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Which word? Ten common mix-ups and how to avoid them

On Writing

Which word? Ten common mix-ups and how to avoid them

Stephen H. Provost

Less isn't more, but it's not "fewer," either.

Loose lips may sink ships, but if you lose those lips, you won't be able to sink much of anything with that mouth of yours.

If you've ever bitten your tongue or ground your teeth in a conversation  with someone who's used "between" instead of "among," here's a shortlist of the 10 most common mistakes I've seen in 30 years as an editor — and some tips on how to avoid them.

1. Less vs. fewer

"Fewer" refers to a something that can be counted, such as jelly beans or coins or subatomic particles. "Less" should be used for things that aren't quantifiable, such as water or wood or grease. One commonality you'll notice here is that "fewer" usually works with words that end in "s" — plurals. It's helpful to remember that this doesn't always apply. For instance, some plurals derived from Greek and Latin, such as "criteria" and "fungi," don't follow the formula (plural: formulae). But in most cases, it's helpful to remember this simple rhyme: If it's less, just hold the "s."

2. Its vs. It's

"It's" is a contraction of "it is." Its is a possessive: belonging to it. Here's a handy way to remember this one: You wouldn't write hi's or her's or our's (at least, I hope you wouldn't!). The problem here is that proper names do take an apostrophe, but pronouns don't. This might be Stephen's blog, but it's not hi's.

3. Lay vs. Lie

"Lay," like "assure," is an action typically performed on an object. It's something you do to something. Lie is something you do to yourself. You may lie on the bed, but you lay the pencil down on the desk. In this context, "lay" is a synonym for "place." If you're unsure which to use, try substituting "place" for "lay/lie." It makes sense to say you placed the pencil on the desk, but not that you "placed on the bed." Interestingly, there's far less confusion between "sit" (I sit in the chair) and "set" (I set the glass on the counter), even though the same principle is involved. Having grown up in Southern California, I have a theory on this: All the sun lovers there habitually announced they were going to "lay out" in the sun. Even though this phrasing was incorrect, it was so widely used that it became accepted; it's possible that the habit of misusing "lay" crept into broader use from there.

4. Comprise vs. compose

It's become more fashionable (but no more correct) to use the phrase "comprised of" in all instances — probably because people think it sounds more intelligent or sophisticated. It doesn't. Fortunately, there's an easy way to remember how this distinction works: If you're tempted to use "comprised of," just substitute its synonym, "included" in your sentence. You'd never say something is "included of." 

5. Assure vs. ensure vs. insure

"Insure" has to do with insurance. It's something you pay for. To ensure something is to offer a guarantee (ensuring that there's enough time to accomplish a task). No money required. "Assure" is something you do to someone, just as "reassure" is. It's typically followed by an object: "I assure you that I'll be there on time." Without the object (you), "assure" wouldn't work in this sentence. 

6. Loose vs. Lose

I'm not sure why there's so much confusion here. Think of it this way: You might lose the game if your trousers are too loose. "Loose" has two o's, so it's bigger around, and that's when your trousers are likely to hit the floor. (How embarrassing!)

7. Onto vs. on to

"Onto" involves the act of moving something from on place to another  putting it "onto" something but people have developed the habit of writing about "holding onto" things. That's incorrect, because you're not moving anything. The proper phrase here is "hold on to." There's an easy way to remember this: You can "hold on" without "to," so you should keep that word separate when you add it.

8. Infer vs. Imply

You imply something, but you infer a conclusion from information. I'll admit this is one of the harder distinctions to remember. The best tip I can offer: You've probably never heard anyone claim to have implied something from something else. Remember this simple saying: Infer from info. ("Infer" is similar to "lay" and "assure" in that it needs an object — even if it's only an implied object — to make sense.)

9. Me vs. I

I think three-quarters of American schoolkids in my generation were chided for telling some adult, "Me and my friend want to go out and play." We got so accustomed to being harangued for misusing "me" as a subject, that we overcompensated by using "I" as an object: "That mean kid was bullying my friend and I." We even started thinking that "I" was intrinsically more sophisticated than "me" (just we elevated "comprised" above "composed.") Fortunately, most people only make this mistake when more than one person is the object of the sentence. No one would say, "That mean kid was bullying I." If you're unsure which word to use, remove the other person from the equation, and the answer becomes clear.

10. Flaunt vs. flout

When you're flaunting something, you're showing it off. When you're flouting something, you're acting in defiance of some rule, expectation or norm. This one's pretty easy to remember: Just repeat the old saw, "If you've got it, flaunt it." Substituting the word "flout" sounds jarring — and it should.

Author's Bonus: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

We're used to saying something's not true; we never say it's "not false," because we're smart enough to realize that would be a double-negative. Unfortunately, the fiction/nonfiction distinction doesn't work the way it should. "Nonfiction" contains an inherent double-negative: It refers to a story that's "not not" factual or historical. In other words, it is factual or historical. Yes, this is confusing. Yes, it makes very little sense. But it just goes to show that, sometimes, nonfiction really is stranger than fiction.