GLASGOW, UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 05: Pupils at Williamwood High School attend a math class on February 5, 2010 in Glasgow, Scotland. As the UK gears up for one of the most hotly contested general elections in recent history it is expected that that the economy, immigration, the NHS and education are likely to form the basis of many of the debates. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

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Ok. Ya got me. My title should be, “How to Write and Speak Well.” Grammar is a challenge for many of us. I didn’t realize the challenge I had until I started blogging.

Over the past couple of years I’ve learned that I’ve probably been using several words incorrectly but you probably didn’t notice because we all tend to use some of them incorrectly. Here are a few of my favorites.

Words That Are Often Confused With Each Other

There are many words we use that sound alike, or are similar in spelling, that are not interchangeable. For example:

  • Affect and Effect: Affect” means to “influence.” “My low test scores affected my final grade.” “Effect” means to accomplish something. “My employee’s suggestions effected a change in our policies.” Use “effect” if you are the one making something happen and “affect” if you are affecting something that someone else is trying to make happen. Effect is almost always correct unless you are a psychologist speaking emotionally — then use affect.
  • Bring and Take: This one is a little easier. “Bring” things here and “Take” them there. “Will you bring the soft drinks to Mary’s party?” — would be incorrect.
  • Criteria and Criterion: I have botched this one for years. One is “criterion,” for two or more use “criteria.” If it’s uncomfortable you can substitute “reason” or “factors.”
  • Fewer or Less: This one is easy too. If you can count the items use “fewer.” If you can’t count items use “less.” Such as fewer hours vs. less time.
  • Farther and Further: Use “farther” when it’s a physical distance such as, “Bozeman is farther from Billings than Livingston.” Use “further” when using a figurative or non-measureable distance. “I can’t take this project any further.”
  • Elicit and Illicit: The easy way to remember this one is the one beginning with “I” — “Illicit” refers to something Illegal. “Elicit” means to coax or draw out. “The content of my radio show is designed to elicit listeners.” Think “E” emotion.
  • Principal and Principle: This one will make you crazy. Most of us were taught that if it’s a person use principal because of the last three letters of the word. The school “principal” is your “Pal.” “Principal” refers to primary or of first importance. It can also be used with money, “Principal and Interest.” Use “Principle” when referring to laws, rules, guidelines, or ethics.

Some Final Thoughts

English is a very complicated language. I sat next to a Taiwan exchange student on a flight recently and he told me English was easier to write and read than to speak. I had to agree with him.

It used to be called the “King’s English,” which referred to using the language correctly. Most of the time in both word and print proper use of the language is sadly lacking in today’s world of sound bites and social media. But I’m trying to be better and I hope you will too.

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