Even the best writers can get tripped up sometimes by the nuances and intricacies of the English language. That’s particularly true when it comes to using certain words and phrases correctly. You know the ones we’re talking about: Do you pay someone a compliment or a complement? When do you use raise versus rise? And surely there’s a difference between farther and further, but what exactly is it?

Here at Acrolinx we thought we could help by sharing a list that we’ve been compiling of the so-called problem words that people often get wrong, along with some examples of how to use them properly. The list that follows is far from complete (this is just part 1 of a bigger collection of problem words that we’ll publish over time), but it starts us off with some of the peskiest words that perhaps trip people up from time to time. These include:

Affect and Effect

Affect is a verb meaning to have an influence on:

Example: Inflation affects the buying power of the dollar.

Effect used as a noun means a result, i.e., something brought about or caused:

Example: The effect of inflation on buying power is substantial.

Note: In some instances, effect can be used as a verb meaning to bring about or cause. 


Among and Between

Between is used when discussing two subjects:

Example: The difference between cats and dogs.

Among is used when discussing three or more objects:

Example: The donation was distributed among a hospital, a school, and a local charity.

Assure, Ensure and Insure

Assure means to give confidence.

Example: Let me assure you that we have a good solution to your problem.

Ensure means to make certain.

Example: What can you do to ensure that we arrive on time?

Insure means to protect against loss.

Example: Our house is insured for up to one million dollars.


Complement and Compliment

Complement means to complete:

Example: Her expertise complements her experience.

Compliment means to flatter:

Example: He complimented her on a job well done.

Comprise and Compose

Comprise means to include, contain, or consist of:

Example: The whole comprises the parts.

Note: is comprised of is considered incorrect usage.

Compose means to make up the whole:

Example: The parts compose the whole.

The whole is composed of (not comprised of) the parts:

The company comprises three business units.
The three business units compose the company.
The company is composed of three business units.


Each Other and One Another

Each other refers to two persons or things:

Example: The two executives respected each other.

One another refers to more than two:

Example: The four competitors respected one another.


Farther and Further

Farther refers to actual distance:

Example: farther away from here

Further refers to figurative distance, as in a greater degree or extent:

Example: nothing further from my mind


i.e. / e.g.

Use a comma before and after i.e. and e.g. and in running text set them in Roman type.

i.e. is from the Latin id est, meaning that is:

Example: They chose the best blog around, i.e., they chose the Acrolinx blog.

e.g. is from the Latin exempli gratia, meaning for example:

Example: A variety of dogs, e.g., cocker spaniels and poodles, are bred here.


Influence, Impact and Affect

Influence means to alter by indirect or intangible means. It implies a force that brings about a change within the object of the influence, as in nature or behavior:

Example: Geopolitical factors influenced consumer confidence.

Impact means to impinge, make contact or strike forcefully, or to have a major effect on:

Example: The tech bubble could impact stock market performance.

Affect can mean to produce a material effect upon. It implies the action of a stimulus that can produce a response or reaction.

Example: Trauma can affect our ability to think straight.


Last and Latest

Last means after all others:

Example: The last meeting of the year will be held in December.

Latest means most recent:

Example: The latest report came out in November.


Over and More Than

Over should be used only to denote spatial relationships:

Example: Lob the ball over your opponent’s head.

Over may also be used to describe age:

Example: The house is over 60 years old.

More than is used to mean exceeding:

Example: The company has more than $2 million in assets.

Note: Over may be used in place of more than to avoid awkward repetition of more than.

Example: There were over 200 delegates from more than 11 countries present at the conference.


Presently and Currently

Presently means soon, in a short time.

Example: He’ll be arriving presently.

Currently means now.

Example: We’re currently in Colorado.


Principal and Principle

Principal can be an adjective or a noun. As an adjective, it means primary; as a noun, it means the head of an institution or the amount of money borrowed or invested.

Examples: Our principal development languages are C++ and Java. The school principal sent for me. My investment guarantees that I won’t lose my principal.

Principle means a fundamental value or premise.

Example: The nation was founded on the principle of equality before the law.

Memory hint: “the principal [of the school] is your pal”


Raise and Rise

Raise is a transitive verb and must have an object:

Example: Raise the bar.

Rise is an intransitive verb and connotes self-action:

Example: The sun rises in the east.


Than and Then

Than is used in comparison, normally introducing a clause:

Example: Prices are lower than they were.

Then refers to time:

Example: then and now


Toward and Towards

These words are interchangeable, but toward is preferred in American writing.
We’ll continue to build out our list of problem words and publish another post again soon…er… presently. In the meantime, what are some of the problem words that either you or others you know struggle with?