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Watch Your Language! (Usage)


Last updated 8/5/2010

In today’s busy world of e-mails, instant messages, and texting, it may seem a bit nitpicky or even “old school” to discuss the importance of proper English usage.  But while the informal style we use when communicating with friends and family does have its place, that place is not the workplace. The ability to write and speak correctly is so important to a business career that you’ll find you will become more successful as you improve your communication skills.

Many common words and phrases cause confusion for even the most experienced writers.  Will these challenging words “affect” or “effect” how others perceive you in the workplace?  Read on to find out.

The following 10 frequently misused words (adapted from Administrative Assistant’s and Secretary’s Handbook, third Edition, by James Stroman, Kevin Wilson, and Jennifer Wauson (AMACOM, 2008) can flummox any writer.  How many do you use correctly?

Affect/Effect
Which is correct?
1. The light effects my vision.
2. The light affects my vision.

Correct answer: #2, affects.  Affect is most commonly used as a verb, meaning “to influence.”  It is used as a noun only as a psychological term, meaning “feeling or emotion.”  Effect is a verb meaning “to bring about.”  It is also used as a noun, meaning “a result or consequence, or a mental impression.”

A While/Awhile
Which is correct?
1. Please come to my home for awhile before you start your journey.
2. Please come to my home for a while before you start your journey.

Correct answer: #2, a while.  Awhile is an adverb and should never be used as the object of a preposition (which can only be a noun or pronoun).

Council/Counsel
Which is correct?
1. The council met to discuss future projects.
2. The counsel met to discuss future projects.

Correct answer: #1, council.  A council is a group of persons convened for advisory purposes.  Counsel is advice. (The word sometimes means “attorney.”)

Data/Datum
Which is correct?
1. This data proves that our business is growing.
2. These data prove that our business is growing.

Correct answer: #2, these data.  Data is always plural.  Datum is the singular form.

Each/Their
Which is correct?
1. Each drives his own car.
2. Each drives their own car.

Correct answer: #1, his own car.  Pronouns must agree in number and person with the words to which they refer.

Farther/Further
Which is correct?
1. I walked further than he did.
2. I walked farther than he did.

Correct answer: #2, farther.  Farther shows a specific, quantifiable distance.  Further shows degree or extent, as in:  “He will go further with your help than without it.”

Its/It’s
Which is correct?
1. The ship flew its flag at half-mast.
2. The ship flew it’s flag at half-mast.

Correct answer: #1, its.  Its (without an apostrophe) is a possessive pronoun.  It’s (with an apostrophe) is a contraction meaning “it is.”

Lie/Lay
Which is correct?
1. He lays down after lunch every day.
2. He lies down after lunch every day.

Correct answer:  #2, lies.  Lie means “to remain in position” or “to rest.”  It is intransitive, meaning no object ever accompanies it.  Lay means “to place something somewhere,” as “Lay the pen on the desk.”  It is transitive, meaning an object always accompanies it.  Many people confuse these two words because the word "lay" is both the present tense of lay (lay, lay, laid) and the past tense of lie (lie, lay, lain).

May/Can
Which is correct?
1. May I help you?
2. Can I help you?

Correct answer:  #1, may.  May refers to permission.  Can refers to ability.

Who/That
Which is correct?
1. She is the woman that smiled at him.
2. She is the woman who smiled at him.

Correct answer:  #2, who.  Who is used to refer to people.  Which and that refer to objects.

© 2008 James Stroman, Kevin Wilson, and Jennifer Wauson.  All rights reserved.  Adapted and excerpted from Administrative Assistant’s and Secretary’s Handbook, Third Edition by permission of the publisher, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association (www.amacombooks.org).

If you would like to read about other common English problems (and many additional topics of interest to administrative professionals), please refer to Administrative Assistant’s and Secretary’s Handbook, Third Edition, by James Stroman, Kevin Wilson, and Jennifer Wauson (AMACOM, 2008).