Misused Words
November 26, 2013

Misused Words

For my next installment on grammar, punctuation, and usage, I thought I would talk about some misused words. Sometimes we outright misuse words while other times it really is a misspelling; regardless, these are words that need some clarification. I suspect that I will have several follow-ups to this article, but I will start with a few of the words I notice most.

Affect vs. Effect

One of the most frustrating aspects about the English language comes in the package of words spelled differently but with similar sounds. To compound this frustration, sometimes these words have similar meanings. Two such words are affect and effect. Every semester I have multiple students who misuse affect and effect. However, check out this really simple explanation:

Affect is a verb.

Effect is a noun.

So, if you want to bring about change, you affect change. If you want to know what change brings about, you want to know the effect of change. In order to use these words correctly, all one really has to do is know which part of speech one means to use. If it is a verb—that is a word that acts—then use affect, but if it is a noun—a people, place, or thing—then use effect.

Your vs. You’re

This is another common word usage mistake that I see all of the time and not just in student essays. In fact, I most often see mistakes with these two words in text messages and on social media posts. So, here’s the lowdown:

Your is a possessive pronoun.

Example: Where is your friend?

You’re is a contraction of you and are.

Example: You’re a good friend.

The biggest misuse of these two comes in what we say after someone tells us thank you. The response to thank you is ‘You’re welcome’ as in ‘You are welcome’ with the contraction. When we write ‘Your welcome’ we are basically saying the welcome belongs to you.

The easiest way to check this is to see if the words you are can be used in place. If they can, then use you’re, but if not then its possessive so use your.

Who vs. Whom

Though these are often contested, it is not so hard as one might think to figure out when to use who and when to use whom. Who and whom are relative pronouns, which, as the Purdue OWL explains, “Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses, which are a type of dependent clause. Relative clauses modify a word, phrase, or idea in the main clause.”

So, as pronouns, who and whom modify nouns and pronouns. Who modifies subjects while whom modifies objects.

Subject example: The professor, who lives down the road from me, said I needed to study more.

In this example, who modifies the professor, and the word professor is the subject of the relative clause. In other words, you could take out the relative clause and replace who with the professor or she and it would be a complete sentence even with she as the subject.

Example: The professor lives down the road from me.

Example: She lives down the road from me.

Object example: The professor, whom I adore, lives down the road from me.

Here, whom modifies the professor again, but if you take out the relative clause, in order to make it a sentence, you would have to add an object noun (e.g. the professor) or pronoun (e.g. her).

Example: I adore the professor.

Example: I adore her.

If you’re still struggling, Grammar Girl has a good mnemonic device for you: “Still too hard to remember? OK, here’s the quick and dirty tip. Like ‘whom,’ the pronoun ‘him’ ends with ‘m.’ When you’re trying to decide whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom,’ ask yourself if the answer to the question would be ‘he’ or ‘him.’”

This is a pretty good start to understanding commonly misused (or often just misspelled) words. Hopefully, these help. Look forward to more of these in the future.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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