October 02, 2012

Problematic Words

As a writer, you get to pick and choose between the myriad of words in the English language when you tell your story. There are amazing options for any time, place, or character you can imagine. But as any new English student will tell you, it is hardly the most straight forward of languages. So it is easy to understand why so many people trip up over the accepted uses of certain words.
Whether you are writing a novel or editing it, everyone needs a little reminder every now and again. So here are a few of the tricky spots I often come across:
1) Lie and Lay - Ignoring the "not telling the truth" definition of lie, both of these words have something to do with things at rest. However, lie generally means to recline or get into a position of rest on a surface, where as lay generally is the same as "put" or "place".
- "Lie down and relax," said the doctor.
- "Lay the gun on the floor and walk away slowly," he said.
2) Than and Then - These two words are not interchangeable. Than is used for comparisons and then is used for an indication of time.
- I like blue better than pink.
- First I liked the blue one, then I liked the pink.
3) Bemused and Amused - These are often misused because bemused actually means to puzzle, confuse, or bewilder and does not have the positive connotation of amused.
- Sandra was bemused by her complex science homework.
- Sandra was amused by her little sister's antics.
4) Complementary and Complimentary - Complementary is the word to use when things go together well. Complimentary is when something is free. (Similarly, a complement is an accessory, while a compliment is a statement of admiration.)
- She wore shoes that were complementary to her outfit.
- Her job was to give out complimentary samples.
5) Affect and Effect - These two can be quite daunting at times, but if you remember that affect is the thing which causes the effect, you should be able to figure out if you are using the words correctly.
- They tried to affect the outcome of the voting.
- The effect of their interference was negative press coverage.

This is far from an exhaustive list, and it does overlook the more often cited "its or it's", "you're or your", and "their, they're, there" issues which I assumed I could bypass, but who really wants a long post on word usage?

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