Chapter 3. Commonly Misused Terms and Phrases

When I woke up this morning my girlfriend asked me, "Did
you sleep good?” I said, "No, I made a few mistakes.”
—Steven Wright

This chapter is for everyone. We have all made the mistakes described herein. How many times have you found yourself puzzling over the distinction between "affect” and "effect,” "it’s” and "its”? It is not surprising that we maintain such uncertainties, because in any town in America you can find billboards and road signs and ads and newspapers with outright usage errors such as these printed boldly for all to see:

"Man Alright After Crocodile Attack” ("Alright” should be "All Right”)

"This Line Ten Items or Less” ("Less” should be "Fewer”)

"Auction at This Sight: One Week” ("Sight” should be "Site”)

"Violent Storm Effects Thousands” ("Effects” should be "Affects”)

Perhaps there is little need here to preach about the value of the material in this chapter. Quite simply, in formal writing, conventions have been established to aid us in choosing the best term for the circumstances, and you must make it your business to learn the rules regarding the trickiest and most misused terms. You can also dig up style handbooks with recommendations on using tricky terminology within your discipline. For instance, Geowriting: A Guide to Writing, Editing, and Printing in Earth Science, by Robert Bates, gives advice on using such terms as "areal," "lithology," "terrane," and "zone"; medical students can turn to The Aspen Guide to Effective Health Care Correspondence or Writing, Speaking, and Communication Skills for Health Professionals for advice on commonly used contractual terms including "yellow-dog contract" and "apostolate." If you do not mind investing about 40 bucks, you could purchase The Chicago Manual of Style, essentially a bible for book publishers, which answers almost every conceivable style question. Finally, recognize that companies and institutions often develop their own style guides for internal use to address common issues. As an example, my home institution of Penn State publishes an Editorial Style Manual, which addresses local style issues related to such things as campus building names and academic titles. Never hesitate to look up a term for its proper usage if you are uncertain—there is a lot to be said for being correct.


Studying our mistakes can be great fun. As evidence, visit the three sites below. The first is a clever infographic(a visual representation of information), the second is a searchable and comprehensive list, and the third a series of practice quizzes.

33 Commonly Misunderstood Words and Phrases Infographic from GrammarCheck

Common errors in English usage page from Washington State University

"Notorious Confusables" page from Capital Community College


Absorb / Adsorb

I decided to include these terms because they are used so commonly in science writing, and because even though the spell checker and grammar checker do not distinguish between them, the thinking student obviously must do so. "Absorb," which describes a general process, means "to soak in." A more specialized term, "adsorb" describes the surface of a solid or liquid accumulating gas, vapor, or dissolved matter:

This product claims to absorb excess dietary fat.

Once the bacteria adsorb to the aluminosilicate mineral surface, they secrete organic molecules.

Accept / Except

“Accept” is a verb meaning “receive with consent”:

Paraguay did not accept the proposed treaty.

“Except” is sometimes a verb (meaning “exclude”) but it is more commonly used just as the word “but” is used:

We could verify all of the important factors except one.

Accurate / Precise

As your cleverest professors might be fond of saying: "A measurement can be accurate without being precise; a measurement can be precise without being accurate." A simple demonstration of this distinction: We can refer to a wrapped collection of hay as a bale (an accurate measurement) without precisely counting its strands; we can scatter the hay and number the strands (a precise measurement) but not accurately call it a bale. More to the point, we cannot claim that a particular event occurred "precisely 20,000 years ago" or that a particular ore reserve weighs "precisely 1 million tonnes"; by definition, such values are measured coarsely rather than exactly. In relation to the weather, we would properly refer to an accurate (true) forecast, but a precise (exact) temperature.

"Accuracy" denotes how closely a measurement approaches its true value. An accurate measure, then, is one that conforms well to an implied or stated benchmark:

The accuracy of the test results was verified by running 50 of the samples a second time.
This particular scale is accurate to the nearest kilogram.

"Precise" means marked by a high degree of exactitude:

One pint is precisely 568.245 milliliters.

In the simplest terms, accuracy is about conformity to truth or fact, while precision is about exactness.


For an interesting look at the distinctions between "accurate" and "precise," visit these pages:

Accuracy vs. precision demonstrated by rifle shots at a bull’s eye target

"What is the Difference Between Accuracy and Precision?" article by meteorologist Jeff Haby

Affect / Effect

You are not alone if you commonly confuse "affect" and "effect." These two terms were confused in print as early as 1494. The key to correct usage here is to determine whether the term is being used as a noun or verb, and to discern the intended meaning.

"Affect" is usually used as a verb. (I think of the "a" in "affect" standing for "active verb.") To "affect" is to "influence":

The moon affects the tides.

"Effect" is usually used as a noun, and it means "outcome or result":

Inflation is one of the effects of war.
Brackish water has negative effects on certain vegetation.

Finally—to the horror of many—"effect" can also be used as a verb to mean "to bring about," as in the phrase "to effect a change," while "affect" can be used as a noun (usually in psychology) to mean "conscious subjective emotion." Such usages, though infrequent, highlight why you must be particularly careful to choose the correct term for the circumstances, keeping in mind both the intended meaning and the intended part of speech.


Alot / Allot

"Alot" is never correct. It is supposed to be two words—therefore: "a lot." Never write a note to your composition professor at the end of the semester assuring her that you "really learned alot."

"Allot" is to "assign a portion to":

Twenty minutes were allotted to each speaker.

Alright / All right

All wrong. “Alright” is listed in most dictionaries as a common misspelling of what should be two words. In your writing, use “all right”:

Once you hear the high-pitched squeal of the recipient’s fax machine, it is all right to send your document.

Alternate / Alternative

As an adjective, “alternate” means “every other,” and it is usually used in relation to time or objects:

We were asked to focus on alternate lines of the figure. (Every other one.)

“Alternate” is also a verb, meaning “to switch back and forth in turns”:

The wet season alternates with the dry season.

“Alternative” denotes that a choice was made between at least two things:

He chose the polygon method as the best alternative for measuring compressible subsonic flow.

Among / Between

“Among” is appropriate to describe broad relationships when more than two things are involved:

Deforestation is among the world’s environmental problems.
Laboratory experiments identified general relationships among crushing parameters, product size, and coal properties.

“Between” is used to describe specific relationships involving only two things:

A satisfactory agreement was reached between the two countries.

Current usage also permits “between” when each entity is considered individually or severally in relation to the others:

Between them, each client agreed that this solution was best.
Ratios were calculated between each of the four fixed-location sites and two moveable sites.

Amount of / Number of

“Amount of” works with noncountables; “number of” works with countables:

The amount of heat is lowered every three minutes. (“Heat” is noncountable.)
A number of toggle switches were used in the design of this device. (“Toggle switches” are countable.)

And / Or

If you have ever read a lengthy legal document, you have probably encountered an abundant use of "and/or." Nevertheless, in good conscience, I cannot recommend that you use this construction in your writing, because the best style handbooks preach against it and label its use unprofessional. Besides, both "and" and "or" by themselves effectively link ideas that can be considered either individually or collectively. For example, in the second sentence of this paragraph, I used "and" to link "preach against it" and "label its use unprofessional," even though not every style handbook would necessarily do both of these. In other words, "and" can be used to suggest likely combinations of ideas, while "or" can be used to help the reader consider just one idea at a time.

If you feel, as some writers do, that you want to use "and/or" just to be fastidious, instead you should simply word the sentence appropriately to cover the different possibilities:

Instead of: "The new propeller design is expected to reduce cavitation and/or drag."
Write: "The new propeller design is expected to reduce cavitation, or drag, or both."

Area / Region / Section

Use “region” for large geographic units and “area” for smaller ones. Also, keep your usage consistent—the “region” of one paragraph should not become the “area” of another:

There are two compost facilities located in the township area, but five located in nearby regions.

“Section” is best reserved for land sections and cross-sections:

Last year, the research team successfully mapped six sections throughout the northeastern part of the state.

As / Like

These two words are not interchangeable. “As” means “to the same extent, degree, or in the way that”:

The engine responds as it should.

“Like” means “similar to”:

The spadix of a jack-in-the-pulpit looks like a club.


Literally, an "aspect" is "the idea of a thought viewed by the mind"—in other words, a "thing." Thus, its value is highly limited; yet many writers produce vacant sentences such as "This paper will deal with many aspects of my topic," or "The problem has many aspects, and the first aspect is the most important aspect." Such sentences simply are not worth the ink (nor the electrons).

If the word "thing" is unacceptable (and it usually is), then "aspect" should be too. When you are tempted to use this word, consider alternatives that carry more specific meaning, such as "principle," "property," "factor," "dilemma," "reason," "part." Use the exact, most direct term that best conveys the sentence meaning.

Assure / Ensure / Insure

In meaning, these three verbs seem to be nearly interchangeable; all three denote a certainty or guarantee being made. However, in practice, the best writers do distinguish among these terms, as follows:

“Assure” is used to refer to interaction between people:

The editor assured me that my conclusion was incorrect.

“Ensure” is used more broadly to mean “to make certain”:

The company uses monthly financial disclosures to ensure clients of its solvency.

“Insure” is favored in instances of guaranteeing life or property against risk:

To insure your home against floods, you must purchase extra insurance separate from your homeowner’s policy.

Between . . . and / From . . . to

These combinations are not interchangeable, but many writers mistakenly combine “between” with “to” and “from” with “and.” When defining two or more end parameters, “between” is most effectively linked with “and”; “from” most effectively linked with “to” (and more than one “to” may be used in a series of linked terms or phrases):

The Ministry plans to construct between 50 and 60 cyclone shelters.
From May 1997 to May 2000, the city’s population swelled by 400,000 people.
Citizens’ negative responses to Census 2000 ranged from the indifferent to the surly to the downright obscene.

Also, the hyphen between two values (such as “5-10”) functions invisibly as the word “to” or “through,” but it should only be used alone. Therefore, “It moved 5-10 meters” is correct, while “It moved from 5-10 meters” or “It moved between 5-10 meters” is not.

Bi / Semi

These two prefixes create some confusion, because they both mean “occurring twice during.” By convention, a writer can correctly use “bimonthly” and “semimonthly” to mean either “twice a month” or “once every two months.” To avoid confusion, I recommend that you follow these standard usage practices:

biweekly = once every two weeks;
bimonthly = once every two months;
semiweekly = twice a week;
semimonthly = twice a month;
semiannually = twice a year.

If confusion still might result in context, avoid using the prefixes and simply write out the time-frame clearly (“every two weeks”; “twice per month”).

Can / Could

Both “can” and “could” are best used to express factual possibility and scientific likelihood. As opposed to “may” and “might,” which imply permission or human interpretion, “can” and “could” emphasize capacity and likelihood:

Experiments show that polluted water can be purified by slow percolation through rocks and sediments. (“Can” emphasizes the capacity for purification.)
The results suggested that low-energy photons could have been causing the problem. (“Could” suggests scientific likelihood.)

Cite / Site / Sight

“Cite” is a verb meaning “to mention” or “to make reference to”:

She cited the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences in her paper.

“Site” is a noun meaning “location”:

Raleigh is the site of the new mine.

“Sight” is both a noun and a verb that refers to seeing:

We sighted the white smoke plumes before we reached the lime mine. It was quite a sight.

Coarse / Course

"Coarse" means "of low quality, not fine in texture." The most common meanings for "course" are "a curriculum unit" or "the direction of continuing movement":

Most of the rock we encountered was coarse sandstone.

A graduate is one who has successfully completed a course of study.

Compared to / Compared with

Use "compared to" to point out similarities between things:

RAM can be compared to ROM in that both involve memory storage.

Use "compared with" when noting both similarities and differences:

By way of Bernoulli's principle, the mechanics and function of a dragonfly's wings can be compared with those of a dolphin's fins.

For further discussion of usage issues related to making comparisons, see Grammar Girl's handy "Between," "Compared to," and "Compared with" discussion.

Complement / Compliment

One could argue that most writers confuse these terms as an error of spelling rather than usage—all the more reason to distinguish between them carefully and avoid an embarrassing, sloppy habit. The distinction is simple: "complement" (note the "e" in the middle) means "something that completes"; "compliment" (note the "i" in the middle) means "to express praise" or "thanks to":

Jupiter Scientific Publishing Company recently published The Bible According to Einstein: a Scientific Complement to the Holy Bible for the Third Millennium.

The compliments provided in the "Acknowledgments" section of this manual are provided compliments of the author.

Spelling "complement" correctly is especially important in fields such as biochemistry, where "complement components" and "complement pathways" are cited frequently.


For a nifty and extensive look at how to use "complement" vs "compliment," visit this website:

How to use "complement," at grammarlyblog


Compose / Constitute / Include

To "compose" or "constitute" is "to form" or "to make up":

Smog is composed of smoke and fog.

Three parts constitute the whole.

"Include" indicates a selective, incomplete listing of constituents, implying the presence of other constituents as well:

The formation includes limestone and shale. (Other constituents are implied.)


Literally, "to comprise" is "to include" or "contain." The earth comprises rocks (it includes them), but rocks do not comprise the earth (they do not include it). Therefore:

The Union comprises 50 states.

The whole comprises the parts, but not vice versa.

Strict writers say that using "comprise" in the passive ("One foot is comprised of 12 inches") is unacceptable; instead, use "is composed of" or "is made up of."

Continual / Continuous

"Continual" describes intermittent activity; "continuous" denotes unceasing, uninterrupted activity. Meals are continual; time is continuous:

The Vesuvius volcano in Italy has erupted continually over the past century.

Seismometers, which constantly detect and record ground movement, are designed to receive seismic impulses continuously.

Different than / Different from

Established usage dictates that “different than” is not correct; good writers use “different from”:

In relation to its accessibility, a private web client is different from a public web client.

Due to the fact that / The reason is because

These two phrases are both too wordy and too colloquial for formal writing. They also fail to express a simple causal relationship with efficiency. Handily, these phrases can usually be replaced by the word "because":

Instead of: "The experiment was halted due to the fact that funding was withdrawn."

Write: "The experiment was halted because funding was withdrawn."

e.g. / i.e. / et al.

It is important to use these abbreviations literally and to punctuate them correctly. Many writers confuse "e.g." and "i.e.," and many type "et al." improperly or do not properly recognize what words it represents.

The abbreviation "e.g." is from the Latin exempli gratia and means, literally, "for example." Periods come after each letter and a comma normally follows unless the example is a single word and no pause is natural:

Any facial response (e.g., a surprised blink of both eyes) was recorded.

The abbreviation "i.e." is from the Latin id est, meaning "that is." Loosely, "i.e." is used to mean "therefore" or "in other words." Periods come after each letter and a comma normally follows, depending on whether the wording following the abbreviation dictates a natural pause:

In every case Angle 1 was greater than Angle 2—i.e., every viewer perceived a circle.

The phrase "et al."—from the Latin et alii, which literally means "and others"—must always be typed with a space between the two words and with a period after the "l" (since the "al." is an abbreviation). A comma does not follow the abbreviation unless the sentence’s grammar requires it. Some journals italicize the phrase because it comes from the Latin, but most do not.

Schweiger et al. applied the neural network method.

Never begin a sentence with any of these three abbreviations; if you want to begin a sentence with "for example" or "therefore," always write the words out.


For an entertaining look at how "et al." is used, visit this site:

Game of Thrones explains "et al." at grammarlyblog



This abbreviation means, literally, “and other things.” Many professors urge against using etc. in formal writing because it is, by definition, nonspecific, but it can be used effectively when you have responsibly chosen representative constituents in order to avoid a cumbersome list:

All prime numbers between 1 and 101 (2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc.) were transmitted by the pulsing signal in the movie Contact.

Tacking on “etc.” at the end of a list introduced by “for example” or “such as” is sloppy, because “for example” suggests that you have already carefully selected and presented the key constituents, which the “etc.” then undermines. Good alternatives to “etc.” are “for example,” or “such as” followed by just a few concrete representative examples that best demonstrate your point.

Fact / Factor

Use “fact” only in reference to matters capable of being proven; do not use it in matters of subjective judgment:

It is a fact that the output of many oil wells is a mixture of both oil and salt water.

Use “factor” literally to describe a relationship in which one thing is an actual agent for another thing:

Porosity and permeability are factors in the level of groundwater pollution.

Depending on the context, generally acceptable synonyms for factor are “element,” “ingredient,” “component,” and “constituent.”

Farther / Further

"Farther" is used literally to describe matters of measurable distance (I think of the imbedded word "far," suggesting distance); "further" is more figurative and is used for broader general comparison:

Long Island is farther away from Cape Charles than Cape May.

Antarctica must be explored further.

She is further along in her schooling than I.


For more on this particular usage challenge, visit this site:

"Farther" vs "Further," at grammarlyblog


Few / Less

Both these words are adjectives, but "few" is usually used to describe countable nouns while "less" is used to describe noncountable nouns. Countable nouns are often physical whereas noncountable ones are often abstract or nonphysical:

The industrial trend is in the direction of more machines and fewer people. ("People" are countable.)

Less destruction was caused by the earthquake than one would have expected. ("Destruction" is noncountable.)

If you memorize the phrase "few units = less quantity," you will remember the distinction—"few" is for countables occurring in units, while "less" is for noncountables occurring in quantity.

As often happens in English, exceptions do arise. Sentences involving periods of time, sums of money, or specific measurements usually require "less":

The sonde was lowered less than 50 feet.

Excavation took less than two weeks.

Former / Latter

These two words, sometimes used in combination, are often misused in technical writing. "Former" refers back to the first of two things mentioned; "latter" refers back to the second of two things mentioned:

The chief spices used in this dish are coriander and cumin, the former being less pungent.

The two diseases studied were Hodgkin’s disease and leukemia, with the latter resulting in more fatalities this year.

Last year’s tornadoes in Tracy, Minnesota, and Kansas City, Kansas—the former measuring F4 and the latter F5—were the two most destructive tornadoes of the summer.

When more than two members of a list are involved, or when the sentence’s context does not clearly indicate an antecedent (a word or phrase being referred back to), then strictly avoid using "former" and "latter."

Imply / Infer

These two words are too often used interchangeably, but they are completely different in meaning. "Imply" means to suggest or to indicate; "infer" involves a person actively applying deduction:

Water droplets accumulating on the outside of a cold glass of water can imply a hot humid day.

We can infer that Stonehenge was an early calendar.

Another way to look at it: We can substitute "suggest" for "imply" and "reason" for "infer," still retaining the correct meaning.

In terms of

This phrase is virtually meaningless, but we often hear it on the news and in bloated speeches. "In terms of" is really just a wordy and sloppy transition—usually an unoriginal disguise for a simple preposition, such as "in," or a more elegant phrasing, such as "in relation to." "In terms of the cost, it is high," is easily revised to "Its cost is high." Do not use "in terms of," or do so trembling.


“Irregardless” is just wrong—an invented word. Use “regardless”:

The department decided to purchase the geophone regardless of the cost.

It's / Its

These two words probably represent the most common usage problem in papers, but the distinction between the words is painfully simple. "It’s" always means "it is." "Its" never does. At first glance, there seems to be an inherent inconsistency, because we usually use apostrophes to indicate possession, but certain words, for instance "its," "hers," and "yours," automatically show possession and need no apostrophes. When you write "it’s" be certain that you mean two words rather than one. Read it to yourself aloud if you have to, reading every "it’s" as "it is."

In war, a country must protect its borders.

It is understood that part of the area’s soil is of glacial origin.

Lay / Lie

"Lay" (present tense) implies an agent acting on something, and it means "to put, place, or prepare." Its other forms are "laying," "laid" (past tense), and "laid" (with "has," "have," or "had," usually implying a past event that continues into the present):

I lay the nugget in the empty pan. (Present tense—the nugget was put there by an agent.)

They were laid there centuries ago. (Past tense—they were placed by an agent.)

"Lie" (present tense) means "to recline" or "to be situated," and its other forms are "lying," "lay" (past tense), and "lain" (with "has," "have," or "had," usually implying a past event that continues into the present):

This tomb has lain undisturbed for thousands of years. (Used with the helper "has"—it has been situated.)

During field camp in the Connecticut Valley last year, he lay down next to an eight-foot black rat snake. (Past tense—he reclined, albeit briefly, to be sure.)

Lead / Led

“Lead” is a present tense verb meaning “to guide” or “to direct”. “Led” is the past tense of the same verb, and it must not be spelled with an “a”:

She led a discussion on how best to lead the group.

May / Might

"May" expresses possibility, permission, or human interpretation. "Might" is used in the same way, but implies possibility over permission:

This outcrop may be studied. (Implies that permission has been given.)

This outcrop might be studied. (Implies that the possibility merely exists.)

Many writers puzzle between "may" and "can," and I always advise them to elect "may" when human permission or human interpretation (especially speculation) is involved, and "can" when the point is more factual or proven:

The calculated R2 value of 0.68 demonstrates that a relationship may exist between silica concentration and the presence of iron. (Human speculation is involved.)

Tests show that dust particles produced by breakage can carry elementary electrostatic charges. (The statement is more factual and proven than interpretive.)

One / You

It is a shame that many high school teachers continue to penalize students for each occurrence of "one" or "you" in an essay. You certainly are permitted to use these words in writing, but you must do so sparingly, appropriately, and for the reader’s sake. "You" and "your" are somewhat informal but are nevertheless directed explicitly at the reader; thus they are especially appropriate for memos, letters, advice, or a set of instructions designed to apply to the reader in the act of reading:

I am responding to the memo you wrote to me on March 20.

Your first task is to remove the nozzle.

In more formal, technical documents, rely on the word "one" to refer to people generally, ideally as you present them as potential thinkers or doers:

One can assume that there is a threshold axis above which the eyes simply cannot detect the difference between a circle and an ellipse.

Finally, be careful not to switch back and forth arbitrarily between "you" and "one"; be consistent and use your common sense.


Literally, "per" means "for every" or "according to":

It costs 30 cents per gallon.

Per your instructions, I completed the lab.

The phrase "as per" is incorrect—a redundancy.

Percent / Percentage

These two terms are not interchangeable. “Percent” means “per hundred” and can either be written out or expressed by the symbol %. Ideally, “percent” is always associated with a specific number:

The maximum error that can be introduced by over-mixing is 10%.

“Percentage” is used to refer to a general relationship rather than a specific measure:

A large percentage of the people voted, but only 20 percent of the votes counted.

In published literature, many writers use “percent” as an adjective (“percent quartz”) for economy, especially in figures and tables. If this is done, the same phrasing should be used consistently to refer to the same thing.

Perfect / Unique

In Geowriting: A Guide to Writing, Editing, and Printing in Earth Science, Robert Bates amusingly notes that "unique, like pregnant and dead, is an absolute: it cannot be more or less." "Unique" means "being the only one of its kind"; "perfect" means "without flaw." Professors reading of "a unique insight" or "a perfect software package" could correctly challenge these absolutes—i.e., the insight would certainly parallel others, and the software package could certainly be improved. By definition, uniqueness and perfection are so rare in scientific contexts that the concepts are best avoided in formal writing. And if you dare to refer to something as "perfectly unique," keep an aspirin handy for your professor.

Perspective / Prospective

These two terms are frequently confused, but their meanings are highly different from each other. The most common use of "perspective" is to mean "point of view":

Pickett explained the problem of poverty from a socialist perspective.

"Prospective" means "expected or likely to happen":

The National Agricultural Statistics Service publishes data projecting the prospective plantings for crops each year in the United States.

The university requires prospective students to apply by February 1.

Pretty / Quite / Rather / Very

In technical writing, avoid the words “pretty,” “quite,” “rather,” and “very” as adjectives. Some writers mistakenly use these words to create emphasis or lend the appearance of exactitude, but this backfires—“the pebble is round” is clearer than “the pebble is quite round.” By definition, these words are nonspecific, and many professors are highly sensitive to their use. Other terms such as “virtually,” “highly,” “essentially,” or “relatively,” may work in their place, but be certain to use these terms literally and sparingly. “Rather” as a comparative word is, of course, valid in an “a rather than b” construction.

Principal / Principle

These two terms are often confused, but the fact is they have no meanings in common. “Principal” means “first, primary, or main”:

The principal feldspar is orthoclase.

“Principle” implies an abstraction, and it means “a doctrine,” “a truth”:

MAN01 teaches basic management principles.

“Principal,” of course, also denotes the head of a school, and in some fields, “principal” has specialized meaning: in law, a principal empowers another to act as his or her representative; in finance, the principal is the capital of a financial holding as distinguished from the interest.

Precede / Proceed / Subsequent

Various forms of "precede" and "subsequent" are often confused with each other, but the two terms are opposites. To "precede" is "to come before"; "subsequent" means "following in time":

Record albums preceded compact discs.

Decades can be devoted to the discovery and subsequent clinical development of a single drug.

"Precede" is also sometimes confused with "proceed," which means to go forward:

When stuck on a particular exam question, proceed to the next question, then return to the difficult question if time allows.

Respective / Respectively

“Respective” is an adjective, usually meaning “particular”:

On a References page, article titles appear after their respective authors.

“Respectively” means “in the order mentioned,” and is usually preceded by a comma:

Aluminum and iron are evident in about 8 and 5 percent, respectively, of the earth’s crust.

That / Which

The rules governing these two words are a bit flexible, but "which" is too often used where "that" should be. "That" is preferable when you are limiting or restricting a noun:

A law that does not have public support cannot be enforced. ("A law that" helps to limit the meaning to just one kind of law.)

The air dry loss moisture factor appears to control the amount of airborne respirable dust that is liberated from the product. ("Airborne respirable dust that" restricts the dust just to that liberated from the product.)

The following line from a nursery rhyme is instructive here, because all of the "thats" are correct:

This is the rat that ate the cat that lived in the house that Jack built.

In contrast, "which" introduces a phrase that provides descriptive yet incidental information, and "which" often requires commas on one or both ends of the phrase it introduces:

The law, which was enacted in 1897, was soon challenged by the courts.

Approximately 71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by a worldwide body of sea water, which is interconnected.

The trawl consists of five net bags in a row which are collected on board one at a time as they become filled with oil.

In short, you use "that" to complete a noun and "which" simply to describe a noun.


Want more on :"that" vs "which"? Check out these entertaining websites:

"Which vs That" article from the

James Thurber's advice on why we should "Never monkey with ‘Which’"

Try and / Try to

"Try and" is often used incorrectly to introduce a verb that must be linked with "to." "Try to" is the correct choice:

They will try to perform a new survey.

Will / Would

"Will" suggests strong probability or future likelihood. "Would" implies the same, but is typically used when the probability is more hypothetical.

Eventually these sediments will be deposited on a sea floor. ("Will" expresses strong probability and future likelihood.)

At still higher temperatures, the radiation would probably become stronger. ("Would" suggests hypothetical probability.)

Be especially careful not to overuse "will" and "would," in particular when affirming facts. Some writers habitually compose sentences such as "A comparison of MWD logs and wire line logs would be difficult because they will operate in different environments." In a revised version of this sentence, the writer should eliminate "will" and "would," simply affirming the fact that she knows to be true: "A comparison of MWD logs and wire line logs is difficult because they operate in different environments."