My Two Cents

Beryl Cuda on the Top Nine Words that Writers Misspell, Misuse and Abuse

by Dec 1, 2011Craft, Grumbles10 comments

I don’t know why, but there are words that some writers cannot use or spell correctly. For example, principal and principle; stationary and stationery. Perhaps it’s because some of the problem words are homophones, perhaps it’s because the writer just cannot spell. Or the writer slept through twelve years of grammar.

Rather than rant about writers who can’t be bothered to consult a dictionary or a grammar book, I’ll be positive. A rarity for Beryl Cuda, some would say. Malcontents.

I’ll limit the list to the mistakes I come across most often. Herewith, starting at the lowest end of the “argh” scale and working upward, guidelines that might help, or let’s get wildly optimistic here, solve the problem for a few writers.

  • Stationery and stationary

Think of it this way: stationery is something on which you write. They both have an “e”.   Stationary means you’re standing still – there’s an “a” in each word. Your grammar knowledge has been stationary since second grade when you started snoozing in class, and now your words aren’t worth the stationery on which they’re written.

  • Principal and principle

Our friends the “e” and “a” will help us here too. Principal means primary or main (as in, the principal of the school is the main headache of most kids.) “Principal” and “main” both use an “a” and no “e”.

Principle, on the other hand, means rule or ethic (as in, my principles prevent me from badmouthing the principal.) There’s an “e” in principle, rule and ethic, and no “a”.

Make it one of your principal principles to use these two words correctly. Thousands will thank you.

  • Loose and lose

You can have loose morals, a screw loose, a loose caboose.

A moose can be loose in the pasture, but not if you mean you lost it. If you lose your moose, you must also lose an “o” from loose.

Ditto when you lose hope that the rounder who’s been playing fast and loose with your emotions will ever propose. In that case, lose an “o” from loose, and lose the jerk too.

  • Loan, lend and borrow

Your mother didn’t tell you “never loan money.” Besides being a risky financial venture, it’s not correct English. Your mother told you “don’t lend money” – her advice, and her English, was sound.

Lend is a verb (an “e” in each), loan is a noun (an “o” in each).

So, if you ignore your mother’s advice: I will ask you for a loan, and you (being an easy touch) will lend me a million dollars interest free. No repayment terms. I like this deal.

Now, when you ask me for a loan, you say “Beryl Cuda, will you lend me some money?” You do not say “Beryl Cuda, will you borrow me some money?” In either case, I’m going to say no. But if you ask me to “borrow” you some money, I’m going to say no loudly. My eyes might bug out a bit.

I lend money to you. And you borrow money from me. In reality, that’s never going to happen, but you get my point.

  • Advice and advise

One’s the noun. One’s the verb. Unfortunately, there aren’t any easy tricks with common letters to keep these two words straight. If you get them muddled, try thinking of nouns as soft and nice. “Advice” sounds soft and nice, like your mother’s advice about lending money. Verbs, on the other hand, do a ton of work and are gritty. They sound harder, like “advise”.

“When Beryl Cuda advises you to use a dictionary, take her advice.”

  • Less and fewer

Argh. Use “less” if you mean “not as great”. It refers to quantity but not something that can be counted. Use “fewer” for numbers of things.

“Because I ate less cake than you did, I gained fewer pounds.”

But: “I ate fewer French fries and gained less weight.”

Neither the cake nor the weight is a unit that can be counted. You simply have to memorize it. Stop whining. It’s not the end of the world.

  • Affect and effect

Argh, argh.

Except in a few special instances (see the comments below), “effect” is the noun (meaning a result) and “affect” is the verb (meaning to influence, have an effect upon). Do not use “affect” when you mean the result of some action.

“When a person uses the word “affect” incorrectly it affects my dental health because I clench my teeth. The effect of clenching my teeth is that I need a night guard.”

  • Lie and lay

Argh, argh, argh. This is one that I continually must look up. It does not come naturally and if I don’t look it up, I always get it wrong.

Lie means to recline in your boudoir. There’s a bit of a rhyme there to help me remember. Lay means to set or put down. Strunk and White say “the hen, or the play, lays an egg.”

Here’s where things get nasty: past tense of lie is lay, past tense of lay is laid. And you’re not “laying around like a slob”, you’re lying around like a slob.

What can I say – you just have to memorize it, or carry a little reminder in your wallet. Go ahead and whine. I’m with you on this one. And even if you memorize it, check the grammar book before you send off your manuscript.

  • Top of the argh scale – four arghs:  Irregardless is not a word!

I’m serious here. It is definitely not a word. Nuh-uh. Take a look in your Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd edition (the official dictionary of The Canadian Press and The Globe and Mail, no less). Irregardless is not there.

And before you go running off to check it online – yes, I admit that it does appear in the online Oxford dictionary, but you will note this under “usage”: “it is regarded as incorrect in standard English.”

The word that is not a word works like a double negative, which is a topic for another rant. Don’t get me started on that one today, or we’ll be here forever. Regardless how tempting it is to use “irregardless”, resist. Use “regardless”.

That’s what riles me today. Let me know what irks you, in the misused/misspelled word department. And, if you have any handy rules or tricks that will help writers stop messing up these words, please share.

In the meantime, don’t write good. Write well.

About Beryl:

You can learn more about Beryl Cuda (or grouchy grouch, as I call her) at the end of her first post. In the meantime, here’s a summary in Beryl’s own words: Many things in life rile me. Like dirty laundry blocking the path to the wine cellar. Bad wine. Weak coffee. Rain for five days straight. Lost luggage. You get the idea. But there’s much about the way people today treat the English language that riles me more. I like that Charlotte’s given me a chance to grumble about it.


  1. Grier Jewell


  2. Lucy

    You don’t suppose these errors have anything to do with schools no longer teaching grammar???

  3. Grier Jewell

    Whatever they’re teaching (or not teaching) these days, I don’t have the luxury of an excuse and neither do most of the offenders I know. It was taught when I went to school, and I still have trouble with lie/lay.

  4. Charlotte Morganti

    I’m with you – both on the no excuse point, and lie/lay. Also some words Beryl neglected to mention – like accommodate, which I can never spell first time out. And alphabeticize, which makes me ask whether it’s a word….Whether grammar, spelling and word usage are part of the curriculum or not, Beryl would say that writers need to be their own excellent editor these days. And part of an editor’s job is to spell words correctly.

  5. Claire Gebben

    Very funny, very on point. What gets me is then and than. I don’t think people confuse their use so much as consistently mistype the words, and spell check does not catch it.

  6. Charlotte Morganti

    It’s mind-boggling to me that schools would not give their students some basic spelling, grammar and word usage lessons – I wish they would find some other way to trim costs, if that’s the reason. I went to school more than a couple decades ago, so have no idea what the schools teach. I’m checking with a favourite niece who’s also a teacher in Canada to see what the situation is here.

  7. Charlotte Morganti

    Oh, yeah, spell check. And the mistakes that happen when you cut and paste, but cut too much. Or move text and leave part of it behind. You’d think that the Word grammar/spell check feature would tell me when I have nonsense on the page or incomplete sentences, but no. Yet, when I deliberately use a fragment – it picks that up pronto!

  8. Charlotte Morganti

    Lucy, thanks for sparking quite the discussion! I checked with my niece, the Canadian teacher, about grammar/spelling in Canadian schools. She tells me that, rather than offer it as a separate subject, it is embedded in the English/Language Arts curriculum. I imagine it’s like hiding the medicine in a spoonful of honey – the children receive the content while they are writing, revising, and presenting their work. I hope that the situation is the same in the U.S.

  9. Robin Spano

    Hey this is great. I never knew that loan was only a noun.

    One exception to the affect/effect rule: to “effect” change is (counterintuitively) correct.

  10. Charlotte Morganti

    Hey Robin, thanks! And yes, you’re correct about the verb effect! Then there’s affect as a noun, but I think it’s used sparingly these days. I think much of the problem with affect/effect is that people pronounce them somewhat similarly in everyday conversation so perhaps when it comes to writing the words, the correct spelling doesn’t leap to mind.

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