Blogger: Rachelle Gardner
We agents read a great many manuscripts, proposals, and of course, published books. I think I can speak confidently for all of us when I say that we find poor grammar and misused words less than impressive. When the error occurs in a published book, it’s a serious *facepalm* moment.
So I’ve been thinking about the words I commonly see misused in manuscripts, and I wanted to give you a brief list and some tips on correct word usage.
This list is taken from my own notes on mistakes I’ve seen lately, but obviously there are many more confusing words! A book I highly recommend is 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses. It’s fun reading and a great resource to keep on your shelf. (I do).
So here are some commonly confused words, and hints for using them correctly:
You can lead a horse to water. (verb, present tense)
She led the class in a song. (verb, past tense)
Pencils used to be made of lead. (noun)
Time to lie down for a nap. (verb, present tense)
Yesterday she lay on the grass and daydreamed. (verb, past tense)
If you are going to use “lay” as present tense, it’s only if you are going to lay something down. The present tense verb “lay” needs to have an object.
Will this post affect the way you write? (verb)
If so, I hope it has a positive effect. (noun)
I’m trying to effect a change in the way writers use grammar. (transitive verb meaning to cause or bring about)
I passed by Starbucks and didn’t stop! (verb, past tense)
I can’t drive past Starbucks without being tempted. (preposition)
The one-dollar cup of coffee is in the past. (noun)
It’s time for a lesson in grammar. (contraction for “it is”)
Choosing the appropriate word has its difficulties. (possessive form, adjective)
The only time you use an apostrophe is when you want a contraction meaning “it is.” There is no apostrophe in the possessive form.
Help – I need some advice! (noun)
Please advise me on my publishing journey. (verb)
They stood in front of the altar to get married. (noun)
Before the wedding, she had to alter her dress. (verb)
When you’re on a horse, you should hold the reins. (noun)
Please try to rein in your feelings. (verb)
The king reigns over his country. (verb)
(Note that when you “rein in” your feelings or you try to “rein in” your kids, it’s a metaphorical use of the original “rein” which pertains to horseback riding.)
This blog has several discrete parts. (adjective meaning separate or distinct.)
Please be discreet when discussing details of your contract. (adjective meaning to be prudent or use discernment; or to be unobtrusive or unnoticeable)
All you grammar police out there: Obviously I’ve given simplistic examples here, and I haven’t covered all uses of each word. Feel free to add your two cents (and good sense).
What words do YOU have trouble getting right in your writing?
Attention grammar police! What commonly misused words drive you crazy? Click to Tweet.
Can you correctly use lie & lay? Affect & effect? Lead & led? Here’s help. Click to Tweet.
Ah rekkin ah kin get into trubble with “holler”.
See, mah granpappy-in-law lived so far up a holler that they had to pipe in sunshine, and when we done gone ta visit him we had to holler while we was still outa shootin range.
Else he’d a shot us, an ah wudden’t be the riter ah is today.
But ah’d be a lot hole-ee-er.
Made me smile, Andrew. Holler greetings!
Made me smile, Andrew. Holler greetings!
And comin back atcha!
Ya made me smile, Andrew. 🙂 (Cups her hands to holler:) Helooooooo Andrew!!!!
Wanna meet fer a cuppa joe in Vale? They make it good, fresh beans, melted snow, and a pinch of salt.
Andrew, you’re on. Coffee and melted snow, and um, salt. 😉
Salt = Navy coffee. Best kind.
Haha…Thanks for the smile. 🙂
Using “lay” as the past tense of lie never sounds right to me. I know it’s incorrect but I almost always say “laid down” and I have to watch for it in my writing.
Don’t know if this will help, but for “lay” in the present tense I think back to:
“Now I lay me down to sleep…”
First three words are tense-verb-object.
Angela, You aren’t the only one. I have said, “I laid down last night” all my life. I know I’m supposed to write, “I lay down last night and fell asleep.” It just sounds so wrong to my ear I write, “I conked and fell asleep.”
Heidi Kneale (Her Grace)
Yeah. Lay/lie get me all the time. I will need to print a chart to post next to the computer, as I can never get this one correct.
Kristen Joy Wilks
This is the kind of post that makes me want to crawl back in bed and quit writing all together. I am terrible at about half of these things. I suppose the good news is that I used to be terrible at all of these things, but writing almost every day for 14 years does tend to improve even the most grammar phobic among us. When my best friend spent 40 hours going over my first ms. she made me a document of my top ten most common personal errors. So helpful, and I am improving, despite myself.
I read a lot of SP’d books that contain exactly these errors (and a lot of TradPub books that do, as well).
And you know what? I don’t really care. The small miscues become part of the writer’s voice, and can make stories more compelling, because they create an immediacy of presence.
Sometimes it’s regional – the lie-lay-laid thing has very specific connotations to certain parts of the country, and add colour to a voice when used naturally, rather than correctly.
For me, it’s NOT analogous to poor research. It’s just they way most folks talk, and how they write when they’re writing to communicate, not to impress.
Writing professionals may blanch at this, but from my amateur perspective – don’t sweat it that much, Kristen. In this forum, you’ve let your heart do the talking, and that is what matters.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Thank you so much, Andrew. I do tend to go into a cold sweat when grammar is the subject. You have pulled me out of it! It is interesting what you mentioned about local colloquialisms. I find myself wanting to use the word “drug” as in “She drug the rug full of dog hair out the door and beat it for two hours.” I guess it should be “dragged” but the word never sounds right to me. I am forcing myself to be correct, however. Oh, and apparently the word “Cougar” instead of puma or mountain lion or panther is only used in the Pacific Northwest. Weird?
Kristen, the important thing is that you’re learning! Honestly, these things come naturally to some, but not to others. Besides, your problems are not so big they can’t be handled by a good editor. 🙂
Kristen Joy Wilks
Thank you so much Rachelle. And that I must remember, I am improving, even though the rules of writing come slowly. And hooray for editors, right! I know I have learned so much from others, even grammar.
One of the most frustrating errors I saw in a published book by a well-known author was spelling Vail, Colorado as VALE, Colorado. Repeatedly. About drove me crazy.
I sometimes get confused with Lay and Lie. I also appreciate you sharing the difference between discrete and discreet. I’m sure I have other word mix-ups, but I haven’t had my first cup of coffee yet, so they’re not coming to mind.
Oh, misspelling a proper noun is terrible!
Jean Kavich Bloom
As an editor, I often see “diffuse” and “defuse” confused. And I often see “notoriety” (as in notorious) used as though it means fame (positive recognition).
In the EOD world, defuse wrong and you become diffuse.
Sorry, but I couldn’t resist.
Andrew, I’ll have to pass that on to my brother, who was Navy EOD for 20 years. He’ll groan, but he’ll love it.
Jean, I get confused between diffuse and defuse also. Seems like their meanings are so similar!
Lie and lay frustrate me to no end. Homeschooling my children — in other words, returning to fourth and fifth grades — has helped me get a handle on it. 🙂 Even when I know it’s right, it still looks wrong. Thanks for the tips, Rachelle.
Oh, yeah. “Effect” and “affect” are hard for me, so I rarely use them.
“Lie” “Lay” … I’m starting to get the hang of it. It’s still confusing, but I’m getting much better at writing it than I am at saying it. Some wrong habits are hard to change. 🙂 Like Meghan, home schooling has really helped me there. But I’m constantly sent back to the books for clarity.
Rachelle, “lie” and “lay” still occasionally trip me up.
And something that drives me nuts when I see it? It’s that little, ol’ period that’s left dangling OUTSIDE quotation marks. Drives. Me. Crazy.
Something every writer should invest in is the CMoS. Pricey, but worth it, and I wouldn’t be without mine. I refer to it a lot as I write.
OH–and true story. In our local paper a few years ago, there was a poignant snippet about a gentleman who recovered from a near fatal accident. What stopped me cold was the front page headline, something like: Man Recovers from Month-Long Comma. I. Kid. You. Not.
I’ll add your book recommendation to my list, too. Thanks!
Happy Writing, Gang
Wow, Cynthia. That month-long comma must have really had some kick or pause-power to it! 😉
Jeanne, I’ll say! 🙂
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
When my doctor, yes, my DOCTOR used ‘irregardless’ in a sentence, all seriouslylike and stuff, I didn’t hear anything but alarm bells in my head.
Like, supposably he’s edjacated.
Kind of like Presidents of the United States using “nukuler.”
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Oh my word! Yes!
We have a friend who has a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics (no, not Andrew, although he probably does) and we’d say “nukular” just to watch him go all red and puffy. It was fun (okay, not really) watching Star Trek and listening to him yell at the TV, “That’s only a theory!”
Like Sheldon, only Canadian. And athletic.
I attended a public school that stressed grammar in all grades so I have a decent foundation but effect and affect still get me because they sound alike and I usually trust my ear.
Sylvia A. Nash
My “favorite” personal mistake: Using “peaked” for “peeked” (as in a 12-year-old girl peeking through a door). Fortunately, I caught it before the book was published!
Oh, that comment really “peaked” my interest. Fortunately, I didn’t erupt in a fit of “peek.”
Sylvia A. Nash
Okay, through the doorway. She didn’t have x-ray vision. 🙂
Thanks for the helpful list, Rachelle.
A couple that I found in my own WIP are council vs counsel, and capital vs capitol.
Oooh, those are good ones! Easy to mix up council and counsel, that’s for sure.
Barbara Tifft Blakey
Further and farther have been misused so repeatedly, Websters has given in and further can now be used in place of farther. I wonder if the Ford commercial had something to do with it? (Hehe).We all have our weaknesses, (biggest for me is lie, lay), so I try to be gracious, but sometimes I want to make a scene. I live in Olympia, the CAPITAL of Washington. It is the CAPITAL city. We live near CAPITAL forest, not CAPITOL forest, although that is what is printed on every map and sign. The only time capitol is accurate is when referring to the domed building housing our government.
Thank you. I feel much better.
I can never get further and farther straight. 🙁
Don’t know if this helps, but take the “u” from further and think of the “u” in “figurative,” because further can be used in figurative contexts as well as literal ones. Farther, on the other hand, refers only to physical distances (e.g. “I will drive farther.”) Further can also be used in this context, but it can also be used figuratively to mean additional or more, as in “I have no further questions” or “I can write no further.” 🙂 Take it or leave it if it doesn’t help.
Accept and except is a big one for me. Personally, it is the complete misuse of the semi-colon that gets me screaming!
I saw “could of” and “should of” used multiple times throughout a novel that was not an ARC. I couldn’t believe no one caught the errors at any point in the process.
Rachelle, thanks for the tips and the book recommendation.
I have to think about “lay” and “lie.” To help me use them correctly, I envision this: a chicken lays an egg. A chicken (or a person for that matter) doesn’t lay down. (Here I play with the word “down.” I don’t use the word as a direction or position but as the fluffy feathers that covers a chick. Therefore, chickens lay eggs, they don’t lay down.
If you belong to the grammar police and I’m using this incorrectly, I’m sure you’ll let me know the error of my ways. 🙂
One gift of the Holy Spirit is prophecy (noun).
When someone uses this gift, they prophesy (verb).
I’ve seen more than one A-level Christian publisher blow this–even the charismatically inclined!
Oh, here are two that still stump me: stationary and stationery. I know them . . . until I go to use one of them in a story. 😉
Sharon Ricklin Jones
Jeanne, I have a little trick for stationary and stationery that I discovered ages ago (probably back in school during a spelling test)but it stuck with me all these years…um…decades.
StationAry = AIR…as in the wind is not moving…the bike is stationary…etc.
Hope this helps!
Good trick Sharon. But I remember it like this: You use stationEry in an Envelope.
I always have to check lay-lie, but what drives me nuts is Conscious vs Conscience. I should know by now, but I always look it up.
Only over the past year or so have I realized that you “home in” on something and you “hone” skills!
Also, several times in the past few months I’ve (correctly) used the word “complement” and had a few people think it was a typo that should have been “compliment.” So now, even though I know the difference in the words, I tend to shy away from “complement.” 😛
Someone started the rumor that you couldn’t hone in on things. My sister “corrected” me on that one a few months back. She had switched from saying “hone in” to “home in,” after her husband has set her straight on the proper usage. She was passing on the favor and setting me straight. I happily let her know she was wrong.
However a few weeks later she caught me writing disperse when I meant disburse. 🙂 I Shucks.
Thanks for bringing that to my attention, Sally! It looks like one of those instances where a word or phrase gets used so often in a certain way that it becomes acceptable. 🙂
Thanks for the post, Rachelle. You can add to the list going to the office of the principal because you missed the principle involved. In my field (money) it’s amazing to see how often those two are misused.
Donna Clark Goodrich
The ones I see most often in editing are rein/ reign; led/lead; and it’s/its as you mentioned, but another one is lightning/lightening. As for capitol/capital–capitol with an o is for a dOme with an o, and stationery with an e–think of e for envelope. I have a whole list of mnemonic hints if anyone wants to write me at: email@example.com
I often see “cavalry” and “Calvary” mixed up, but I’m never sure if it’s not just a typo.
What timing! I am looking at a conference (not writing related) that tells me that with the selection of educational sessions, there will be at least one “that peaks your interest.” Auwe!
Thanks for all the tips! I consider myself pretty on top of things with grammar and syntax, but I honestly didn’t even KNOW that discrete and discreet were two separate words. LOVE when that happens!
My pet peeve is the good old “grocer’s apostrophe” (e.g. tomato’s and grape’s for the plural). Admittedly I find this more in public venues than actual, published writing.
When speaking, I often have problems with bought and brought–which sounds really elementary. When I’m writing, it’s fine, but while talking I can never remember which is which. 🙂 I guess we all have our quirks.
Great list, Rachelle. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know of the other spelling and definition of discrete. Learn something new every day. Lay, lie is something I still stumble over from time to time.
English can be a very confusing language to learn to speak as well as to write. As the fifth grade English teacher, it sometimes seemed a daunting task, especially in Texas. Ex: interchangeable-far/fire, thank/think, sank/sink, The wind blew so hard she dropped her rapped gift as it raped her around the pole. grrrr I could go on/own and on/own.
How about “aisle” and “isle”? Warsh-wash, allmond-owmond, counselor-conselor, potato-pototo…
I knew a girl from Louisiana (Lu-sianna) who said “Hi” in two syllables “Hi-ay”. This Californian got a kick out of it.
I’m going to order the book you mentioned. I need it!
No matter how many times I read the rule and am positive I’ve committed it to memory, I have to look up lie/lay every time I use it in a manuscript. Rein/reign trips me up, too…and I started in westerns (so should have no excuse). Principal/principle also gets me. Peak/peek. Wreak/reek. Hm. I think when it comes to homonyms, I am weak/week. 😉
Gayle Mullen Pace
I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. So many helpful tips and so many writers willing to share the ups and downs of tackling a book project. I thank all of them for their comments. I think we all have grammar issues of one kind or another. Lie/lay gets me from time to time as does principal/principle. At one point I kept confusing mantle/mantel (both appeared in the story). I live in the south and once had an interesting conversation with a co-worker who used the words “Don” and “dawn” in a sentence and her pronunciation for both was the same. She and I had a good giggle over it.