Commonly Misused Words

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” ― Mark Twain.

Words can have more than one basic meaning and some words sound similar but have a completely different denotation. For example:
(Wrong) Older people often suffer infirmaries.
(Right) Older people often suffer infirmities.

Some words are homonyms (sound-alikes) but mean very different things. For example, principal/principle or rain/reign/rein.

Then there are words with similar but distinct meanings.
            (Wrong) Television commercials continuously (unceasingly) interrupt programming.
(Right) Television commercials continually (regularly) interrupt programming.

Which vs That. Which is used to introduce non-restrictive clauses (extra but not essential information) such as in The leftover lettuce, which is in the refrigerator, would make a good salad. Which needs a comma preceding.
That always introduces restrictive clauses: We should use the lettuce that Susan bought. (This limits the lettuce to a specific lettuce.) That  does not need a comma.

And some words have related meaning (denotation) but different connotations:
·         Pride—sense of self-worth
·         Vanity: excessive regard for oneself

·         Firm: steady, unchanging, unyielding
·         Stubborn: unreasonable, bullheaded

·         Enthusiasm: excitement
·         Mania: excessive interest or desire

“For one word a man is often deemed to be wise, and for one word he is often deemed to be foolish. We should indeed be careful what we say.” — Confucius.

What words have you run across that are interchanged in the wrong way?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona.
Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, the sequel, Follow the Dream,  won the national WILLA Award, and Dare to Dream rounds out the trilogy. In addition a non-fiction book, Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women has just been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of the Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing, edits, and blogs. 


Karen Cioffi said...

Heidi, I love that Mark Twain quote. This is such a helpful post. I have always had trouble with 'that' and 'which.' You gave an easy to understand and use explanation. Thanks!

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Affect and effect are words people often confuse.

Debbie A Byrne said...

Good points. I try to read up on this kind of thing too and research words I'm not sure of.

Tips for Creating Subplots in Middle Grade Novels

by Suzanne Lieurance   If you’re writing a middle grade novel, you want to include at least one or two subplots. Subplots in fiction are sec...