13 Usage Mistakes Writers Make
Every copywriter gets them — questions from clients, colleagues and others questioning word choice, spelling and other commonly confused usages. Cleaning out my inbox the other day, I came across a few, and thought it might a good idea to share some of the ones that come up most often:
- Affect, effect: When describing the impact of one thing upon another, affect is a verb, and effect is a noun: "Smoking will affect your health in devastating ways." "The effect of smoking on your health is devastating."
- Alumna, alumnae, alumni, alumnus: Alumna refers to a female graduate. Alumnae is the plural of alumna, i.e., a group of female graduates. Alumnus refers to a male graduate. Alumni is plural and can refer to a group of graduates regardless of gender.
- Assure, ensure, insure: Assure means to reassure: "We must assure all those who need care that they will receive it." Ensure means to make certain: "We must ensure that all who need care receive it. Insure refers specifically to insurance: "We must insure all who have no health insurance coverage."
- B.C., A.D., B.C.E. and CE.: B.C. stands for "Before Christ." It's used to date events before the birth of Jesus. A.D. is the abbreviation for the Latin phrase Anno Domini, which means "in the year of our Lord," and is used to date events after Jesus' birth. B.C.E. is the secular version of B.C. It stands for Before the Common Era and refers to the same period as B.C.. C.E. is the secular version of A.D. It stands for Common Era. And refers to the same period as A.D.
- Cite, site: Cite is a verb that means to reference something from a secondary source. Site is a noun that means a place or location.
- Comic, comical: Comic refers to something that's intended to be funny: "He was a comic genius." Comical refers to something that's funny, even if it wasn't intended to be: "It was comical to see him in a suit and wingtip shoes on the beach."
- E.g. vs. i.e.: E.g. represents the Latin phrase exempli gratia, and means "for example." I.e. represents the Latin phrase id est and means "that is" or "in other words."
- Enquiry, inquiry, query: Enquiry and inquiry refer to an investigation. Americans generally use inquiry¸ while British writers lean toward enquiry, but the meaning is the same. A query is a single question.
- Equal, equable, equitable: Equal means the same as. Equable means steady, unchanging, and also moderate. Equitable means impartial and fair.
- Especially, specially: Especially means to a high degree. Specially means designed for a particular purpose: "The special holiday was especially fun.
- Etcetera: It is pronounced with "t" as the second letter, not "ekcetera" or "excetra."
- Every day, everyday: Every day means each day. Everyday means commonplace or ordinary.
- Farther, further: Farther refers to an actual physical distance: "The house is farther down the road." Further refers to a symbolic or figurative distance: "Let's take his idea one step further."
When I read lists like this, I always think smugly, "Jeez, what kind of amateurs would make that mistake?" It happens just before I read one and think, "Oops, I didn't know I'd been getting that one wrong!" Don't worry— it happens to all of us at one time or another.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.