On this page, we'll look at such issues as spelling and words that are often misused.  Students sometimes think they know what certain words mean, perhaps because they've seen those words in particular contexts, but can be quite mistaken.  As for spelling, the English language doesn't make things easy even for native speakers.  Spelling used to be phonetic or at least more phonetic than it is now, but as our pronunciation of words changed over the centuries the spelling often didn't.  Some varied pronunciations--like the many ways that "-ough" can sound--reflect the way people in different parts of England said the same or similar words.  The best way to learn how to spell is to read a lot (and even that's no guarantee...); on the other hand, there are some basic rules that should help.  One main principle applies, whether it's a matter of meaning or spelling: when in doubt, consult your dictionary!

Spelling: Common Errors
Misused Words
 Usage   The Student Pseudo-Word Dictionary


Students sometimes try to spell unfamiliar words phonetically, imagining that a good effort will pay off.  Never guess--if you aren't sure how to spell a word, do your best to look it up.  Remember that there is a sound in English known as a "schwa" that could be spelled with just about any vowel.  Assume nothing.

One of most frequent sources of errors is confusion over whether one is dealing with a single word or a phrase.  Students sometimes write the following phrases as if they were single words:

     in fact
     as well
NOT aswell
     any more
NOT anymore
     more so
NOT moreso
     each other
NOT eachother
     in order
NOT inorder
     a lot
NOT alot
     all right
NOT alright

Unfortunately, "anymore" appears frequently in magazines and books despite the fact that there is no such word  The same is true to a lesser extent of "alright."

Similarly, some students create phrases out of single words:

NOT never the less
none the less
Beware of words that sound alike:
     could have NOT 
could of
     lead (metal)
led (past tense of "to lead")
     faze (stun)
phase (stage, period)
     than (comparison)
then (a different point in time)
     who's (=who is)
whose (possessive of "who")
     affect (verb)
effect (noun)
     complement (add to)
compliment (say nice things about);
something free is complimentary
     principle (idea)
principal (first; main)
     insure (use only to
     refer to insurance)
assure (say something reassuring)
ensure (make sure)

To complicate matters, affect can be a noun: it means "appearance," especially in terms of one's emotional state or lack of one: "he has a very unemotional affect."  In addition, effect can be a verb: it means "to bring about" as in "he wants to effect a change in procedures."


Sometimes, you have to double the final consonant before adding a suffix like "-ed" or "-ing."  How do you know whether to double it or not?  It depends on whether you stress the final syllable of the word.  Consider the following:

     differ (dif-fer)
     cover (cov-er)
     refer (re-fer)
     occur (oc-cur)

In each of the first two cases, the stress falls on the first syllable, so the final consonant does not double:

     differed, differing
     covered, covering

In the other two cases, however, the stress is on the final syllable, so the consonant is doubled:

     referred, referring
     occurred, occurring

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Students often have trouble expressing themselves because they don't have large enough vocabularies; they can't quite come up with the words they need to make their points.  Build your vocabulary as well as you can; once again, the best way is to read a lot.  Popular culture generally, including television and the internet, and now text-messaging have all contributed to the decline in people's vocabulary (even as we develop more and more technical terms that, in some cases, just replace perfectly good ordinary words).  Students run into problems when they misuse words whose meanings they think they know, or--when they're really struggling--even make up words.

Misused Words:

Here are some commonly misused words; there are several others, but these are the ones that students seem to misuse and abuse more frequently:

Does Not Mean
Does Mean
having no personal stake in something, whether to gain or lose
difficult choice between two options
problem; trouble
ruin, end
very full
excessive or abundant
humane; humanlike
referring to humanism, a philosophy or cultural movement
desirable or even perfect idea/goal
fundamental set of beliefs underlying a society or movement
a particular choice about one's way of life
characteristic or habitual gesture
innocent, inexperienced, childlike
reason out (in many cases, at least)
come up with a phony "reason" for doing something you really want to do; make rational (if something is now irrational)
situation or scene
hypothetical situation
     simplistic simple overly simple (like a solution to a complicated problem)

Part of the problem is what Grammar Man calls "syllable creep": people's tendency to add extra syllables to perfectly good words, perhaps to make them seem more elegant or because the bigger words are commonly used in the media.  Thus, instead of saying "life" people say "lifestyle"; instead of "show" they use "showcase"; instead of "scene" they add three more syllables and say "scenario"; instead of plain old "in" they say "within"--the list goes on. By adding syllables, people end up using words that don't mean what's intended.  The verb "showcase," for example, implies that someone is proud of what is being displayed. "The clothes he wears in this scenario showcase his simplistic lifestyle" doesn't mean what the writer thinks it does.

Some pairs of words are a bit hard to distinguish:

     portray means to present a picture of someone or something; you can portray yourself in a certain way:
"he likes to portray himself as more humble than he is"
     display means to exhibit something of yourself, like a quality or an emotion

     imply means to suggest; it's what the speaker or writer does
     infer means to interpret what has been said; it's what the listener or reader does

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Usage refers to rules about the use of particular words and phrases.  These rules often involve idiomatic expressions, which in many cases follow no rules and even make no sense when separated into separate words.  For example, "get up to" means "be involved in an activity" but you would find it difficult to explain why if you define the three words separately.  Idiomatic expressions frequently include prepositions; you just have to learn the right one to use in each expression.  Thus, we say "ignorant of" instead of "ignorant to"; there are numerous other examples.  One phrase that people often mistake is:

different from  NOT  different than


The English language has hundreds of thousands of words; in other words, there are plenty to choose from, so you don't have to make up your own!  Here is a list of words that our students have made up (or, in one or two cases, found somewhere and used in a very different context).  To put it bluntly: don't use them, and don't create any more!

The Student Pseudo-Word Dictionary


Definition (where possible)  (Note: These are only guesses)
acceptation (n.) acceptance
(adv.) omnipotently
conieving (adj.) dishonest (combination of "conniving" and "deceiving"?)
declinement (n.) decline (just add syllables!)
devirgination (n.) deflowering
dietizes (v.-i.) goes on a diet (?)
disclude (v.-t.) exclude
emersion (n.) emergence
enouncements (n.-pl.) ??
exagerized (adj.) exaggerated
fantasticate (v.-t.) make fantastic
gruesify (v.-t.) render gruesome
ignormal (adj.) abnormal (combination of "ignoble" and "abnormal"?)
indepthly (adv.) deeply; comprehensively
inferiorization (n.) act of conferring inferiority on something
learnative (adj.) educational
monstrophic (adj.) monstrous (?)
naturistic (adj.) referring to nature (?)
neglify (v.-t.) negate (combination of "negate" and "nullify"?)
(n.) pregnancy
pregented (v.-p.p.) pregnant; fertilized
producible (adj.) productive; capable of producing things
progressfully (adv.) progressively (?)
pursuited (v.-p.p.) pursued
ridiculement (n.) ridicule (see "declinement" above)
sacricism (n.) sacredness
stagnicity (n.) state of being stagnant
unableness (n.) inability
whorship (n.) worship of Aphrodite

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