Grammar Alert: Do You Make These 8 Word Choice Mistakes?

By: Alex Chrum | Published: December 6, 2013

THINK

Copywriters, e-book writers, bloggers, ghostwriters—you name the type of writer, and the chances are pretty good that they struggle with something when it comes to their writing. Whether you’re tackling technical writing or flowery prose, using the right words in the right context conveys your message accurately and prevents colossal screw-ups. That said, there are common word choice mix-ups that run wild and free across the Internet. Are you guilty of making these 8 common word choice mistakes?

Every day vs. Everyday

While this one might seem like a no-brainer, it’s a pretty common error of connection. Every day is an adverb that means “each day,” referring to something that happens literally each and every day. Connected, the two words mean something entirely different: everyday is an adjective that means something is a common occurrence. It’s routine, ordinary, pedestrian.

Example of proper usage: Because my neighbor leaves his curtains open every day, I know that nude yoga is part of his everyday routine.

Continual vs. Continuous

While these words are very similar, there’s an important, but subtle, difference. Continual means something is ongoing but over a period of time with lapses in occurrence. Continuous means something is ongoing but never stops. Not ever.

Example of proper usage: His continual lapses in judgment include his decision to play “Gangnam Style” on a continuous loop for the entire month of November.

Whether vs. If

If you think that these words are interchangeable, you’re not alone—copywriters make this error all the time. However, the words imply different things. Whether shows that there are two or more possible alternatives, while if notes a condition where there’s just one choice. If is conditional. Also, don’t make the mistake of adding or not to the end of whether unless you mean “regardless of whether.”

Example of proper usage: Whether you knock on the door or ring the doorbell, she’ll only answer if you say the magic words.

Fewer vs. Less

It’s easy to mix up these words, but if you remember the key difference, your technical writing or copywriting skills will be much stronger. Less is used with mass nouns (i.e., things you cannot physically count—blood, rain and traffic), and fewer is used with countable nouns (i.e., things you can physically count –even if counting them is tedious—raisins, bandanas and pixels).

Example of proper usage: He bought less cereal at the grocery store this week, giving him fewer opportunities to dig for prizes in the boxes.

Amount vs. Number

On the same premise as above, use amount for mass nouns you cannot physically count, and use number when you can count something. Any abstract nouns, i.e., curiosity, happiness and freedom, always require you to use amount, for example.

Example of proper usage: He displayed a great amount of restraint when he settled for a smaller number of cat figurines in his collection.

Can vs. May

Copywriters like you often struggle with these two oft-misused words. Don’t make the mistake of assuming they’re interchangeable. They’re not. Can literally means “to be able to,” while may means “to be permitted to.”

Example of proper usage: While you can scale the side of the building, you may not do so without asking the owner.

Historic vs. Historical

While these words are both adjectives, their meaning is slightly different. Historic means something was an important event, place or thing in history. On the other hand, historical means something is from the past, even if it’s not very important.

Example of proper usage: These historical images show the permanent stains left behind after the historic Tomato Riot of 1954.

Principal vs. Principle

These two have a built-in trick to help you remember at least one of them. Principle is only used as a noun, so if the word is functioning as an adjective, you know it needs to be principal, which functions as a noun or adjective. Principle means a fundamental law, standard, truth or tenet. Conversely, principal, as an adjective, means “highest in importance or rank, main.” As a noun, it means the head of a school.

Example of proper usage: The principal of the high school refused to state his principal objective for the new cage-fighting program, although I suspect that he wants to instill the principles of conflict resolution in his students.

Hopefully, this sets the record straight for any word choice pairs that leave you in a conundrum. What other word choice dilemmas do you find yourself struggling with? Share your narrative, copywriting or technical writing word-selection woes in the comments.

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