Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Commonly Misused Word Pairs

Guest post by Dr. Sandra Folk 

I suppose to make it completely clear what this article is about, I could have used "Commonly Misused Word Pears" as the subject heading. But I didn't want anyone to think I had a serious problem with spelling!

Besides, it's unlikely you mix up the word "pair," indicating two of something, with "pear," as in the fruit. On the other hand, it is quite likely that at some point you have found yourself puzzled by two words that are similar, but have distinct meanings.

If you've ever had to think twice about whether you've been sent to the principal's office or the principle's office you'll know just what I'm talking about. (Hopefully being sent there - the principal's office - was not a regular occurrence in your school days.)

The reason I'm writing about this grammatical issue today is because I thought that from time to time it might be helpful to post tips I've acquired from years of working with people to improve their writing. I'd like to start with commonly misused word pairs because they are so, well, common. They often ruin what is otherwise a well-written document. To help you avoid this problem in your own writing, here are a few examples of what I think of as "the usual suspects," when it comes to misused word pairs.

Affect/Effect: One of the simplest ways to understand the difference between these two words is that "effect" is usually used as a noun and it usually implies a result. For example: "When I left the pears sitting in the sun for hours, the effect was that they became very mushy."

"Affect" is more typically used as a verb, meaning to influence something. For example: "The efforts of the Pear Marketing Board to make me buy their fruit had no affect on my decision to eat only apples."

Here's a handy one-line example that may help you keep it straight: "The way you affect someone can have an effect on that person."

Of course there are exceptions - it wouldn't be the English language if there weren't - but the above examples demonstrate the most common uses of these two words.

Elicit/Illicit: This one is easier, because "elicit" is always a verb, meaning to draw out, or to create a response. "Illicit," on the other hand, is an adjective describing something illegal or improper. For example: "The lawyer tried to elicit a description of the man accused of illicit behaviour in the fruit market."

Principal/Principle: Despite generations of teachers telling students that the way to remember this is by thinking "the principal is my pal," for some reason most aren't convinced. "Principal" is both a noun and adjective, used to indicate something of greatest importance or quantity. "Principle" is only a noun, and indicates laws, rules, or most often, ideals.

For example: "They tried to convince him to steal the principal supply of pears, but large-scale theft was against his principles, so he only took one piece of fruit."

Adverse/Averse: This word pairing involves two words with somewhat similar meanings, as opposed to principal/principle, where the meaning of each word is distinct. "Adverse" implies difficult or unfavourable circumstances, while "averse" means having strong negative feelings. It is that quality of negativity that confuses some of us.

Here's an example of both words used correctly in a sentence: "I am not averse to buying apples, because adverse pear-growing conditions means the pears this year are of poor quality. At least, those not stolen by the fruit market thief."

So these are just a few examples of commonly misused word pairings. All pear jokes aside, using the incorrect word in business correspondence can detract from your credibility, or the credibility of your business.

It's the kind of problem that is easily dealt with though; in fact many of the Language Lab online courses have components that effectively address these and other common grammatical errors. It's just a matter of you deciding that it really is time to finally deal with the grammatical issues that have been confusing you since you were young enough to worry about being sent to the principal's office.

Dr. Sandra Folk is a Toronto-based educational consultant and award-winning university lecturer. She set up The Language Lab specifically to help business executives and employees write and express themselves more effectively. Find out more at http://www.thelanguagelab.ca/

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