Speaking English and Using the Correct Word

english-department-welcomeAre Americans becoming lazier with each passing generation when it comes to understanding the correct context of words and when they should (or should not) be used?

Does the language from the “olden days” sound pretentious in today’s relaxed society (such as “whom” vs “who”?)  To this day, I continue to say “To whom it may concern…” when starting a letter and no particular person is addressed.

Between my personal and professional life, it is safe to say I read quite a bit and talk to a lot of people. Lately I’ve noticed an increase in the improper use of English words as many are very close in pronunciation and/or spelling, yet have different meanings.

What’s really astonishing is some of the people who flub on the word they have elected to use are regarded as highly educated people or journalists who have studied English in-depth for their career.

On the other hand, I realize a number of “everyday Joes” who would say “English” was not there they’re their best subject; but dude…you speak it, learn how to use it properly.

In an effort to help those of us who sometimes have difficulty understanding the difference of those crazy English words, I have listed the more irritating ones below along with their meaning or how they should be used in a sentence.  I hope this helps clarifies some of those confusing and pesky English word choices for you.

Adverse or Averse

Adverse means harmful or unfavorable.  Averse means dislike or opposition.

Affect or Effect

Affect means to influence. Effect means to carry out or accomplish something.

Arbitrator or Mediator

Arbitrate appears in many contracts. An arbitrator is like a judge; he/she hears evidence, reviews documents, etc, and then makes a decision. A mediator does not make decisions but tries to help two opposing parties work out their differences and reach a compromise or settlement.

Can vs. May

Can is used to indicate what is possible. May is used to indicate what is permissible.

Compliment vs. Complement

Compliment is to say something nice. Complement is to add to, enhance, improve, complete or bring close to perfection.

Discreet or Discrete

Discreet means careful, cautious, showing good judgment. Discrete means individual, separate or distinct.

Elicit or Illicit

Elicit means to draw out or coax.  Illicit means illegal or unlawful.

Farther or Further

Farther involves a physical distance. Further involves a figurative distance.

Imply vs. Infer

A speaker or writer implies while the listener or reader infers.

Insure or Ensure

Insure refers to insurance and Ensure means to make sure.

Precede or Proceed

Precede means to come before. Proceed means to begin or continue.

Principle or Principal

principle is a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.  Principal means primary or of first importance.

They’re or Their

They’re is the contraction for “they are.”  The apostrophe does not own anything. We’re going to their house, and I sure hope they’re home.

You’re and Your

You’re is the contraction for you are. Your means you own it; the apostrophe in you’re does not own anything.

I hope  you have a gr8 day!

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45 Responses to Speaking English and Using the Correct Word

  1. Shalin says:

    Oh, you are so right. Especially the compliment vis-a-vis complement and discrete vis-a-vis discreet. I totally assevarate your call for improper use of English despite the fact that English is not native or indigenous language where I live.

  2. I’m with you can’t beat good old fashioned grammar and spelling.

  3. I hear awful mistakes in spoken English too. Even certain presenters on television, who really should be articulate, regularly say ‘We was’ rather than ‘We were’. A bugbear of mine is ‘Can you learn me how to do that?’ No. I can teach you, but you’ll be doing the learning. Teachers teach. There’s a hefty clue in the word ‘teacher’!
    I’ll get off my soap box now.

    • Mendy Kelley says:

      Hi Alison, unfortunately grammatical errors are all too common and it seems to have infiltrated all levels of society. It makes my skin crawl and my eyes roll when I hear someone say “we was.” Arrg!

      Thank you for sharing and please feel free to comment on any of my posts.

  4. Reblogged this on paulandpaulasbooks and commented:
    With plugin, and text-speak, our language skills are deteriorating into short-speak. While American English ‘cleaned’ out some of the ‘extra’ vowels, someone along the way decided was an unnecessary cumbersome usage, we are taking it back to infancy level, going from stilted to blurbistic babbling.

  5. lockardyoung says:

    It bugs me when I see mistakes in everyday grammar, but I make them myself at times if I’m in a hurry. I’ve learned the hard way that correcting someone on the internet may lead to labels like Grammar Nazi, or worse. I predicted 15 years ago that, in the future, the written word (at the time I meant cursive) would be lost completely, and would only be seen in Library’s, if THEY still existed. I see a Facebook share button, so I will. Thanks for the great article.

    • Mendy Kelley says:

      Cursive, what’s cursive? I made sure all my children knew how to write in cursive as I too saw the decline in the interest to teach the art/skill. What a shame.

      Thanks for sharing your comments and this post.

  6. elainecanham says:

    The trouble is that English is such a fluid language, and over the years meanings change. In, say, E Nesbit’s books at the turn of the 19th century, fabulous meant gorgeously arrayed, now it just means, great or wonderful, which in themselves have changed in meaning…Still, I’m all for clarity, and there is so little of it about these days.

    • Mendy Kelley says:

      Hi Elainecanham, the first thought I had after reading your post was “true dat.” Why oh why did that pop in my mind? Because we hear it so much, it’s starting to infiltrate our thoughts and speech. Scary, very scary.

      Thanks for contributing to the post. I have to agree with you that the English language is extremely fluid and ever changing; and we have more than one word to express our thought. Life spent speaking English can be very confusing at times. I know this personally as English was not my best subject in school and I dreaded sitting through class.

      Thanks for sharing.

  7. Ali Isaac says:

    Important to know how to write correctly so you can properly break all the rules lol!!!

  8. Morgan says:

    I entirely agree, what we have done to the English Language is a travesty!

  9. “Pouring” mistakenly used for “poring.” Ack.

  10. I’m very much aware of all the problems mentioned above, and I make every attempt to use them correctly in my writing. One of my pet peeves is the almost universal use of incorrect pronoun cases, e.g. He gave it to Mary and I. However, in fighting the war for correct speech, my mother (an English teacher) told the story of the student who told her something like this: “Well, my father and my grandfather always say ‘ain’t’ so that’s what I’m going to say.” And my mother would always say back, “Well, go ahead if you must, but it’s still wrong!”

    • Mendy Kelley says:

      Thanks Lorinda for sharing. When I am unsure of how to structure a sentence when referring to myself and another person, I fall back on: how would I say the sentence without mentioning the other person?

      For example: Thank you for inviting “me” to your home (not thank you for inviting “I” into your home), so the correct way to inject another person into the phrase would be: “Thank you for inviting Jack and me into your home (not Jack and I).”

      (Lordy, I hope that is correct, if not I was taught incorrectly in school.)

  11. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Lazy English, American style…

  12. Jack Eason says:

    Great article Mendy.
    You can add one more to your list if you don’t mind. I refer to a word that nearly all Americans use, seeing nothing wrong with it – gotten!!! The word is got, as in he/she got. Or even get come to that. There is no such word as gotten despite your countrymen and women believing it to be so. As an Englishman I cringe each time I hear or see it being used…

    • Mendy Kelley says:

      Hi Jack, I couldn’t agree with you more. There are many words that fall into the “non-existent” category, yet somehow find a way into our vocabulary. We Americans have become so very lazy with our “English” and it has become an ugly reflection on us globally. Thanks for sharing Jack. 🙂

  13. One of the worst in terms of a rapid and significant growth of misuse is the confusion between led and lead. In recent years I’ve seen this problem migrate from computer posting to full-blown respectably published newspaper articles.

    – MJM

    • Mendy Kelley says:

      Hi MJM, I too have seen spelling and grammatical errors in newspaper articles. That would be one field I thought would have several backup proofing (spelling and sentence structure) systems in place; guess not. Thanks for sharing.

      • Mendy, one would also think that full articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals would be well-proofed to avoid word mix-ups. Here’s a link to a massive meta-analysis of second hand smoke and heart attacks that was published in 2009. Check out the first sentence of the Abstract (which is all that most people ever read in a study):


        If you don’t see the mistake, read it again.

        MJM, who has had SOOOooooo much fun pointing out that error over the last few years.

  14. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Meet New (to me) Authors Blog and commented:
    My personal peeve is the word ‘less’ being used instead of ‘fewer’ even by BBC TV Presenters, most of who have University Degrees in English! 😀

  15. This is an excellent post. It seems really sad that people don’t try to take the time to find out whether or not the words they write mean what they want them to say.

    You’re totally right… if you use it, use it properly

    • Mendy Kelley says:

      I by no means am an English major, however I am so very tired of hearing “ustacould” or “we was” in people’s vocabulary. Thanks for your comments Mathew.

  16. Daniel says:

    I think this is a global problem, not just American…

  17. Reblogged this on cicampbellblog and commented:
    Posts like this are such great reminders of the importance of choosing the correct word if we want to convey the correct meaning to our readers.
    Is there one that drives you crazy? Or one you stumble over every time in your own writing?
    Do you wonder or wander? To you practice or practise? It’s always worth having a dictionary to hand when you’re editing.

  18. Another one I’ve noticed a lot recently is wonder and wander.

  19. The other common error is the use of to, too and two. 🙂

  20. T. D. Davis says:

    The answer to your opening question is YES, unfortunately. It makes me crazy sometimes to read my own children’s English papers, and I’m fairly certain their papers are better than most, simply because they’ve grown up in a home with an English major as a mother! Keep fighting the good fight. 🙂

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