You’re looking at an e-mail you just wrote, and you’re not sure whether you have the right word: Do you want affect or effect? Further or farther? Gray or grey? Getting it wrong can make you look bad — people do judge you by the way you write — but you also don’t have all day to look up words. It helps to have an easy reference for the basics, bookmark some resources, and learn how to choose your battles.
To save you keystrokes, here’s the run-down on some of the most common problem words:
Affect/Effect: Most of the time affect is a verb and effect is a noun. It affected him. The effect was startling.
All Right/Alright: Although alright is gaining ground, the correct choice is still all right.
A Lot: A lot is two words, not one. Allot means “to parcel out.”
Between You and I: Nope. Between you and me is the correct phrase.
Complement/Compliment: Things that work well together complement each other. Compliments are a form of praise.
Farther/Further: Farther is for physical distance; further is for metaphorical distance or when you mean “moreover.” How much farther? Further, your whining is annoying.
Further Reading: HBR Guide to Better Business Writing
Gray/Grey: Gray is the American spelling. Grey is the British spelling.
Irregardless: Never use this word. The correct choice is regardless.
Lay/Lie: Subjects lie down; objects are laid down. He should lie down for a moment. Lay the reports on the table. (Verb tenses are a bit tricky for this pair. Here’s a chart that will help.)
Myself: Send the e-mail to Bob and myself is a hypercorrection — when people try so hard to get something right that they actually get it wrong. The correct form is: Please send it to Bob and me.
When you have questions beyond the basics, try some of my favorite resources for finding quick answers.
Google Ngram Search. The Google Books Ngram Viewer shows you how often words and phrases appear in books that Google has scanned. It’s a particularly good place to search — better than Google in general — if you’re looking for the correct idiom or phrase. That’s because books tend to be edited, which means they are more likely to conform to Standard English than the average blog post or web page. A general Google search may leave you confused, but a Google Ngram search will quickly show you that the correct phrase is bated breath instead of baited breath and that you want to say your beliefs are deep seated, not deep seeded. It’s also fascinating to play around with this tool to see how word use has changed over time.
American Heritage Usage Notes. Most major dictionaries are online. I use Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster.com almost every day, and you should too. But The American Heritage Dictionary has an especially nice extra feature that can help you answer tricky questions: usage notes. For years, this dictionary has surveyed a usage panel of experts to gather opinions about areas of language that are changing, and certain dictionary entries include explanatory notes based on the survey results. For example, the dictionary explains that using contact as a verb used to be frowned upon but is now accepted by 94% of the usage panel. If you do a general search about a word and find conflicting advice, the American Heritage usage notes will often explain why people disagree.
Style Guides: AP or Chicago. Whereas dictionaries aim to give broad advice about how words are used in real life, without making judgements about right and wrong, style guides say, “This is our style. Do it this way.” The AP Stylebook (followed by Associated Press writers and many magazine, newspaper, and public relations writers) and the Chicago Manual of Style (followed by most people in the book publishing industry) are both available online for a fee, and that makes them searchable. If you pick one and subscribe, it will help you follow a consistent style, and you will be able to search and quickly find the answers to most of your writing questions.
When Time Is Tight, Rewrite. There’s no shame in rewriting a sentence if you aren’t sure about a word or format. Sometimes being unsure is even a sign that your sentence could be improved. For example, it’s more specific to say that storms hurt first quarter sales than to say they affected sales, and if you think you might need a semicolon, your readers will probably thank you if you split the long sentence into two or three shorter sentences.