With over a million words in the English language, it can be hard to keep track, especially when many of them sound or look the same. Most of us have sat through lectures on the differences between than and then, or affect and effect, but sometimes you just can’t keep them straight. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly confused words in the English language and learn a few tricks that will make your life as a writer a little easier.
Affect Vs. Effect
Okay, so out of all the easily confused words, typically these two words cause the most trouble for writers. Affect and effect are different forms of each other and have similar meanings, which is why they are so easily confused. According to Google definitions, affect is a verb that means to “have an effect on; make a difference to.” Effect is a noun that means “a change that is a result or consequence of an action or other cause.” The main thing to remember here is that affect is a verb and effect is a noun. Verbs are action words whereas nouns are acted upon by verbs. One trick to make sure you chose the right word is to replace the word with synonyms and see if the sentence makes sense. Affect can be replaced with impact or influence, while effect can be replaced with outcome, results, and consequences. Let’s take a look at some examples to help learn how to distinguish between the two.
The fall of gas prices will affect the economy. (Affect is the correct word to use here because affect is being used as a verb. Gas prices will affect, or influence, the economy.)
An increase in taxes is one potential effect of gas prices fluctuating. (Effect in the right word to use in this context because effect is being used as a noun; it is not the action word of the sentence. An increase in taxes is one potential outcome, or effect, or a change in gas prices.)
The rainy weather will affect the ballgame. (As seen in the first example, affect is the right word to use here. Affect is acting as the verb in the sentence, as the weather will impact, or affect, the ballgame.)
There are many effects of a cancelled ballgame. (Similar to the second example, effect is the correct word to use in this situation. Effect is working as a noun, as “are” is the main verb of the sentence. There are many consequences, or effects, of a cancelled ballgame.)
Between Vs. Among
Next on the list of commonly confused words is between and among. These two can be hard to nail down, but luckily there is a clear principle. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, between should be used when referring to distinct, individual objects; on the other hand, among should be used when referring to anything that is not distinct or individual items, or to a group of people. Here’s some examples of this principle:
I had to choose between Mexican, Chinese, and Italian for dinner. (Between is the correct word to use here, as you are choosing between three distinct things.)
I had to choose where to eat among numerous excellent restaurants. (This is the situation where among should be used, as “numerous excellent restaurants” are not clear or distinctive items.)
The dispute created drama between Jessica and Patrick. (In this case, between should be used as there are two distinct, individual people.)
The dispute created drama among the staff. (Among is the right word to use in this circumstance as “staff” refers to a group.)
Less Vs. Fewer
Another common mix-up is less and fewer. Should you say that there are less flowers in your garden than last spring or fewer flowers in your garden than last spring? Well, thankfully, this rule is rather straight-forward. Use fewer for anything you can count and use less for anything you cannot count. Here’s some examples:
I have fewer shoes than my older sister. (Fewer is the correct word to use in this case because you can count how many shoes you have.)
My soup has fewer onions in it. (Fewer is again the right word to use in this circumstance because you can count the number of onions.)
There is less light in this cave. (This is a situation where you would use less, as light cannot be counted.)
The river has less water in it than last year. (Less is the right word here. Just as light cannot be counted, water cannot be counted unless you are referring to glasses of water or some other form of measurable water.)
Than Vs. Then
Last but certainly not least is than vs. then. This is probably the most common error we see in general. Everywhere we go we’ll run into this problem. The easy way to remember the difference between the two is to remember that than is used for comparison and then is used in relation to time.
I like ice cream more than cake. (In this case, than is the right word because you are comparing one object, ice cream, with another object, cake. Typically, the inclusion of the word more also cues you in that than should be used, since more implies comparison.)
Swimming is more of a workout than running. (Once again, than is the correct word because you are comparing two things. Also, the inclusion of the word more helps you know to use than.)
I am going for a walk, and then I will take a nap. (Then is the correct word in this case because it is being used to mean “next to happen in time.”)
I was much younger and fitter back then. (This is another situation where you should use then, as it refers to a period of time rather than a comparison.)
Mackenzie Hendricks graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho with a Bachelor in English. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor.
She enjoys reading all types of genres, but her favorites are fantasy and historical fiction. In addition to writing nonfiction and scholarly articles, she also dabbles in creative writing in her spare time.