Is that the word I wanted?

by Samantha Bronkar

Many words in the English language seem to be nearly identical. How can you know which word you actually meant to say (or write)? Below are some commonly confused words, their definitions, and different usages.


Amount is used when the object cannot be counted or measured.

  • Example:           He had an unwarranted amount of trust in those criminals.
  • Explanation:    The concept of “trust” cannot be given a numerical value; it can’t be counted.

Number is used when the object can be counted or given a number.

  • Example:         The teacher helped a number of students today in class.
  • Explanation:  One can count the number of students that were helped.


Less is used when something cannot be counted or cannot be used in the plural form.

  • Example:         I have less time than I thought!
  • Explanation:  Time cannot be written as “times” in this case; one cannot “have less times.” The concept of “time” cannot be counted.

Fewer is used when something can be counted or given a number value.

  • Example:          She scored fewer goals this season than last.
  • Explanation:   One can count the number of goals she scored.


Then is related to time and helps describe the passage of time. It can also be used to show the relationship between actions and consequences.

  • Example:          You will see the railroad tracks, then you will cross the bridge.
  • Explanation:   One thing logically follows another.
  • Example:          If you had started your paper sooner, then you would have had more time to work on it.
  • Explanation:    Because the student waited to start his paper, he has less time to work on it.

 Than is used to make comparisons between two things.

  • Example:          The beach is much windier today than it was yesterday.
  • Explanation:   One day’s weather is compared to another.


A compliment is a phrase of praise about something or someone.

  • Example:         After the dance, he complimented her on her grace and rhythm.
  • Explanation:  He praises her ability to dance; he gives her a compliment.

Complement is used to describe when something goes well with something else; one thing enhances another.

  • Example:         That music was a perfect complement to her mood.
  • Explanation:  The music matched, enhanced, or sharpened her mood; they went together.

When in doubt, look it up! These aren’t the only words that cause confusion, but you can sort out the tricky ones with a quick web search or glance through a writing handbook for “homophones” or “commonly confused words.”

Samantha Bronkar is a sophomore majoring in English, and she plays for the women’s soccer and softball teams at Principia College.

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