Tag Archives: word choice

Commonly confused words

by Shannon Naylor

Its/It’s || Your/You’re || Their/They’re

The trick to getting these words right is to remember when to use the apostrophe. Where most people get confused is that, in English, apostrophes are used to indicate both possession and contractions (when a letter is “missing”). But what happens when you aren’t sure which takes the apostrophe?

Just remember that the rule for contractions is stronger than the rule for possession. This means that “it’s,” “you’re,” and “they’re” mean “it is,” “you are,” and “they are” because the apostrophe indicates the dropped “i,” and “a.” And the possessives “its,” “your,” and “their” don’t take apostrophes because they have no missing letters.

Anytime I wonder if I’m using the right word, I ask myself if there are missing letters, and this helps me remember whether I should use the apostrophe version or not.

Pronoun Possessive Contraction
It Its It’s
You Your You’re
They Their They’re
There “There” is another commonly confused word, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the pronoun “they.” Use “there” when indicating a place or location.


To indicates direction or place. It’s also part of infinitives in English: to see, to go, to run.*

Too indicates a greater degree of something or an addition. You can remember this because it has an additional O.

Two is the spelling-out of the numeral 2.

Word Part of Speech Example
To Preposition I went to the grocery store.
Too Adverb I bought too many groceries.
Two Number I made two trips between the car and fridge.


* Unlike some languages, English infinitives appear as two words, but they function as one. This is why grammar sticklers will scold you for “splitting infinitives,” or putting words in between the two parts of the infinitive.

Split Infinitive: I want to definitely see that movie.

Intact Infinitive: I definitely want to see that movie.

Shannon Naylor is the post-graduate teaching intern for the CTL. 

The last shall be first

by Anna-Zoe Herr

Want to know a simple way to make your wording pop? Pay attention to where you put your words in each sentence! A simple rule is to put the words that carry the most meaning at the end of your sentences.

Roy Peter Clark explains why this works in Writing Tools,* where he advises us that “for any sentence, the period acts as a stop sign. That slight pause in reading magnifies the final word.” That means the last word in every sentence stands out because there is a mental pause right after it. When chosen carefully, the last word in a sentence can provide a bridge to the next sentence, emphasize meaning, and even create a liveliness of tone. Clark calls this “emphatic word order,” which is a small edit for a writer, but a huge improvement for the written piece.

There are two things necessary in order to use emphatic word order when you write:

  1. Be clear what exactly you are writing about in the whole text.
  2. Be clear exactly what each sentence is saying and doing as part of the whole.

If we are very clear about our subject or argument, we often do emphatic word order intuitively; but in many cases we need to go back, play with each sentence, see how it fits into the whole paragraph, and determine what the important words are. With that understanding, when we rewrite the sentence, it can do miracles!

Here is an example:

“Today, some areas of science seem to have claimed to declare truth and error, a status only religion used to have. Therefore, science is as controversial a topic as it gets, for in our age it started knocking on the doors of individuals on a quest for a more accurate truth and has fallen onto the slippery slope of political power-play.”

Using the principles of emphatic word order, I could revise like this:

“Today, some areas of science seem to have claimed a status that only religion used to have: the right to declare truth and error. Therefore, science is as controversial a topic as it gets, for in our age it has fallen onto the slippery slope of political power-play, as well as knocking on the doors of individuals in a quest for a more accurate truth.”

When you look at the last words in these sentences, you can see that they carry the most weight.

The words we choose to put at the end of a sentence can change how readers interpret our intent, but if we understand our intentions, then we can use rhetorical strategies like emphatic word order  to express them in each sentence.

Anna-Zoë is a double major in global perspectives and studio art. She has studied in a university in Germany prior to coming to Principia, where she also studied to be a writing tutor. Next semester, she will be going on the Prague abroad to continue with more writing.

*Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark (2008)

Using “you” less

by Bailey Bischoff

We use the word “you” a lot in our everyday speech. However, when writing a paper for class, it is often inappropriate to use “you” as the subject of your sentence. Engaging with your reader by using “you” (e.g., You should wear a rain jacket when traveling in the rainforest.) is called using a second person narrative voice. Whether you are writing in first person, second person, or third person is determined by which pronouns you use in your writing.

First Person:

Pronouns – I, me, we, mine, us
Example – Last week, I wrote a research paper about which type of music Principia students like to listen to at the pub.

Second Person:

Pronouns – you, your, yours
Example – It is probably surprising to you to learn that George Washington’s teeth were not made of wood, but were made instead of bone, ivory, and human teeth.

Third Person:

Pronouns – he, she, his, it, they, theirs
Example – In Professor Shimkus’s article, she argues that the globalization of markets contributes to increases in the amount of cross-continental human trafficking.

For formal academic writing, it is best to stick with a third person narrative, although some fields and assignments may be excepted. Third person narrative is more formal and professional, which is why we use it for academic writing. Of course, formal and professional isn’t the point. Being clear and specific is. Avoiding “you” helps you be precise for your readers.

How can you transition your writing to third person when you’re so used to speaking in first and second person?

Sometimes, cutting out “you” from your sentences happen naturally as you write more clearly and concisely.

Ex. When flying across the country, you should always pack a book for the plane ride.
Ex. Packing a book for an upcoming plane ride often makes long flights more enjoyable.

You can also substitute “one” for “you”, to give your writing a more formal tone.

Ex. When flying across the country, one should always pack a book for the plane ride.

Even better, you can use the real subject of the sentence.

Ex. When flying across the country, travelers should always pack a book for the ride.

When it comes to writing academic papers, you should remember to use “you” less!
No, wait! Writers should remember to use “you” less.

Bailey Bischoff is a junior majoring in political science and is serving as student body president.

Take your language game from vague to powerful

by Maddi Demaree

In my time as a tutor, I’ve discovered that sometimes a few quick fixes can drastically change the tone of someone’s writing. To change the tone from chatty or informal to more scholarly and professional, it helps to eliminate words or phrases such as “really,” “very,” and “a lot,” which are usually symptoms of a lack of clarity. More than that, they show a lack of specificity, which is prized in scholarly writing.

Here’s one example:

1a) While there were a lot of factors involved in each side’s participation in escalating the conflict, one that is not often discussed is the actual living conditions and livelihood of the Irish people.

While “a lot” is rather innocuous, it doesn’t really have a place in academic writing. Somewhat better alternatives might be these: “many,” “a number of,” or “countless.” But if you know the number, state it!

1b) While there were countless factors involved in each side’s participation in escalating the conflict, one that is not often discussed is the actual living conditions and livelihood of the Irish people.

Let’s look at another passage:

2a) Great Britain really wanted to quickly gain control of the situation, so they suspended self-government in Northern Ireland. This took the power away from the elected Irish officials who possessed a knowledge of the varying sources of the conflict. This was their attempt to paste a very hastily constructed “peace” over the whole ordeal.

In this passage, “really” and “very” are unnecessary because the words “hastily” and “wanted” can stand on their own without emphasis. The only time the words “really” or “very” are appropriate in writing is to give emphasis to a word that does not have a stronger replacement. For example, instead of using “really hungry,” you can say “famished” or instead of “very tired,” you might say “fatigued.”

Other times you can just remove the troublesome words. Here, the passage has the same impact without “really” or “very”.

2b) Great Britain wanted to quickly gain control of the situation, so they suspended self-government in Northern Ireland. This took the power away from the elected Irish officials who possessed a knowledge of the varying sources of the conflict. This was their attempt to paste a hastily constructed “peace” over the whole ordeal.

Eliminating these colloquial words and phrases will immediately help take your writing from vague and general to specific and powerful.

Maddi Demaree is a passionate education major who loves helping others to realize, refine, and regain their innate writing abilities.

Is that the word I wanted? Part 2: effect vs. affect

by Katya Rivers

I don’t know about you, but I still mix up the words effect and affect. Which one is which? And when do I use one over the other? Here are a couple simple points to help you understand the usage of and the difference between these two words that sound so much alike but are, in fact, quite different.

Affect is usually used as a verb. It means to produce a change in or influence something. Use it when describing someone or something thing influencing another someone or something. For example:

  • The grade on this exam will affect my entire GPA.
  • How does the crime rate affect hiring levels by local police forces?
  • Your opinions do not affect my decision to move.

Effect is most often used as a noun. It means a change that has occurred or indicates a consequence. For example:

  • What effect did his speech have on the audience?
  • Creepy music in a movie gives the effect that something is about to happen.
  • The special effects in movies today are aided by computers.

Another way to think about it is this: It is appropriate to use the word “effect” if one of these words is used immediately before the words into, on, take, the, an, as well as, or. For example:

  • In analyzing a situation, it is important to take the concepts of cause and effect into consideration.
  • The dramatic play had an effect on the audience.

And if these examples aren’t enough, just remember that when in doubt, look it up!

Katya Rivers is a senior majoring in religion.


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.