More Common Writing Mistakes Your Spell Checker Won’t Find

A few months ago I showed you ten of the most common writing mistakes people make. Here are ten more. Your spell checker can’t spot these mistakes because they involve misused words, not misspellings. As before, my explanations are simple, and should keep you on the right track in most cases. So here we go.

1. Advice/advise
You’ll never confuse these two words when you’re talking because you know the right sound for each one. The word advice rhymes with “nice.” The word advise rhymes with “size.” But be careful when you’re writing. It’s easy to mix them up.

Advice is a noun. Advice is what you get when somebody gives an opinion or recommendation. Or it’s what you give when offering wisdom (one would hope) to somebody else. Take my advice; don’t go out with him until you find out if he’s already married. Advice is what Dear Abby gives out. Here’s some good advice. If you’re looking for a great guy, don’t expect to find him at the county jail, unless he’s the one wearing a badge.
Advise is a verb. It’s what somebody does when he tells you his opinion about what you should do. Or it’s what you do when somebody asks you. I’ve never eaten at this restaurant before. Please advise me on what to order. You advise information that somebody needs to know. I’d like to advise you that I’ll be on vacation for the next two weeks.

2. Loose/lose
Loose has to do with how something fits. It’s an adjective. The opposite of loose is tight. Loose could refer to clothing, mechanical parts, pieces of something, a schedule, or in a more abstract way, to morals and attitudes. Loose describes the state of something. I didn’t expect these jeans to be so loose, and then I remembered that I’ve been eating fruit instead of Haagen Dazs. The car seems to be vibrating. I think one of the tires may be loose. To make something loose is to loosen it. Please help me loosen the cap so we can get the olives out of the jar. Don’t loosen that screw; the whole darn thing will fall apart. You’re so tense! See if you can loosen up.
Lose is the opposite of find. Lose is also the opposite of win. Lose is a verb. You lose your glasses, lose your way, lose your cool, lose an election. (You’re not having a very good day, are you?)

3. Passed/past
Passed is the past tense of the verb “to pass.” It means to move forward or through. I passed the bakery on my way home. (I was good. Usually, I stop in and buy cookies.) I passed my algebra test. I passed the French fries to my brother (what was left of them). I passed by a speed trap on the way to Las Vegas.
Past refers to a time that already happened. It’s over, ended, gone. It does no good to remind her about that embarrassing incident because it’s all in the past. (Wouldn’t you like to know what I’m talking about?) This year we ate Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s, but in past years, we ate at Aunt Amy’s house. (Amy’s not a very good cook, so I’m glad we wised up.)

4. Desert/dessert
Desert can mean abandon (as a verb). Please don’t desert me, I don’t want to go by myself. Or desert (as a noun) can mean that stretch of sandy terrain between Los Angeles and Las Vegas where, if you don’t get stopped by a cop, you can drive about 100 miles per hour. It only took us an hour to drive through the desert on our way to the penny slots.
Dessert
is that delicious treat you get after dinner if you’ve eaten all your vegetables. It has two S’s. I learned the difference between spelling desert and dessert at age eight, when a friend said, “Dessert is the thing you want two of.” She knew how to reach me.

5. All ready/already
All ready means something is completely prepared – it’s ready. I studied hard last night, and today I’m all ready for the test.
Already means previously. She had already locked the door when she realized she’d left her car keys on the table. I already bought the dress, so we might as well go to the dance. You don’t have to go to the store because I already bought the milk.

6. Weather/whether
Weather is about rain, and snow, and sleet, and hail, and temperatures, and sunshine… It’s also about endurance. I can weather this ordeal because I have good friends to lean on.
Whether means “if.” It has to do with making a choice or a comparison between possibilities. I have to decide whether to enroll at Harvard or Yale. He didn’t know whether or not to tell her that he was already married. (I think he should tell her.)

7. Sit/set
Sit refers to the act of putting your derriere into a chair.
Set means to place some object (other than your derriere) on a surface. Let me just set this cup and saucer on the table, and then I’ll sit down and drink my coffee.

8. Can/may/might
Can refers to ability. I can lift 50 pounds. (I am capable of lifting 50 pounds.) He can go to school tomorrow if his temperature is normal. (He will be able to go if he can just get over that pesky cold.)
May refers to permission. You may walk my dog if you promise not to give him any treats. (It’s my dog, and it’s up to me whether I’m going to let you walk him.) May I come by for a drink on Friday night? (Before I answer that, I’ll need to know if you’re already married.) May also refers to possibility. He may come over around 2:00, if he’s finished with work by then. I may win the lottery if I buy a ticket. (Your chances are about the same if you don’t buy a ticket.) It’s not likely you’ll confuse this usage of may (possibility) with can, but you could confuse it with might. Most sources I’ve checked agree that may and might are pretty much interchangeable, unless you’re talking about the past. For events in the present or near future, you can use either may or might. I may do my exercises now. I might do my exercises now. (Not much difference, and also not much possibility I’m going to do those exercises.) But for past time, most sources prefer only might. Last year, I might have been able to go to Europe on vacation, but this year I definitely can’t afford it.

9. Then/than
Then refers to time. I pushed the papers toward him and then he added his signature. Do you think you’ll be ready by then?
Than indicates a comparison. My paper was longer than hers. It was worse than the time he got a $200 ticket on the way to Las Vegas.

10. Site/sight/cite
Site is about location. Site is a noun. I visited the construction site where the new hotel was being built. I am going to look up the information on his web site. The detective has a witness at the crime site who can describe the murderer. The doctor determined the site of the infection before selecting the best treatment.
Sight refers to the sense of vision or something you can see. My sight isn’t what it used to be before I turned 40. When he walked off the ship in his uniform, he was a sight for sore eyes. Let’s go see the sights when we get to town.
Cite means to make reference to. Cite is a verb. In the footnotes of my paper, I am going to cite an article by Albert Einstein. You cite somebody’s work as the authority or source for your own statement. You cite examples to prove your point. Cite can also refer to an order made by an officer of the law. The policeman may cite me if I exceed the speed limit. The ticket (a citation) is a legal order requiring me to appear in court. (He was hiding near an underpass on I-15, and I never even saw him.)

Readers of this post may be wondering if I’ve ever gotten a speeding ticket on the way to Las Vegas. No, not yet.

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11 Comments

  1. Great post …

    One point you “may” want to consider. There’s a
    “subtle” difference between the usage of “may” and
    “might”.

    The word “might” is grammatically the past tense of
    word “may”, but may is used in a positive sense,
    whereas might could serve a negative sense. Here is
    an example:

    Consider a situation where a person was shot in the
    chest. Two sentences formed to convey the outcome of
    the situation:

    1) A steel vest may have saved her life.
    — this conveys that she actually survived and
    the reason is that she was wearing the steel vest.

    2) A steel vest might have saved her life.
    — this conveys that she actually was killed and
    there was a hope that she would have survived had
    she been wearing a steel vest.

    Regards,
    Kedar

  2. Hi Kedar,
    May/might is a subtle one, and you explained it very well. I think many people are unaware of the distinction – but no longer, thanks to you.

  3. The advice/advise folly is a pet peeve of mine. However, as I was vehemently explaining the differences between the two in an email to co-workers, MS Word highlighted ‘advise’ as improperly used in the statement, ‘Please advise’. MS Word suggests that the correct grammatical version is, ‘Please advice’.

    Is it just me or does this sound incorrect?

  4. Hi Alex,
    It not only sounds incorrect, it is incorrect. Sometimes I think MS Word doesn’t speak English. It’s yet another reason why you can’t always rely on your spell checker. Just keep on writing please advise. You can take my advice on that.

  5. Hey,
    Nice piece of work

  6. I love your post, great reminders for all of us!! As I begun to grow older, I have developed an insatiable love for the English language and a desire to begin writing and any advice you can give would be helpful.

  7. Also, saying “whether or not” is pointless and redundant: Simply saying “whether” will do just fine.

  8. lay/lie
    lay means to place something down, ie, to lay the child down on her bed.
    lie is what you do to yourself, ie, I chose to lie down rather than sleep standing up.

    perhaps a better analogy is this:

    “he saw a 50-cent piece lying in the alley, so he picked it up.”
    as opposed to:
    “he saw a 50-cent piece laying in the alley, so he picked her up.”
    if that does not lie with you, perhaps this variation is more clear:
    “he saw a 50-cent piece laying in the alley, so he went home and got his money.”

  9. Hi all!
    John,
    i.e.–need the periods. Its an abbreviation, like e.g.
    My question is about i.e. and e.g. and commas. I have been told they belong before and after these abbreviations. Though, when I see them in scientific texts the usage is variable. Anyone have a final answer for me?

    Anyway, here are a few ‘red listers’ that the spell check will miss (Tired English teachers have even been known to let these slip by as well):

    weather, whether-obv.
    which, witch–>its an ESL thing, happens all the thyme-oops.
    lead, led–> Pb/past tense lead
    bred/bread–>obv.
    Bye for now,
    Trapped in Finland

  10. omg i have an english exam tomorrow and some of my words where on here and this was so helpful. THANK YOU SO MUCH

  11. Hi,

    Since many days I am searching a good guide to improve my writing. I felt today it is over now. It is time to do something.

    Ramesh Kundi


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