How's Your Word Usage? Common Word Usage Errors That Students Should Avoid
Proper word usage is a mark of careful and sophisticated writers, while incorrect word usage can result in lower grades. Here are tips for improving the word usage in your writing.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Many ingredients go into writing a quality paper for school -- research, content, grammar, spelling, and more. One key ingredient is correct word usage. Proper word usage is the mark of a careful and sophisticated writer. Conversely, incorrect word usage can result in dings to your grade and mark you as a student whose writing lacks precision.
Be aware that the word-usage flaws that especially drive professors off the deep end are the following simple errors that everyone should know to avoid:
to, too, and two;
there, their, and they're;
it's and its. (The only time it's is used with an apostrophe is when it is a contraction for it is. When using the possessive form of it, use its. There is no such word as its'.
If you learn no other correct word usage, at least learn these easy ones.
This next group of word-usage points are trickier because they aren't as well known as the easy ones, and lots of people get them confused:
Use more than rather than over to denote numerical excess. Over refers to a spatial position. More than 300 people, more than $5 million, but over the rainbow, or: The plane flew over the city.
Affect and effect: If you want a verb, chances are you want affect: "They want to see how the development affects the environment." If you want a noun, you definitely want effect: "They wanted to see what the effect would be on the environment." Occasionally, however, effect is used as a verb, as in: "to effect a change."
Presently and currently: Since presently has a double meaning (it can mean "now" or "in a short while"), it's best to stick with currently when you mean now. Chances are, however, that your sentence really doesn't need either adverb.
Comprised ofis not a synonym for composed of. In fact, comprised of shouldn't be used because comprise is a synonym for embrace.
Wrong: The State Board of Education is comprised of the governor and members of the Cabinet.
Right: The board is composed of. . . OR: The board comprises . . .
Less and fewer/number and amount. Use fewer with items that can be counted: fewer chickens. Use less with things that can't be counted: less water. Similarly, use number with items that can be counted: The university has an adequate number of majors. Use amount with items that can't be counted: A large amount of asphalt is needed to pave the parking lots.
The plural of company is companies. The possessive form of company is company's. The plural possessive form of company is companies'.
A company is not a they. A company is an it. When you want to refer to a company without repeating its name, use, for example, the firm, it or the company or the organization.
Wrong: Ernst & Young might hire new graduates. They said they are looking for accounting majors.
Right: Ernst & Young might hire new graduates. The company said it is looking for accounting majors.
The adverb hopefully is so misused that its misuse has become almost accepted. It means "with hope," not the common misuse "I hope" or "it is to be hoped."
The past tense of lead (as in, what a leader does, the opposite of follow) isled. Even though the metal lead sounds exactly like led, use led when you mean the past tense of what a leader does.
When used as an adjective, everyday is one word ("It was an everyday occurrence.") When used as an adjective + noun, every day is two words ("I wouldn't like to just sit at a desk every day.")
Incorrect use of which/that (restrictive vs. nonrestrictive clauses). A restrictive clause defines a noun and is introduced by that (or who). Employing which to introduce restrictive clauses has come into such widespread use that many people, including some in academe, consider which acceptable. Still, that is the preferred introduction, and your writing will sound less stilted if you use that to introduce restrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause supplies information about a noun but is not essential to defining the noun or to the meaning of the sentence. A nonrestrictive clause is introduced by which (or who). The tipoff to a nonrestrictive clause is that it is almost always set off by a comma. Thus, the two keys to usage for these types of clauses are (1) use which and that correctly to introduce these clauses, and (2) use a comma to set off nonrestrictive clauses.
Acceptable but not preferred: Many of the stories which Louisa May Alcott wrote in later life were quite different from Little Women.
Preferred: Many of the stories that Louisa May Alcott wrote in later life were quite different from Little Women.
Right, but lacking punctuation: Alcott's posthumous publications include Diana and Persis which was not published until the 1970s.
Right: Alcott's posthumous publications include Diana and Persis, which was not published until the 1970s.
Write the Way You Speak
The next four usage points aren't wrong but represent an unnatural way of speaking. People often use these terms in writing, especially business writing, but they don't usually use them in speech. Your writing will be more accessible if it resembles the way people talk.
Favor because of over due to. People don't usually say due to when they talk. Most of the time, because of is the better choice.
Similarly, favor use over utilize. People don't often say utilize when they talk. Use is almost always a better choice.
Before is always a better choice than prior to, not only because before requires fewer words but because people rarely say prior to in speech.
Various is frequently a better choice than different. If you intend to emphasize a variety, use various. If your emphasis is on how different things are from each other, use different. If you apply this test, you'll choose various at least 75 percent of the time.
Poor use of different: My college has many different organizations to choose from.
Better: My college has various organizations to choose from.
Appropriate use of different: When you are working with different kinds of people, it's important to understand group dynamics.
Also be aware that in many instances, you don't need either of these modifiers.
Final Thoughts on Improving Word Usage
To keep on top of common word-usage issues, obtain a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, available in an inexpensive paperback, and read and refer to the chapter called "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused." (Since The Elements of Style is in the public domain, you can also access it free on the Web at Bartleby.com.) The entire book is worth its weight in gold to the student writer who wants to earn better grades, but the chapter on word usage is particularly valuable.
One final word-usage issue is deficient vocabulary and writing that lacks the sophistication and level of word usage that your professor expects of a college student. The thesaurus feature that comes with your word-processing program can help students with underdeveloped vocabularies. A thesaurus in print form can't hurt either.
More vocabulary tools and resources can be found in our sister site, EnhanceMyVocabulary.com.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She is also Creative Director and Associate Publisher at Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.