Writing: Which Word to Use When

Yvonne Perry

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The English language is one of the hardest to learn to write. That's because there are so many words that sound alike that have totally different meanings.

A lot of people make innocent mistakes in writing—not just typos where a finger slipped—but a spelling mistake that causes a word to have a different meaning than was intended.

Here are some words commonly misused and some tips to help you know how to use them correctly:

Then and than

The word “then” means not now; later or next. Example: Then, she moved her hand to the right side.

The word “than” implies either/or: Example: I’d rather be rich than poor.

Accept and except:

“Accept” means to approve. Example: If you want ezinearticles.com to accept your article, it must be well written.

“Except” means to omit or leave out. Example: All except the red ones go in this box.

Advice and advise:

“Advice” is a noun. Example: I need your advice on this topic.

“Advise” is a verb. Example: Please advise me on how to proceed.

Affect and effect:

“Affect” means to influence. Think of it as a verb. Example: Her criticism affects everyone in our group

“Effect” is a result or benefit of something done. Think of it as a noun. Example: What harmful effect does pollution have on nature? Common phrases with “effect” include: in effect, to that effect.

Breath and breathe:

“Breath” is a noun. It is the air we inhale and exhale. Example: His breath smells like garlic.

“Breathe” is a verb. It is what we do when we take in air. Example: It feels good to breathe deeply.

When a word has a letter “e” on the end, many times it makes the first vowel of the word a long vowel. Remembering this phonic rule, say the word before writing it to make sure you select the one you want.

Choose and chose:

“Choose” is a verb used to show present tense. Example: Please choose a color.

“Chose” is the past tense verb. Example: He chose the blue one.

Again say the word aloud before writing it. The long vowel in chose will naturally help you decide the correct spelling needed in your sentence.

Insure, assure and ensure:

“Insure” means to protect with a contract. Example: Please insure the boat for $50,000 on our homeowner’s policy.

“Assure” means to promise or declare. Example: I assure you I am trying my best.

“Ensure” means to make safe or certain. Example: Proper exercise ensures good health.

Lay and lie:

These are two very commonly misused words.

“Lay” is a verb that needs an object. Example: Please lay your coat on the bed.

Ask yourself this question: lay what? In this case the answer is: your coat. If you can’t answer the question, then there is no object, so use “lie” instead. By the way, a person is not an object. Don’t ask who, but do ask what.

“Lie” does not need an object. Example: Lie down and rest awhile.

Remember only people lie, objects do not. If you have an object in your sentence, use lay. If you are talking to a person, use lie.

It’s and its:

“It’s” is a contraction of two words. Use it to replace it is”. Example: It’s cold outside. It is cold outside.

“Its” is a possessive pronoun. Think of it as using his, her, yours, etc. Example: Each dog has its (his or her) day.

And or & (ampersand):

“And” is a conjunction and should always be spelled out when writing a complete sentence. Example: They have his and hers closets.

“&” is a symbol or operator used in marketing text especially in lists. Example:

Our company offers these services:

- Writing & Editing

- Sales & Marketing

Consider the ampersand a slang word and avoid using it in stories, articles, press releases and all legal documents.

To, too and two:

“To” is used as a preposition or in a prepositional phrase. Example: Let’s go to the store.

“Too” shows an overly amount (much, little) or to replace the word “also”. Example: I am too tired. I am tired too.

“Two” is a number and should only be used as such. Example: Two people went to the store.

Which and witch:

“Which” is a selection you can make. Example: Which shoes should I wear?

A “witch” is someone who uses spells and rituals in their spiritual practice.

Pitcher and picture:

A “pitcher” is someone who throws a ball. Example: The pitcher threw the ball.

A “pitcher” is also a container. Example: The blue pitcher is filled with green tea.

A “picture” is a photograph or image. Example: Her picture was taken with a Nikon camera.

I hope these tips will help you remember which word to use when.

Yvonne Perry is a freelance writer and the owner of Write On! Creative Writing Services based in Nashville, Tennessee. She and her team of ghostwriters service clients all over the globe by offering quality writing on a variety of topics at an affordable price.

She enjoys helping writers by offering useful information to improve writing skills. Get a free eBook, Tips to Freelance Writing, when you sign up for her free monthly writing newsletter at


While there sure to subscribe to the RSS podcast feed and the weekly teleclasses on writing, networking, publishing and marketing. Find more writing tips on Yvonne’s blog at http://yvonneperry.blogspot.com


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