Free Grammar HelpWordsMisused Words A-C


Here's a list of words which are commonly used, misused, misspelled, and abused. Some of them appear on other grammar pages on this site. Use the Question form to submit more.


Common Mistake

a or an

When using the indefinite article, use "a" when the following words starts with a consonant sound; use "an" when the following word starts with a vowel sound. The most common question I get is "a historic" or "an historic?" Since we should pronounce the "h" with an aspirated sound, then you should use "a historic." If you are Cockney, from London, (cheers mate!) you could say "an 'istoric..."

This does not mean you should mix "a historical" with "ahistorical". The latter word means it is not historically correct. English uses the prefix "a" like "un-", "il-", "ir-", and others to mean "not."

a lot or alot

should be two words "a lot", never "alot"; don't confuse this with the homophone "allot" which means to share out.

accept or except

to accept (verb) is to agree to something, or to allow something to occur (I accept this award); except (preposition) is the exclusion of something (Everyone got an award except me).

advise or advice

advise is an action (verb); I advise you to learn grammar.

advice is a thing (noun); I am going to give you advice.

Hint: Advice has a c; it is a noun (concrete thing).

affect and effect

affect is usually a verb: it's the thing that I do to influence something. I yelled at my student but it didn't affect his study habits.

effect is usually a noun: it's the thing that happens as a result of some cause. I yelled at my student but there was no effect on his study habits.

People get confused about this because there are two exceptions. We can use "effect" as a verb in the construction "to effect change," meaning to cause something to happen. Notice the difference between causing something to happen (to effect it) and causing something to change (to affect it). The exception for "affect" is specific to psychology; psychologists use it as a noun to talk about someone's psychological condition: he has a depressed affect.

Try it! Enter "affect" or "effect" in the blank.

If you study hard, the on your grades will be positive.

In fact education itself can what you can accomplish in this life.

You could set the goal to world peace

Although that's a pretty lofty goal, if you can only the decisions of a few world leaders, that will still be a big .

For example, the Save the Children Foundation has been able to the lives of thousands of children in a positive way.

although or all though

Although I tried hard, I could not do it.

always or all ways

I always take the bus.

He tried all ways to solve the problem, but it was impossible.

among, amongst

In North America, using "amongst" is considered either old fashioned or just incorrect, and most editors will probably edit it to "among." In the UK, it's perfectly acceptable. Fowler's Modern English Usage says they are equivalent; however, he's British, and old fashioned.

antidote or anecdote

An antidote is something to counteract a poison; an anecdote is a story. Although a rattlesnake might be a good antidote for a boring story, a story will not save you from its poison. If bitten, do not rush to the hospital asking for an anecdote. By the time the story is over, it may be to late to ask for something to deal with the poison.

apart or a part

"Apart" means separate from; "a part" means "joined with." I am a part of my family; when I went off to college, I was apart from my family.

assay or essay

Assay means to measure or evaluate something, such as mineral ore; essay means to attempt or try (as a noun it means a literary composition, as well as an attempt). How about "My first essay at an essay was assayed as a failure."

audience or audiences?

An audience is a group of people watching a performance. Each person in the audience is an audience member. Audiences are different groups of people watching different performances. See my blog post: Audience or audiences?

Board or bored

A board is a thing (noun);

Bored can be a feeling (noun) or the past tense of the verb 'to bore'.

Board vs bored

There is no doubt that you can be bored if you sit on a board (of directors), or a board (of wood) can be bored (have a hole drilled in it). I hope you can get aboard with this usage, because abored is never correct.

born or borne

Born is what we all were at the beginning of our lives; borne means to be carried, which is what our mothers did. Borne is the past participle of "to bear". I was borne by my mother until I was born.

but, and

Beginning a sentence with "But" or "And" is acceptable according to Fowler's Modern English usage. But I don't think it's good style. And avoid it in your formal papers. But learn to live with it in journalism.

centre, center

Visitors from the US can skip to the next one. This is for Canucks only. The correct usage in Canada is the British spelling: "centre." Due to the lax standards in most of our post-secondary institutions, you will probably be able to get away with either one. Should you get a particularly ignorant teacher, you may be marked down for the British form. You can refer the teacher to the Oxford Dictionary which allows either but the roots of the word are from the French which still spells it "centre."

choose or chose

chose is the past tense of choose

I choose ice cream today; yesterday I chose cake.

colour, color

It's the British thing here; colour is the British spelling.

complement or compliment

compliment is a nice thing to say to someone

complement is a thing that completes something else

compose or comprise

Comprise is to be made up of: "An atom comprises three parts: electrons, protons, and neutrons." Notice that comprise doesn't need "of".

Compose is to make something up: "Atoms are composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Notice that "composed" is like composing a poem; it's making something up. Compose has the extra "o" in the word, and also needs "of" in the sentence.

Could of vs.
Could have

"have" is an auxiliary verb used to form a variety of verb tenses. When we speak, we abbreviate "could have" to "could've". But really, how this error of writing "could of" has become so common is beyond me.