbs do not need an ending, except for -s or sometimes -es for third person singular (he/she/it):

I hear                                    We hear

You hear                              You hear

He/she/it hears                  They hear

Of course the verb to be has to be difficult, as always:

I am                                       We are                                                 I was                     We were

You are                                 You are                                               You were               You were

He/she/it is                         They are                                             He/she/it was       They were

When you have a short, simple sentence, such as those above, it’s easy to spot a lack of subject-verb agreement. But how about this one—is it in agreement or not?

The difficulty of reading all those long, tedious books were considerable.

This sentence is in fact not in agreement, and here’s how you can tell: you have to pare the sentence down to just its main subject and main verb. It starts out with the subject, The difficulty, which is then followed by a long prepositional phrase which modifies it: of reading all those long, tedious books. If we remove that phrase, we’re left with The difficulty were considerable, which we can tell right away is not grammatical—it should of course be The difficulty was considerable. Even though the plural books is the word right before the verb was, it doesn’t govern the verb—the true subject is the singular difficulty.

So put back together, the correct version is:

The difficulty of reading all those long, tedious books was considerable.

Figuring out subject-verb agreement can get even trickier in sentences with relative clauses, that is, phrases that start with wh- words such as who and which.

The impact, which current predictions indicate are coming soon, could be huge.

This sentence is not in agreement either, but in all fairness, it is difficult to spot. The first few times I saw examples like this I could not find the error until it was pointed out to me. But it’s because of the relative clause which current predictions indicate are coming soon: phrases of this type usually do not repeat the word being modified. No wonder it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on!

So let’s pick this apart: the main subject of the sentence is The impact. When we get to the relative clause which modifies it, we have to mentally re-word it briefly, re-inserting the subject, the impact, which gives us: current predictions indicate [the impact] are coming soon. Ah, ha! Now we can see that it should in fact be

The impact, which current predictions indicate is coming soon, could be huge.

If you’d like to read in a lot (and I mean a LOT) more depth about how to get to the bottom of complex constructions such as these, I highly recommend a book that has helped me tremendously: The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. (I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for this endorsement.) This book is a must-have if you’re serious about improving your writing. But best of all, Pinker writes with a lot of humor—this book is anything but dry!

Can you find any sentences “in the wild” that are not in agreement? Please share them below!

Working Out on the Elliptical

For several years my husband and I owned an elliptical machine—you know, the piece of equipment that has two large pedals that move in an oval-shaped path. I actually used it quite a bit; it was just the ticket for a good workout on days when the weather was cold or rainy (or both). And the low-impact design helped me stay in decent shape while still being kind to my aging knees.

Believe it or not, grammar has its own elliptical machine. Just like its workout equipment counterpart, elliptical construction is low-impact—it’s pretty easy to do—but it can help keep your sentences from picking up too much weight.

To show you what I mean, let’s quickly revisit our last installment, where we talked about the importance of parallel construction–that is, making grammatical structure similar:

(Not parallel) I post to my blog every two weeks, and my husband gets me to edit his blog.   

(Parallel) I post to my blog every two weeks, and I edit my husband’s blog.

The first sentence is not parallel because the two clauses—the two parts—have two different subjects: I in the first, but my husband in the second. We’ve made this sentence parallel by making I the subject of both. But now it’s a bit repetitive, isn’t it? Because we have plenty of context, we can trim the repeated elements from the second part of the sentence, leaving us with:

(Parallel and elliptical) I post to my blog every two weeks and edit my husband’s.

This is elliptical construction, also known as ellipsis: leaving out the parts that can be recovered from the context. In the second half of the sentence the reader can infer the subject I and the remainder of the phrase my husband’s, which is blog.

Not all sentences where you use parallel construction will also need ellipsis, but it’s always something to consider in order to keep your writing as tight as possible. Let’s run through one more example:

(Not parallel) Anna likes Italian food, and her family agrees with her.

To make this sentence parallel, let’s make Italian food the object of both clauses:

(Parallel) Anna likes Italian food, and her family likes Italian food too.

And yes, I’m making these examples obvious so you can see how the ellipsis works. We do it so naturally that it sounds repetitive and clunky without it, doesn’t it? Anyhow, here’s the final version:

(Parallel and elliptical) Anna likes Italian food and her family does too.

When creating elliptical structure, just be sure to always double-check that you haven’t removed so much information that your sentence could be ambiguous. For example:

Sally likes John more than Bob.

Does this mean that 1, Sally likes John more than she likes Bob, or that 2, Sally likes John more than Bob likes John? If you mean 1, a good elliptical sentence would be:

Sally likes John more than she does Bob.

For option 2, it would look like this:

Sally likes John more than Bob does.

By the way, there’s one other kind of ellipsis out there—it’s the punctuation mark that consists of three periods in a row used to show the location of missing words in a direct quote, or to indicate a long pause or speech trailing off.

And finally, if you’d like to go down a grammar nerd rabbit hole, check out this article, with no fewer than six different types of elliptical construction sorted by their technical names. I had no idea there were so many. It may sound daunting, but as it turns out, we use these sorts of constructions all the time quite naturally, especially when we talk.   

Please feel free to ask any questions or to share your favorite examples of elliptical construction below!

Parallel Universes


If you’re into science fiction, you’ve probably noticed that a very popular theme is that of parallel universes. The idea that there could be another reality containing an exact or near-exact duplicate of everything has a powerful pull on the imagination. And just this past spring, NASA scientists conducting experiments in Antarctica uncovered evidence that a parallel universe might in fact exist. 

Our brains like parallelism so much that it even carries over into grammar, of all things. What am I talking about? Have a look at these sentences and see if you can pinpoint what’s wrong with them: 

My hobbies are cooking, hikes, and to read.

The goals of the workshop are finishing a first draft of your novel and to proofread it.

Many people will recognize that something isn’t quite right with these examples, but they can’t figure out exactly what. The problem is that they are not parallel in structure. In the first example, cooking is a gerund (a noun formed from a verb by adding -ing); hikes is a plural noun, and to read is the infinitive form of the verb. To fix it, we have to make all three items in the list conform to one grammatical form. The solution here is pretty simple—we can use all gerunds:

My hobbies are cooking, hiking, and reading.

Lack of parallel structure might be a little bit harder to spot in the second example since the non-parallel elements are a bit further apart, but if you look closely, you’ll see that once again we have a gerund heading up the phrase finishing a first draft of your novel but the infinitive to proofread in the second phrase. This time let’s make them both infinitives to fix it:

The goals of the workshop are to finish a first draft of your novel and to proofread it.

The parallel versions read a lot better, don’t they? The reason this works so well is because our brains tend to hold what we’ve just read in short-term memory to use as a template for deciphering what comes next. When the grammatical forms are not similar, the mental processing takes longer.


There are two other situations where you should always doublecheck to make sure your constructions are parallel. One is when you use paired conjunctions such as either…orneither…nornot only…but also (sometimes called correlative conjunctions). Here’s a sentence with correlative conjunctions that’s not parallel:

Either our business will pull through the economic downturn or we will have to close it.

Check out the first phrase: Either our business will pull through the economic downturn—the subject is business. But in the second, we will have to close it, the subject is we.

Here’s a possible solution, making we the subject of both phrases and business the object:

Either we will pull our business through the economic downturn or we will have to close it.


And speaking of business, if that’s what you write for, you might use bullets to make lists easier to read. That’s a great idea—but to maximize the edge that bullets give your reader, you have to make sure—you got it—that they’re parallel.

Check out this non-parallel example:

Our new application guides you through every step of your vacation planning, including:

  • Choosing a destination
  • How to find cheap flights
  • Hotels and reservations
  • Where to eat
  • How do you know which are the best attractions   

Here we have many different kids of grammatical structures, and the constant shifting going on in your brain slows you down when you try to read them. Here’s one possible solution—and notice how in this case we have to reword some of the bullets in order to make them parallel:

Our new application guides you through every step of your vacation planning, including:

  • Choosing a destination
  • Finding cheap flights
  • Booking hotels
  • Selecting restaurants
  • Pinpointing the best attractions

Finally, parallel construction is not just a plaything for fussy grammar nerds; it’s an extremely effective literary device. Look for it in good literature and famous quotes, and you’ll soon start seeing it everywhere, such as:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

  – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“ …government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

 – Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Parallel is powerful! Please feel free to share your favorite examples below.