Pique-a-Boo-Boo: Commonly Confused Words

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Submitting work riddled with spelling and grammatical errors is a sure way to turn off an editor. It cannot be emphasized enough: spellcheck, proofread, and then proofread again. If you can, have a friend read your work over before you send it out—someone else will often catch the mistakes that you miss.

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But words can be tricky, especially ones that sound (or look) alike. While reading submissions, I’ve noticed that even conscientious writers trip over certain words or phrases. Here are some of the more common errors that appear even in well-written work.

Background Image: Tim O’Brien/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

  1. PIQUE (Not to be confused with PEAK or PEEK)

A peak is the top of a hill or mountain. When you peek, you look furtively or glance.

To pique means to provoke, stimulate, or goad. If something excites your interest, you’d say “my curiosity was piqued.”

If you are piqued, you are irritated or annoyed. When you are passed over for a promotion at work and bang out a blog entry about it as soon as you get home, your entry was written in a “fit of pique.”


To bait something is to lure it, e.g. one baits a fish hook.

To bate means to moderate or reduce. It is a shortened version of the word abate. Today the word bate is rarely used except in the expression “with bated breath.”

  • Max baited his hook, then waited with bated breath for a fish to take the bait.

To be vain means to be proud of one’s looks. A weather vane is a movable device that shows wind direction.

Vein has several meanings, the most of common being a blood vessel. Things that resemble blood vessels are also called veins, e.g. a vein of ore.

But a vein can also be a mood or attitude (“in a lighthearted vein“), as well as a style or tone of expression (“a vein of melancholy ran throughout the story”).

  • Professor Snarky began his lectures on an ironic note and continued in that vein throughout the term.

Rain is water that falls from clouds. Something can rain down on you.

To reign is to rule as a sovereign. When something reigns, it is predominant or prevalent.

Reins are what one uses to direct a horse. When you rein in something, you check or direct it. When someone has complete freedom or power, they are said to “have free rein.” When you act on a whim, you “give rein to” your impulses.

  1. E.G. or I.E.?

e.g. (exempli gratia) means “for example.” Use it when you want to clarify the preceding statement by providing an example:

  • Toby likes to read blogs, e.g. Gawker, Miss Snark, and Go Fug Yourself.

etc. should not be used with e.g. Since both e.g. and etc. (etcetera) indicate partial lists, it would be redundant to use them together.

i.e. (id est) means “that is.” Use it when you want to clarify the preceding statement by restating or expanding on it:

  • Toby likes to read blogs, i.e. online journals that are updated frequently.
  1. RACK or WRACK?

To rack means to strain by force, to torment. (Think of the rack, i.e. the medieval instrument of torture.) If you are worried, you are “nerve-racked.” If you are in agony, you are “racked with pain.” If you are stumped, you “rack your brains” for the answer.

Wrack is a noun that indicates violent or total destruction. It is related to wreck and is most common in the expression “wrack and ruin,” meaning total destruction.

  • Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans in wrack and ruin.

To reek is to give off a strong or offensive odor.

To wreak is to avenge; to inflict vengeance or punishment (“wreaked vengeance”), to vent anger or malevolence (“wreaked his wrath”), or to bring about or cause (“wreaked havoc”).

  • In 2005, natural disasters wreaked havoc on the planet.

Anxious means worried or uneasy. It implies nervousness. If you are “anxious to please,” you are concerned about doing the right thing.

Eager means keen or enthusiastic. If you’re an “eager beaver,” you were the kid in school who was always waving his hand and half-jumping out of his seat yelping, “I know! I know!”

  • Even though Jenny was anxious about how well she would do on her math test, she was eager to get it over with.

To affect something is to have an influence on it. It can also mean to pretend or adopt.

  • Do you think those attack ads will affect the results of the election?
  • Since moving to the UK, Madonna has affected an English accent.

Effect is a noun meaning consequence. When you affect something, you have an effect on it.

  • Matt was affected deeply by the film his Social Studies teacher showed on the effect of the Nazi regime during WWII.

To effect something means to bring it about or cause it to happen. When something “takes effect,” it becomes effective.

  • The new mayor and council started effecting changes as soon as they were elected. Their first new bylaw took effect only weeks into their mandate.

Effects can also be property or possessions.

  • After she fired him, Bob’s ex-boss gave him ten minutes to gather his personal effects.

Fewer indicates a smaller number of persons or things. The sign at the express checkout should read: “8 items or fewer” (not “8 items or less“).

  • There are fewer students in Ryan’s class than in Rhiannon’s.

Less indicates a smaller portion or amount (of something uncountable). Note: references to time and money are treated as amounts, e.g. less than a day, less than a dollar.

  • Because of the portable in the schoolyard, there is less playground space this year.

Farther refers to a greater (literal) distance in space or time.

  • We’ll have to go farther if we want to find a parking space.

Further means to a greater degree or extent (“Let’s take this further.”) or in addition (“This situation requires us to take further measures.”).

In informal writing, the two can be used interchangeably except that farther cannot be used to mean “in addition” (you wouldn’t say “take farther measures”).

  1. WHO or WHOM?

Who is the subject of a sentence (like “he” is); whom is the object (like “him” is). If you’re in doubt as to whether to use who or whom, rewrite the sentence using he and him: To whom it may concern. (It concerns him.)

  • Who sent the invitations? (He sent the invitations.)
  • The company invited everyone who has worked in the past year. (He has worked in the past year.)
  • I forgot to whom we’re supposed to RSVP. (We’re supposed to RSVP to him.)
  • Whomever my boss chose will be the guest speaker. (My boss chose him.)
  • Whom is Frances bringing to the party?* (Frances is bringing him to the party.)

*This sentence is correct, however, nowadays whom is not generally used as the first word in a question (unless you want to sound really pretentious), so this sentence would normally be written: Who is Frances bringing to the party? Alternatively, you could re-write the sentence like so:

  • I’m curious whom Frances is bringing to the party.
    • If something is elusive, it is evasive; it escapes your notice: Despite being featured on America’s Most Wanted, the suspect was elusive.
    • Illusive is synonymous with illusory. If something is illusive, it is deceptive or unreal. The magician made it appear that he sawed his assistant in half, but of course his act was illusive.
    • To ensure means to make certain or guarantee: Can you ensure that the meeting will take place on Friday as planned?
    • To insure means to provide insurance, underwrite: Roy needs to insure his new car. (According to some authorities, insure can be used interchangeably with ensure, i.e. to mean guarantee. However, ensure cannot be used to mean insure.)
    • To elicit means to draw out or forth, evoke, extract: The police officer tried to elicit a confession from the suspect.
    • Illicit is means unlawful, illegal: Trafficking in narcotics is illicit behavior.

If you can substitute the full pronoun-verb combination (e.g. they are, who is, you are) into the sentence, then you want the contraction. If that doesn’t work, then you want the possessive.

  1. THEIR / THEY’RE (and THERE)
    • Their is a possessive pronoun: Their favorite sport is hockey. (“They are favorite sport is hockey.” doesn’t work.)
    • They’re is a contraction of “they are”: They’re going to the game tonight. (“They are going to the game tonight.” works.)
    • There refers to location: The arena is over there.
  2. WHOSE / WHO’S
    • Whose is a possessive pronoun: Whose bag is that? (“Who is bag is that?” doesn’t work.)
    • Who’s is a contraction of “who is”: Who’s ready to go? (“Who is ready to go?” works.)
  3. YOUR / YOU’RE
    • Your is a possessive pronoun: Let’s go to your house. (“Let’s go to you are house.” doesn’t work.)
    • You’re is a contraction of “you are.” When someone says thank you, the correct response is: “you’re welcome.” (“You are welcome.” works.)
  1. And a Few More Quick Ones:
  • BRAKE / BREAK: You brake to slow or stop a vehicle using the brakes. If something separates into pieces, it breaks. An interruption of continuity is a break, e.g. coffee break, commercial break.
  • CITE / SIGHT / SITE: You cite references. A police officer might cite you for speeding. You go sightseeing (and see the sights using your sense of sight). A site is a location, a place (“campsite“).
  • COMPLEMENT / COMPLIMENT: If something complements something else, it fills it up or completes it: Jack and Jill make a good couple; they really complement each other. A compliment is an expression of approval or admiration: Thank you for the compliments.
  • CONSCIOUS / CONSCIENCE: If you’re conscious, then you’re awake. Your conscience is the awareness of the morality of your actions: Jiminy Cricket was Pinocchio’s conscience.
  • COUNCIL / COUNSEL: A council is an official body that deliberates, e.g. city council. The members of a council are councilors (or councillors). When you counsel someone, you advise them. Anyone who offers advice is a counselor (or counsellor).
  • LOOSE / LOSE: Loose means free, unrestrained, untied: She wore her hair loose. To lose something is to mislay it. If you fail to win (or tie) a game, you lose it.
  • PEDAL / PEDDLE: You pedal a bike by pushing your feet on the pedals. To peddle is to sell. A peddler is a salesperson, particularly a street vendor or someone who sells door-to-door.
  • PORE / POUR: To pore means to read studiously or attentively: You pore over a book. To pour means to flow or stream: It pours rain.
  • PRINCIPAL / PRINCIPLE: Principal refers to someone or something that is most important, e.g. the lead in a play, the head of an educational institution (“Principal Smith”). A principle is a rule or code of conduct: Though tempted by the bribe, he stuck to his principles.
  • STATIONARY / STATIONERY: If something is stationary, it’s fixed, immovable, static. Stationery is the paper you write letters on.


Final Poll Results

12 More Quick Fixes That’ll Make You Look Even Smarter: …or How To Impress An Editor

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In the original Quick Fixes article, I covered some basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation issues. Nearly two years have passed since then, and I’m pleased to announce that it seems everyone read my article and took my advice to heart. Those errors, once so common, are never seen anymore!

Ha ha! Oh, all right. The abuse of the apostrophe continues. Corporations—who can well afford to hire someone who knows how to properly place an apostrophe—omit it where it should be used, witness Tim Hortons (sic) and Earls (sic). Those are possessives, people! But not to fear, those dropped apostrophes aren’t lost, only misplaced—one can’t pick up a flyer or walk past a store window without being bombarded by DVD’s, tea’s, apple’s, sofa’s, and book’s. Eeeeee! It’s enough to drive a grammarian to drink.

But enough about the poor maligned apostrophe. We’re here to discuss some new peeves, er, issues. This article is the culmination of the list of errors I’ve been keeping since the first article came out.

Background Image: Leo Reynolds/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

  1. It’s a T-SHIRT, not a tee shirt.

This is a curious one, because it requires the writer to type two extra characters, which in the age of netspeak—b4, 2day, l8r, etc.—is a lot. Nevertheless, it’s an error that’s been popping up frequently. So let’s put an end to it. T-shirts are named after the letter T, which they resemble when laid out flat. A tee is the little wooden thing a golf ball sits on. It has nothing to do with shirts.

  1. A or AN?

AN goes before words that start with a vowel sound, i.e. words that start with a vowel or words that start with a silent H: honor, honest, hour. If you pronounce the consonant, as in historical, it’s A not AN.A goes before words that start with a consonant sound, i.e. words that start with a consonant or words that start with a vowel that sounds like a consonant: ukulele, unicorn, one.When in doubt, sound it out. One word that’s tricky is herb, which can be pronounced with a silent or an audible H. Use A or AN, depending on how you pronounce the word.

an apple a pear
an honor a historical drama
an herb, if you pronounce it “erb” with a silent H a herb, if you pronounce it “herb” with an audible H
an usher a ukulele
an octopus a one-shot deal

Just as people have become inordinately fond of inserting apostrophes where they aren’t needed, they have also become fond of randomly adding an S to the end of words that don’t need to be pluralized. For some reason, this is especially true when it comes to trademarks and tradenames, which means you’ll often see sentences such as:

  • My mom has a box full of Legos stored in her attic.
  • You can buy my book at Barnes & Nobles.
  • Fred is the meat manager at Safeways.

Lego, Barnes & Noble, and Safeway do not end in S. Never pluralize tradenames when you’re writing about one of whatever it is. That is simply wrong. Similarly, acronyms should not be randomly pluralized:

  • Jane was dissatisfied with her 97th percentile score on the LSATs.

It’s the Law School Admission Test, not Tests. There is no reason to pluralize LSAT in this sentence.

Adding an S to pluralize a tradename is generally acceptable in informal writing:

  • While pulling an all-nighter, Sam drank six Cokes.
  • There are three Safeways in town.

There are exceptions, however. Lego works fine as both a singular and a plural—just like deer, fish, and sheep do:

  • My mom has a box full of Lego stored in her attic.

In formal writing, tradenames should only be used as modifiers, not nouns: Lego bricks, Barnes & Noble bookstores.

By the way, anyway, forward, backward, toward, etc. are all perfectly good words without the addition of an S. While both versions are acceptable, the sans-S versions are more formal. It’s fine to use the more colloquial S versions in dialogue, but your writing will sound more professional if you don’t do it elsewhere.


While it’s true that both words mean “first” in French, in English, premier and premiere are two different words, each with its own meaning (and pronunciation).

Premier can be used as an adjective to mean first in rank or importance:

  • The chef only uses premier cuts of meat.

Used as a noun, premier is synonymous with prime minister (the chief executive in a parliamentary government):

  • While he was vacationing in Hawaii, Premier Campbell was arrested for driving under the influence.

On the other hand, a premiere is the first performance of a play or movie:

  • All the A-list celebrities showed up for the premiere.

Premiere can also be used as verb:

  • The movie premiered on May 1st.
  1. ANYMORE does not mean NOWADAYS.

I have a friend who uses anymore to mean nowadays, as in:

  • Anymore, I shop at Pottery Barn. (Meaning: Nowadays, I do shop at Pottery Barn.)

When I first heard her do this, it struck me as wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on why it bugged me. Apparently I’m not alone. As Paul Brians says: it’s “guaranteed to jolt listeners … Even if they can’t quite figure out what’s wrong.” Exactly.

Using anymore in this fashion is acceptable in dialogue, because people do talk this way. But not otherwise. Anymore (or any more—either form is acceptable, though any more is less common nowadays ;-)) is a term of negation. Use it when you mean that someone doesn’t do something that they used to do:

  • I don’t shop at Pier One anymore. (Meaning: I used to shop at Pier One, but I stopped.)
  1. An ELLIPSIS consists of three dots.

Not two, not four, not ten. Three.

Ellipses are used to indicate omission. If you’re quoting another writer and you leave out part of the passage, indicate the omission by inserting an ellipsis:

  • “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like … but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” –JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

If the omission comes at the end of a sentence, a space should be left between the period and the ellipsis:

  • “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. … His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh.” –Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Ellipses can also be used in dialogue to indicate that the speaker is trailing off or that her speech has become inaudible:

  • “I wish I knew what to do,” Brandy said, “If only Bob were here…”

Em dashes are the long dashes used to offset a section of text—like so. Word will automatically create an em dash if you type two hyphens together flush to the text on either side (no spaces). But beware: this formatting won’t always translate to other programs. For example, if you’re sending a submission via plain text e-mail, the dash will probably turn into a single hyphen-like this. Notice how “hyphen-like” ends up looking like a compound word. If you send a lot of electronic submissions, you may want to turn off the auto-formatting, and use two hyphens in place of a dash (the old typewriter method) so there is no confusion.

Dashes can be used as a more informal way than a colon to introduce a list or explanation at the end of a sentence:

  • My first celebrity crush was Randolph Mantooth—John Gage on Emergency!

They can also be used in pairs (much like parentheses) to indicate a digression from your main train of thought:

  • Melissa—the class valedictorian—only dates boys whose names begin with A.

They are also used in dialogue to indicate that the speaker has broken off suddenly or has been interrupted in mid-speech. Note the subtle difference between the use of a dash in dialogue and the use of an ellipsis in dialogue:

  • “I wish I knew what to do. If only—” Brandy turned as Bob ran into the room.

En dashes are shorter than em dashes, but longer than hyphens. They’re generally used to connect numbers that are inclusive. Word will create an en dash if you type a hyphen (or two) with a space on either side. Like em dashes, en dashes should be flush to the text on either side, so delete the spaces once the dash is created:

  • The Athens Olympics will be held August 13–29, 2004.
  • Reception: 7–9 p.m.

For electronic submission purposes, a hyphen will suffice, but if you’re printing a hard copy, use the en dash. Note that it’s difficult to see the difference between the en dash and the hyphen in some fonts, like Verdana, but they are different, as you can see here in Times New Roman: — – –

Hyphens are used to make compound words: quick-witted, e-mail, bow-legged, co-operative, and to separate non-inclusive numbers such as phone numbers: 1-800-555-1234. Like dashes, hyphens should be flush to the text on either side, with one exception, the hanging hyphen, which has a space after it:

  • There are both four- and five-year-olds in Billy’s kindergarten class.
  1. Leave ONE SPACE after periods, not two.

If you learned to type on a typewriter, you were probably taught to leave two spaces after a period. This is because typewriters use fixed-width fonts, i.e. each character takes up the same amount of space. Leaving two spaces after a period made it easier for readers to distinguish where one sentence ended and another began.With proportional fonts, characters take up proportional amounts of space, e.g. m is wider than l. Word processing programs automatically adjust the spaces between words. If you place two spaces after each period, your text will not kern properly and you’ll end up with rivers of white space running down your pages.

  1. Don’t use BEING to imply BECAUSE.

I hate it when writers start sentences with being:

  • Being seventeen, Joy works at McDonald’s.

Yecch. Such sentences have always irritated me—at the very least, they sound clunky—but are they technically wrong? Actually, yes. The problem with such sentences is that being is used to imply because (the technical term is “misrelated participle”), i.e. Joy works at McDonald’s because she is 17. But really, the first sentence doesn’t actually tell the reader anything more than: Joy, 17, works at McDonald’s. Readers must decide what the connection is between the two facts on their own. A much better sentence would be:

  • 17-year-old Joy works at McDonald’s because it’s the only place in town that hires teenagers.
  1. Make sure you’re using the RIGHT WORD.

A malapropism is the substitution of a similar-sounding word for the one actually intended. Sometimes the consequences are amusing; other times they’re just baffling. Dubya Bush isn’t the only person prone to malapropisms; I often come across them while reading submissions.

While malapropisms are sometimes due to ignorance, I think what often happens is than in the midst of a creative jag, writers will plug in a word that sounds like it might be the right one but isn’t—e.g. “hyperbolic chamber” instead of “hyperbaric chamber”—fully intending to go back and change it later. Then, in the editing process, it gets missed. That’s not surprising; the writer knows what he meant and his eyes glide over the word, giving it the intended interpretation. This is why it’s important to have someone else proofread your work!

  1. Use ITALICS to indicate EMPHASIS, not quotation marks.

Quotation marks are almost as popular as apostrophes these days:

  • Mmm! “Juicy” tomatoes!!!
  • Have we got a “surprise” for you!
  • Please park in “back.”

The primary purpose of quotation marks is to indicate that something is being quoted. It could be a passage from someone else’s writing or dialogue in a story. Their secondary purpose is that of the “air quote” variety, used to indicate irony. When you stick quotation marks around a word or phrase, the implication is that what you’re saying isn’t really true:

  • Mom and Aunt Joyce are out on the back porch drinking “coffee.” (Meaning they’re drinking alcohol, but we’re maintaining a polite fiction that they’re drinking coffee.)

Speaking of coffee, the most famous of all air quotes would probably be the post-date:

  • Would you like to come up to my place for “coffee”? (Meaning… well, you know.)

As for those tomatoes, “juicy” implies that the tomatoes are something other than actually juicy. “Surprise” implies there’s really no surprise or the surprise is something you won’t enjoy. If you want to emphasize something, use italics: Please park in back.

  1. When there isn’t a wrong or a right, SPELL CONSISTENTLY.

There are often two correct ways to spell a word: glamor/glamour, theater/theatre, judgment/judgement, check/cheque, gray/grey, traveling/travelling. Journalists are usually taught to go with the first-listed version in the dictionary, which apparently is why words like adviser and intervener have gained in popularity over advisor and intervenor in recent years.

If you’re a staff writer, you would be wise to learn your publication’s style and write to it. However, if you’re freelance writing, you’ll find that each publication has a slightly different style. For example, The New Yorker uses coöperate and coördinate, rather than hyphenating (co-operate) or merging the prefix with the word (cooperate). You’d go mad trying to adjust your spelling each time you submit a piece. So unless a publication specifically asks you to use a particular spelling, use whatever version you prefer, just use it consistently! Don’t meander between judgment and judgement as if you didn’t know whether one was right or couldn’t decide which one you liked best. As long as you’re consistent and correct, no reasonable editor will hold your spelling choices against you.

With thanks to my favorite grammar sites: Owl Online Writing Lab, Paul Brians’s Common Errors in English, and the Guide to Grammar and Writing, as well as: John M. Lawler, Get it Write, The Keables Guide, and Fun With Words.

Final Poll Results

10 Quick Fixes That’ll Make You Look Really Smart …or How Not to Peeve an Editor

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Spoken language is casual, peppered with clichés and idioms, and words that are mispronounced and misused—sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. In everyday speech, this is fine. This is how people talk. We have other ways of assessing people in person, besides their word choice.

But in print, word choice is everything. All people reading your words have to go on is, well, your words. So unless you’re writing dialogue, don’t write like you talk. Easy to say, not so easy to do. After all, even writers speak and listen more than they write. So it’s almost impossible for casual-speak not to sneak into our writing.

You probably know to edit overused expressions from your writing—that’s basic writing class advice. But what about the mistakes you don’t even know are mistakes?

Here are some common errors to check for before you hit send or drop your envelope in the mailbox. Strive to make your writing as error-free as possible at all times, even when you’re just composing a message board post. That way, when it comes time to write that query letter or put the final polish on your novel, correct grammar and spelling will be a habit.

Background Image: Duncan C/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

  1. Watch for HOMONYMS and make sure you use the correct one.

I once read a front page newspaper story where the writer used the word “grizzly” to describe a crime scene. Despite the graphic details, I had to laugh. Why? Well, a grizzly is a large brown bear with a hump. Ursus arctos horribilis, to be specific. The word the writer wanted, of course, was “grisly”, as in gruesome, an appropriate word to describe this murder scene. By using the wrong homonym, he instead conjured up images of bears romping through the victim’s house, à la Yogi and Boo-Boo.

Homonyms are words that sound the same. Some homonyms are spelled the same, e.g. “pool” (body of water) vs. “pool” (game), but many homonyms are spelled differently, and these are the ones to look out for. Often they’re very common words that you use in everyday speech—words you know so well, you don’t think “How do I spell that?” when you write them down, the way you do more unusual or complicated words.


  • here / hear
  • know / no
  • oar / ore / or
  • they’re / their / there
  • bear / bare
  • you / ewe
  • one / won
  • read / red
  • where / wear
  • which / witch
  • do / due
  • for / four / fore
  1. Don’t use apostrophes to create PLURALS.

Plural words are created by adding an S, or in some cases an ES, to the word. A plural is NEVER created by adding an ‘S. ‘S (apostrophe S) indicates a possessive, not a plural (see #3).

This error is so common these days that it’s become self-perpetuating. People and organizations who should know better make this mistake; others see it and assume that must be the correct way, so they do it too, and so on and so on… just like that old shampoo ad. But just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. Show an editor you’re smarter than the average bear and pluralize correctly.

Commonly mis-pluralized words are names, words ending in S or a vowel, numbers, and acronyms. If in doubt with numbers or acronyms, write the words out in full to double-check.


  • The Smiths live at 123 Sesame Street. The plural of the name Smith is Smiths, not Smith’s or Smiths’. Smith’s means something belonging to a person named Smith, e.g. Bob Smith’s car was stolen today. Smiths’ means something belonging to more than one person named Smith, e.g. We’re going to the Smiths’ house for dinner.
  • If the name ends in S, add an ES. For example, for a family named Hobbs, you’d write: The Hobbses live next door at 125 Sesame Street. If the Hobbs family were to put a sign outside their house, either The Hobbses or The Hobbses’ [house] would be fine, but not The Hobbs’s.
  • Similarly, when pluralizing an ordinary word ending in S, add an ES, not ‘S, e.g. the plural of glass is glasses, not glass’s. Glass’s indicates something belonging to a glass, e.g. My favorite glass’s rim is chipped.
  • When pluralizing a word ending in a vowel, just add an S. Bananas, not banana’s. Antiques, not antique’s. Portfolios, not portfolio’s. If the final vowel is a Y, change the Y to IE and add an S. Thus, ferry becomes ferries, not ferry’s. Baby becomes babies, not baby’s.
  • I went to high school in the ’80s. (I went to high school in the ‘eighties.) The apostrophe here indicates a contraction—the 19 of 1980s has been dropped. Writing the word or number without the preceding apostrophe is acceptable: 80s / eighties. 80’s, on the other hand, is not. 80’s means something belonging to the number 80, which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
  • I own 200 CDs. (I own 200 compact discs.) CDs is the plural of CD. CD’s means something belonging to a single CD, e.g. That CD’s case is broken. (That compact disc’s case is broken.)
  1. When you need an APOSTROPHE, put it in the right place.

Apostrophes are used for two reasons. First, to indicate possession, e.g. someone’s stuff. Second, to indicate a contraction, i.e. one or more letters have been dropped from a word.

Most people don’t have difficulty using an apostrophe to indicate possession when the word/name is singular and doesn’t end in S. But when either of those things apply, watch out.

Examples of apostrophes used to indicate possession:

  • simple singular possession: Jane’s dog = the dog belonging to Jane.
  • singular possession when a name ends in S: Chris’s dog = the dog belonging to Chris. You’ll sometimes see this written as Chris’, and that’s acceptable, but I don’t like it, and neither does Strunk & White. It’s inconsistent, and that leads to confusion with plural possessives (see next example). Besides, you say the extra S, so it makes sense that it’s there.
  • plural possession: The Smiths’ dog = the dog belonging to the Smiths. Here the apostrophe comes after the S, indicating the dog belongs to a family (more than one person) named Smith.

Contractions are words like can’t, ’til, y’all, nothin’ — words that imitate speech.

Examples of apostrophes used to indicate contractions:

  • can’t = can not. The ‘ indicates the dropped no.
  • ’til = until. The ‘ indicates the dropped un.
  • y’all = you all. The ‘ indicates the dropped ou. Knowing that, you can see that ya’ll (a common misspelling) makes no sense.
  • nothin’ = nothing. The ‘ indicates the dropped g.

Remember, if in doubt, write the word out in full, then place the apostrophe where the letters are dropped.

  1. Choose the right IT’S / ITS.

It’s / its gets its own section because it’s a special case.

It’s is a contraction meaning “it is”.

Its is a possessive meaning “belonging to it”.

Note how I used both forms correctly in the opening sentence of this section. Sneaky, huh?

  1. THAT, WHO, or WHICH?

That applies to things. Who applies to people. Which applies to stuff that is not vitally important, which means if you left that part of the sentence out, it would still make sense.

Most people these days use that for everything, people included. But you’re not content to be “most people” are you?


  • The car that is parked across the street is green.
  • The man who just got out of the car is about six feet tall.
  • When I finish my shift, I’m going to see Goldmember, which is playing at the Octoplex.

Note that a comma always separates a which phrase from the rest of the sentence. No comma is required for that or who.

  1. Don’t say LAY when you mean LIE, and vice versa.

The verb ‘to lay’ means to put or place something down. The verb ‘to lie’ means to rest or recline. You lay something down, whereas you lie down. However, and here’s where the confusion probably started, the past tense of ‘to lie’ is lay. So if you were speaking it in the past tense, you would say “I laid it down.” vs. “I lay down.”


  • Present: Austin lays the book on the table. Austin is laying the book on the table.
  • Past: Austin laid the book on the table. Austin had laid the book on the table.
  • Present: Candace lies on the bed. Candace is lying on the bed.
  • Past: Candace lay on the bed. Candace had lain on the bed.
  1. ME, MYSELF, & I

And the winner of most incorrectly overused word of the early twenty-first century? Myself, a pretentious affectation used by people who are trying to sound smart. But since it’s wrong, it makes them sound dumb. Celeb interviews and reality programs abound with misused myselfs. Example: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and myself. It’s ME! The word is ME, people! Stop trying to be so clever, or else go all out and tattoo an L on your forehead.

This problem often occurs when more than one individual is referred to in a sentence. If in doubt, rewrite the sentence without the other names. The error will usually be glaring.


  • Incorrect: Dave, Gary, and myself met in high school.
  • Incorrect: Dave, Gary, and me met in high school.
  • Correct: Dave, Gary, and I met in high school.
  • Incorrect: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and myself.
  • Incorrect: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and I.
  • Correct: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and me.
  • Correct: I was so paranoid, I used to mail the lyrics to myself. Note how in this sentence there is also an “I”. Myself is a reflexive pronoun. You have to already have referred to yourself once in the sentence to use it. You may also note that you/yourself follows the same pattern. As do all the other pronouns. Funny how that works.
  1. You do know THEN and THAN are two different words— don’t you?

Yes, then and than look and sound similar. Yes, it’s only a matter of one little vowel. But please, people, please, use then when you mean then and than when you mean than.

What an editor never wants to see: My brother is younger then I am.

Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. Than is a conjunction, used to compare two things: My brother is younger than I am. Then is an adverb, used to indicate when something happened: First we finished our homework, then we went to the movies.

I’ll say it again: Please don’t use then when you mean than.

  1. Don’t use FAUX-WORDS.

Generally, these are words that are pronounced differently than they are spelled. Because you hear them more often than you see them in print, the spoken version starts to sound right. But it isn’t. So don’t be getting any wacky ideas.


  • Not a word: alot. Correct term: a lot.
  • Not a word: alright. Correct term: all right.
  • Not a word: could of (should of, would of). Correct term: could have (should have, would have) or could’ve (should’ve, would’ve)

My favorite faux-word: copywrite. Correct term: copyright. The term refers to “rights”, not to “writing”.

More of these gems can be found here: Common Errors in English

  1. CAPITALIZE consistently.

Proper names are capitalized. Generic names are not. When capitalizing a proper name consisting of more than one word, all of the words in the name should be capitalized.


  • Incorrect: Cindy attends High School.
  • Correct: Cindy attends high school. (Here the generic term is used. No capitals are required.)
  • Incorrect: Cindy attends Victoria high school.
  • Correct: Cindy attends Victoria High School. (Here a proper name is used. The name of the school is “Victoria High School”, not “Victoria”. All words in the name should be capitalized.)

Final Poll Results

Know the Rules, Then Break Them

Absolute Blank

By Suzanne Wiles Chapman (Barrister)

I am often appalled to read writing that contains a great story line and interesting characters, but is marred with bad grammar, sloppy style and bad form. The creativity is there, but the structure is poor and the words are lacking. Some writers say that they don’t worry about grammar and style — they never understood it and they’ll leave it to editors. I believe, however, that a grasp of style and grammar are essential to good writing. Understanding the rules of grammar is the foundation upon which we build clever literary devices. Writers must understand the structure of language in order to manipulate it.

Background Image: Andreas Klodt/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

In The Art of Fiction John Gardner likens fiction to a dream, in which the reader is swept into another reality and exists within a story. “In bad or unsatisfying fiction this fictional dream is interrupted from time to time by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist. We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or the writing.” Gardner says that in bad writing, whether new or experienced, “the writer distracts the reader by clumsy or incorrect writing”.

In his autobiographical On Writing, Stephen King says, “At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations?” His point is simple: grammar and style seem like straightforward skills that merely regulate language, but they are the very tools we need to create masterful stories.

The good news is that understanding grammar and style is not difficult, regardless of your experience in high school English class. King points out that sometimes we can’t really “get” grammar and style until we mature a little: “now that all that extraneous shit is out of the way, you can study certain academic matters with a degree of concentration you could never manage while attending the local textbook loonybin. And once you start, you’ll find you know almost all of the stuff anyway — it is, as I said, mostly a matter of cleaning the rust off the drillbits and sharpening the blade of your saw.”

Make grammar and style important in your writing. Grammar is simply a set of rules that govern how the English language works. Most of the time you should follow these rules and sometimes you can break them with finesse. Invest in a good grammar book and study it. You don’t have to know every grammar term, but you should know the main ones and be able to identify whether something is correct or not. Here at Toasted Cheese, I host a board where you can bring your grammar and style questions and get an answer in 24 hours. I also will help you in your quest to brush up on the basics with a new tip and activity each week. Taking a time to review this information on a regular basis will improve your writing.

When it comes to good writing style, you can find many excellent books, but I think you really only need two: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, and the appropriate style manual for your genre (e.g. Chicago Manual of Style). Don’t just buy these books and put them on your shelf for reference. Read and understand them, because the information will come back to you automatically when you write.

Reviewing grammar and style information is more than just learning to follow the rules. It gives you power over language. For example, two common style mandates are to avoid passive voice and to vary sentence length. Understanding this, you can manipulate active/passive verbs and sentence length to enhance storytelling.

Passive sentences are said to be weak because they show action being done to the subject, rather than a subject doing the action. For example, “The money was left to me” is less informative than “My aunt Ida left me the money”. Passive sentences are, however, useful in certain situations, such as masking the doer of the action for a mysterious effect.

The chair had been moved. Yesterday, it was sitting right next to the window, overlooking the lake. Now, it sat in the corner. I felt a shiver along my spine.

Using a passive sentence, “The chair had been moved”, creates a sense of mystery about who had moved it. However, the key is only using passive voice when it’s for a good reason. Of course, being able to recognize passive voice is the first step.

Now, consider sentence length. Generally, it’s suggested that we vary sentence length, which avoids monotony. However, sometimes a series of short sentences is effective in creating tension. Compare these two paragraphs:

  1. When I arrived at my brother’s house, the lights were out. Curious, I peered into the window beside the front door, wondering where he was. When I knocked on the door there was no answer, but it was unlocked and I stepped inside, only to be surprised by a deafening scream.
  2. When I arrived, the lights were out. I peered into the window. Nothing. I tried the door handle. The door creaked open. I stepped inside. Silence. As I turned to flick the switch, a deafening scream pierced my eardrums.

The first paragraph is fine and contains varied sentence length. In the second paragraph however, the short sentences, some of them only one word, create a sense of trepidation. In other types of scenes, this might seem choppy, but in this type of story situation, it creates the mood effectively.

The bottom line is that one needs to know the rules in order to use them. They become less of a restriction and more of a tool in your writing toolkit.


  1. Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
  2. King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Scribner, 2000.
  3. Strunk, William Jr., and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan, 1979.