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Scholarly Voice: Commonly Confused Words

Diction for Academic Writing

Diction refers to an author’s word choice. The APA manual stresses the importance of proper word choice because your academic writing should be as precise as possible. Follow the word choice guidelines below to make sure you are communicating in a clear, precise manner.

A and an: A should be used with a word that starts with a consonant or a consonant sound (a dog). An should be used with a word that begins with a vowel (an egg), a vowel sound (an x marks the spot), or a silent h (an honest person).

Accept and except: Accept means to agree; except suggests exclusion. Example: I accepted all the applicants except Mr. Lee.

Advice and advise: Advice is a suggestion; advise is the act of giving that suggestion. Example: I advise all of my clients to get more sleep; most of them take this advice.

Affect and effect: Affect is a verb that refers to the influence that something has on something else; effect is a noun that refers to a result. Example: Did Vitamin C affect the patients? I’m curious if it had any effect. 

Allude and elude: Allude is in indirect reference to something else; elude means to avoid. Example: The criminal was able to elude the police when his friend alluded that the shopkeeper was responsible for the crime. 

Although and while: Although is a conjunction that indicates a contrast (despite something being the case). While is a conjunction that indicates a time and is also a noun referring to a period of time. Example: Although he disliked rain, he went out while it was raining to find his missing cat. Note that in APA style, use of while is more restrictive than in common usage.

Among and between: Between is reserved for two items; among is used for three or more. Example: It was easy to choose between the peach cobbler and the apple crisp; however, it was difficult to decide among the brownie, ice cream, and custard.

Any body, anybody, any one, and anyone: Any body and any one are adjectives modifying a noun. Example: I like to swim in any body of water. I could not single out any one person. Anybody and anyone are pronouns. Example: He would go to prom with anyone. Anybody would do!

Assume and presume: To assume something is to base information on nothing. Example: I assume that next year’s party will be fun. To presume something is to base information on evidence or facts. Example: I presume the shirt is on sale because it was on the sale rack.

Assure, ensure, and insure: Assure means to confirm (usually with an individual or group of individuals); ensure means to make sure that something is accomplished; and insure means to protect from harm (usually referring to protection from financial loss). Example: I assured the home owners that their homes were insured. I ensured this protection by providing them with a sound policy.

Attribute and contribute: An attribute is a noun that refers to a characteristic of something. Example: His best attribute was his sense of humor. To attribute, as a transitive verb, is to explain something by noting its cause. Example: I attribute my winning personality to my humor. To contribute is to give something to help people or causes. Example: She likes to contribute time to her local soup kitchen.

Because: See Since and because.

Between: See Among and between.

Casual and causal: Casual refers to something that is informal or unplanned. Example: They wore casual clothes for the party. Causal refers to the cause of something or to something that makes things happen. Example: The causal factor in the students’ declining energy was the absence of lunch.

Causal: See Casual and causal.

Cite, sight, and site: Cite means to refer to another source for a claim you make. Example: Make sure to cite the author of each source you discuss. Sight means the visual sense (what you can see). Example: Using sight as well as smell, the dog navigated the maze. Sitemeans a location, as in a study site. Example: The researcher found the middle school to be a useful site for studying bullying behaviors.

Complement and compliment: Complement suggests that one item helps complete another one; compliment is an act of praise. Example: I complimented Dustin on how his eyes complemented his complexion. 

Conscience and conscious: Conscience refers to one’s morality; conscious is in reference to one’s awareness of his or her surroundings. Example: The hypnotist had no conscience when his subjects were unconscious. 

Consequently and subsequently: Consequently suggests causation; subsequently refers to something that happens later and is not caused by the previously mentioned action. Example: Vera lost her dog, and Doug subsequently lost his cat. Consequently, they met each other at the Humane Society. 

Contribute: See Attribute and contribute. 

Desert and dessert: The desert is a region you would visit. Dessert is usually the last part of a meal. Example: We went to the desert and ate a dessert. Helpful hint: the extra s is in the food because you always want more. 

Dragged and drug: The past tense of the word drag is dragged. Example: She dragged her brother out of bed. Drug refers to a chemical substance (noun) or to administer such a substance (verb). 

Drug and dragged: See Dragged and drug. 

Effect: See Affect and effect. 

Elude: See Allude and elude. 

Ensure: See Assure, ensure, and insure. 

Every day and everyday: Every day is an adjective and a noun; everyday is just an adjective asserting that something is commonplace. Example: I brush my teeth every day; it is part of my everyday hygiene routine. 

Every one and everyone: Every one is an adjective and a pronoun; everyone is a pronoun. Example: I counted every one. This seemed to satisfy everyone at the party. 

Except and accept: See Accept and except. 

Explicit and implicit: Explicit suggests that something is overt; implicit means that something is indirectly implied. Example: His explicit instructions were that I should clean; he made it implicitly clear that I do a good job.

Farther and further: Farther refers to a physical distance; further refers to time. Example: Until further notice, you are not allowed to go any farther. 

Fewer and less: Fewer should be used with things that can be counted; less should be used for amounts you can't count. Example: Fewer boys than girls were upset; however, the girls were less upset than anticipated. 

Former and latter: These terms should be used sparingly and only when referring to two items. Former means the first item referred to (remember both former and first begin with f), and latter means the last item (both latter and last begin with l). Example: Writing specialists like reading and writing; students prefer the former. (This means students prefer reading.) 

If and whether: If and whether are often interchangeable. However, it is important to use if when referring to something that is conditional. Example: Bring your key if you come to the house. (This sentence is conditional because you only need to bring the key if you come to the house.) Example: Bring your key whether or not you come to the house. (This sentence is not conditional because you will have to bring your key either way.) 

Implicit: See Explicit and implicit. 

Imply and infer: See Infer and imply. 

Infer and imply: Infer means to deduce something and is what readers do. Imply means to hint or suggest, and it is what writers do. Example: She described a red, octagonal sign in the parking lot. I inferred it was a stop sign. Example: The teacher implied that there might be pop quiz tomorrow. 

Insure: See Assure, ensure, and insure.

Its and it’s: Its is the possessive form of it; it’s is a contraction meaning it is. Example: The baby saw the dog and grabbed its tail. It’s interesting that she would do that. Note that in APA style, you should avoid contractions, so you would never use it’s for a paper in APA style. 

Latter and former: See Former and latter. 

Lay and lie: Lay means to put down an object. Example: She lays the baby in the crib. Lie means to put yourself down or to recline. Example: I lie in bed, dreaming of summer. 

Less: See Fewer and less. 

Lie: See Lay and lie. 

Loose and lose: Loose suggests that something is not properly attached; lose means to misplace something. Example: Her loose-fitting clothes caused her to lose her balance. 

May be and maybe: May be is a verb phrase; maybe is an adverb. Example: Obiwan Kenobi may be our last hope, or maybe someone else will save us. 

Nor and or: Use nor with neither and or with either. Example: Neither Kenneth nor Christine got to work on time. The boss may fire either Kenneth or Christine. 

Peak, peek, and pique: Peak means the top or maximum of something. Example: I climbed to the peak of the mountain. Peek means to sneak a look at something. Example: The girl peeked at her birthday present when her parents were out. Pique means a sudden anger or annoyance at being offended (noun) or to make someone angry (verb). Example: In a fit of pique, she threw her phone across the room. As a verb, pique can also mean to raise someone’s curiosity. Example: The book’s cover piqued my interest. 

Peek: See peak, peek, and pique.

Pique: See peak, peek, and pique. 

Precede and proceed: Precede suggests that something comes before; proceed is an invitation to continue. Example: According to league rules, the game could not proceed unless “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” preceded the bottom of the sixth inning. 

Presume: See Assume and presume. 

Principal and principle: As a noun, principal refers to an individual; as an adjective, it suggests that something is significant. Principle suggests that something is grounded in theory. Example: The principal insisted that the principal component of the school’s success was its teachers. The principal insisted that the teachers taught Darwinian principles. 

Proceed: See Precede and proceed. 

Sight: See Cite, sight, and site. 

Since and because: Since is used to indicate time. For example, the dog hasn’t been walked since you started school. Because should be used in all other instances, such as causal relationships and to show causation. For example, I want to go to school because I don’t like walking the dog. 

Site: See Cite, sight, and site. 

Subsequently: See Consequently and subsequently. 

Than and then: Than suggests a comparison; then explains what follows. Example: Ben was faster than Mark. We then knew who the second fastest member of the team was. 

That and which: That is a restrictive pronoun, meaning what follows is necessary for the reader to understand. Which is unrestrictive, suggesting that the following information is an aside. Example: Sticks of dynamite, which we planted last night, will destroy the vault. The vault that was next door, however, was indestructible. 

That and who: Use that for objects and who for people. I know she likes marshmallows that are burnt. (Here the word that refers to the marshmallows.) I know someone who likes burnt marshmallows. (Here the word who refers to someone.) 

Their, there, and they’re: Their is a pronoun. There is a noun referring to a place. They’re is a contraction meaning they are. Example: They’re going over there. It is their anniversary. Note that in APA style, you should not use contractions. 

Then: See Than and then. 

To, too, and two: To is generally used as a preposition. Too means in addition. Two refers to the number. Example: You will need two pots to cook spaghetti. You will need a cauldron, too. 

Whether and if: See If and whether. 

Which: See That and which. 

While: See Although and while. 

Who: See That and who. 

Who’s and whose: Who’s is a contraction meaning who is; whose is a possessive form of who. Example: Who’s missing a pair of gloves? I’d like to know whose these are. 

Your and you’re: Your is a possessive form of you; you’re is a contraction meaning you are. Example: This is your mug. You're going to take that home with you, right? 

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