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Word problems

If two trains are traveling in opposite directions between Dallas and Detroit, one averaging 80 mph and the other 65 mph, and the train from Dallas departs at 6:00 a.m. Monday, two hours before the other train leaves Detroit, where and when will they pass each other?

Well, not that kind of word problem. . . .  Below is a list of common troubles in word usage, some of the problems being matters of spelling or punctuation, some being matters of style, and some being simply incorrect diction. "Word problems" are indicated on your graded assignments as "WP"; also see WPD and WPP.


accept vs. except: Accept is a verb meaning "receive" or "take something willingly," as in "Bart Simpson accepted his Oscar nomination by thumbing his nose at the cameras."  Except is most often a preposition meaning "other than," "with the exclusion of," as in "All of the Oscar nominees except Bart Simpson accepted the honor of being nominated with grace."

One way to remember the difference between the two is to associate the "a" in "accept," the verb, with the "a" in "action," which is what most verbs indicate, some type of action: A-accept-action-verb.  If the word you want describes the action of "receiving" or "taking willingly," use accept, not except.  Except is occasionally a verb also, meaning "leave out," or "exclude," but far more often except is the preposition meaning "other than." Accept is always a verb, it is always an action.

affect vs. effect: In non-technical, non-jargon usage, affect is always a verb, most often meaning to "influence, or have an impact upon" as in "Drinking alcohol affects a person's judgment."  Effect can be a verb meaning "bring about or make happen," as in "The Republican congress effected many new important tax reforms."  But effect is used most often as a noun, meaning "result," "influence," or "impact," as in "The massive 'safe sex' campaign has had some effect on the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, but not the dramatic effect that we expected."

As with "accept" and "except," one way to remember the difference between the two is to associate the "a" in affect, the verb, with the "a" in "action," which is what most verbs indicate, an action: A-affect-action-verb. If the word you want is a noun, something that might be counted numerically (side effects, e.g.), use effect, not affect.

a lot is two words; it's also vague and overused: Avoid saying "a lot" in formal writing.  If you mean "much," say "much"; if you mean "many," say "many"; if you mean "a great deal," say "a great deal" anytime you feel the urge to write "a lot."  There's always a better word or expression, one that's more precise and less trite than a lot.

or though, vs. however:
Avoid using the words although and though followed by a comma to provide transition at the beginning of a clause or sentence when you mean however, as in "At times I like country music. Although, it can get old if I listen to it too much."  Say instead, "At times I like country music. However, it can get old if I listen to it too much."

because: see reason . . . is because below.

being that: be careful to avoid in formal writing: Being that is a colloquial expression sometimes used incorrectly in place of "because" or "since": if you mean "because or since," never use "being that" in formal writing. Instead of "Being that I was late to class, I missed the reading quiz," say "Because [or since] I was late, I missed the quiz."

cannot is usually one word: Cannot is almost always one word.  If you can substitute "can't," cannot is your word.  As in "Brooke cannot stand people who smoke."  Note: this "can't" test is only a test—as GR1 explains, contractions are inappropriate in formal writing.

Sometimes—though rarely"can not" should be two words, when you want to add special emphasis to the negative possibility of the action, as in "You can do your reading, or you can not do ityou're the one who reaps what you sow."

conscience vs. conscious: Conscience is a noun meaning an inherent moral sense of right and wrong: "Raskolnikov's conscience eventually compels him to confess his crime and seek punishment."  Conscious is an adjective meaning "aware" (in different senses): "Marty must not be conscious of how foul his breath smells," "Richard is especially self-conscious when he tries to dance," and "I am never fully conscious until I have had that first cup of coffee in the morning."

continual(ly) vs. continuous(ly): Continual means repeated, ongoing, over and over again; continuous means literally without pause, at every single moment, as in "The moon has been circling the earth continuously for billions of years." You might say "Jamie is continually late with her assignments" (you would be incorrect in saying "Jamie is continuously late with her assignments"). Or you might say "On the hottest days of summer my ancient air conditioning unit runs continuously whenever the temperature is above 95 degrees—without shutting down or pausing even for a single minute."

different(ly) from vs. different(ly) than: different from and different than are not interchangeable: 99.5% of the time, different from is preferable, as in "Mark's idea of studying is different from Lacy's.  "From" is a preposition, "than" is used with comparatives such as "Mark is taller than Lacy."  Say different from or differently from, and avoid different than and differently than.

due to vs. because of: Avoid the officious-sounding expression due to in formal writing if you mean because of.  Instead of saying, "The game was canceled due to rain," say "The game was canceled because of rain."  If because of makes sense in your sentence, use this expression rather than due to.

everyday vs. every day: As one word, everyday is an adjective meaning "daily," "routine," or "ordinary," as in "Jogging is an everyday habit for some people."  As two words, every day is an adverbial phrase describing the daily frequency of an action, as in "Some people jog every day."  In actual usage, every day is probably twenty times more common than everyday. Use everyday only if you are modifying an adjacent noun, the work of an adjective; otherwise say every day.

"it talks about": "it" can't speak! Avoid the expression, "it talks about" when referring to written works.  It is incorrect to say that "In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, it talks about the system of punishment camps established and abused in the Soviet Union."  Literally, "it" (Solzhenitsyn's book) can't speak: say instead that Solzhenitsyn is the one speaking.  Also, "talks about" can be too vaguemore precise words such as "discusses," "explores," "examines," etc. are usually preferable.

its vs. it's: It's is always a contraction for "it is," and its always indicates possession, as in "It's (it is) disgraceful when a dog is abused by its owner."  You should have no trouble with these words: since contractions are inappropriate in formal writing, there is never any instance when you should say it's in your formal work.

lifestyles is one word.

like vs. such as: Avoid using the word "like" when you mean "such as."  Instead of saying, "Jilly enjoys outdoor activities like biking and camping," say "Jilly enjoys outdoor activities such as biking and camping."

like vs. as, as if, or as though: As a rule, like should not be used to introduce a clause.  Technically, "He don't love you like I love you" is incorrect; "He [doesn't] love you as I do" is correct.  Instead of saying, "She looks like she is going to be sick," say, "She looks as if she is going to be sick" or "She looks as though she is going to be sick." Unless you mean "has affection for," "like" is a great word to avoid altogether.

loose vs. lose: Loose is most often an adjective meaning "not tight," as in "Since Alexandra has lost weight, her clothes are all loose on her."  Lose is a verb usually meaning "not to have in possession anymore," as in "Since Alexandra is behind on her payments, she may lose her car."

"man" and "mankind": sexist language! In the past it was acceptable to say "man" or "mankind" when referring to the human species generally, without specific limitation to the male sex.  Some now consider these terms offensive because on a literal level they exclude women.  Instead of saying, "Man has come a long way since biblical times," say "Humanity has come a long way since biblical times" or "Human beings have come a long way since biblical times."  Instead of "mankind," say "humankind."

quote vs. passage: It is mildly awkward to refer to a quotation as a quote in your writing.  Avoid phrases such as "the quote shows" and "in the quote from the play," etc. If you can substitute the word passage for quote, do so.

reason . . . is because: The "reason . . . is because" construction is faulty in both logic and grammar. Literally, the sentence "The reason I am unhappy is because the Braves lost in the postseason again" suggests that the cause itself of the unhappiness is caused by the Braves losing, which is either a redundancy or a logical fallacy. Often the problem can be alleviated by dropping "the reason," as in "I am unhappy because the Braves lost." Many times, too, the word "because" can be replaced with the relative pronoun "that," as in "The reason I am unhappy is that the Braves choked in the postseason again."

than vs. then: Than is always used in comparison, as in "Bill is taller than Bobby.Then has many uses, but the most common are a) to indicate sequence, as in "First x occurred, and then y"; b) meaning "at that time," as in "I wasn't ready to settle down and get married then"; and c) meaning "in that case," as in "If the Braves don't win the World Series, then maybe the Cubs will."  The most common problem is misspelling than as then: remember that than is used only in comparisons.

that vs. who: In formal writing, you should avoid the relative pronoun that when referring to persons, as in "Shelly is the girl that sold me this wig."  If you are referring to a person or persons and you can substitute who for that, you should: "Shelly is the girl who sold me this wig."

there vs. their: There often indicates a specific location or direction; their indicates possession.

When there indicates locationyou can point there, you can distinguish between here and thereit usually answers the question "where?" Note that where and there, which both involve location, are spelled --ere: where & there.

though, : see although, or though, vs. however above.

to vs. too: To is most often a preposition; too is always an adverb.

Among its many other uses, to often indicates direction, as in "Bill was very intoxicated, so we took him to his room and put him in his bed."  To also indicates the infinitive form of a verb, as in, "Bill was too inebriated to walk, so we had to carry him."

Too has two meanings: 1) also, in addition; and 2) excessively, more than enough.  For example, "Marcia, too [also], was too [more than enough] intoxicated to walk.  Her roommate had to put her to bed, too [also]."

Prepositions such as to are usually "smaller" words than adverbs, literally and in terms of grammarprepositions are a kind of "connecting word": think of other common prepositions that are also "small" words of only two letters: "of," "at," "in," "on" and "by," for instance.  Adverbs such as too are more important to specific meaning within a sentencethey indicate such matters as how an action is done, or when, or how often. It makes a certain kind of sense that the more important "too," the adverb, is the longer word.  If you're unsure whether to use to or too, ask yourself whether the word is a preposition indicating direction ("to the house") or an adverb meaning also ("I, too, was intoxicated.") or excessively, more than enough ("I was too intoxicated to walk.").

try and [verb]: Sometimes in casual speech people mistakenly say "try and" when they mean "try to."  It is faulty to say that "We all try and help our neighbors in times of crisis."  In grammatically correct writing, "and" cannot replace the "to" in the infinitive verb form.  Write instead, "We all try to help our neighbors in times of crisis."

woman vs. women: Woman is singular, women is plural.  The distinction seems obvious, but confusion between woman and women is surprisingly common.  If you're in doubt, note that the difference between woman and women is exactly the same as that between man and men: man is singular, woman is singular; men is plural, women is plural.

yet, as transition: Avoid the awkward transition of yet followed directly by a comma to begin a sentence or clause, as in "When Hercule Poirot announces that Mr. Fidley-Smythe is the murderer the reader is stunned.  Yet, the greatest surprise is that Miss Smedley-Crompton is his accomplice."  In most cases, the transition will be more effective if you simply drop the comma after the yet, as in "When Hercule Poirot identifies Fidley-Smythe as the murderer the reader is stunned.  Yet the greatest surprise in the novel is that Miss Smedley-Crompton has loved Greg Maddux from afar ever since his 1991 season with the Chicago Cubs, and she wanted Lord Astonbury dead only because he refused to buy a satellite package that carried Maddux's games."  Jolly well unexpected indeed!

("D" for "see a Dictionary"):
I use the designation "WPD" in marking your written work to indicate words that are misused rather seriously, words that very clearly do not mean what you intend them to mean. Consult a dictionary for any words marked with "WPD" in your papers.

For example: I would note "WPD" for the word "captivated" in the following sentence: "The soldiers captivated Saddam Hussein when they discovered him hiding in an underground shelter." "Captivate" means "charm" or "enthrall": the writer here obviously meant "captured," not "captivated."

Another example: "Milton's Paradise Lost is the longest novel <WPD> I have ever read": Paradise Lost is a poem, not a novel.

I also use "WPD" to indicate words that do not exist, as in "The doctors gave Saddam a relaxative to relieve his bowels so that he wouldn't be so full of [excrement]." There is no word "relaxative": the writer here clearly intended "laxative."

("P" for "be more Precise"):
The notation "WPP" indicates words that are not necessarily misused, but that could or should be more concretely precise so that your reader understands your point more clearly or exactly.

For example: The word "workers" is imprecise in the following sentence: "Willy Loman is one of Howard's workers." More precise would be, "Willy Loman is one of Howard's employees," or better yet, "Willy Loman is one of Howard's traveling salesmen."

Updated 9/5/15