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Common Usage Errors

This section provides usage rules for commonly misused words.

Among and Between

Use "between" to describe the direct relationship or comparison of two or more items. Use "among" when the relationship is less direct. Another way to say that is, use "between" when the relationship of the items is individual; use "among" when the relationship is collective.

Example

You can choose between steak, chicken, and fish.

John was among the candidates chosen.

Can and May

Use "can" to describe actions or conditions that are possible. Use "may" only to describe situations where permission is being given. If either "can," "could," or "may" apply, use "can" because it’s less tentative. Use "may" as a conditional only when you need to be tentative.

Example

You can submit the form upon completion.
(You are able to submit the form.)

You may submit the form upon completion.
(You have permission to submit the form.)

Comprise

"Comprise" means to include or maintain. The whole comprises the parts rather than the reverse. Never use "comprised of."

Example

The Branch comprises several workgroups.
(Correct)

Several workgroups comprise the Branch.
(Incorrect)

The Branch is comprised of several workgroups.
(Incorrect)

Desire, Wish, Need, and Want

Use "need" instead of "desire" and "wish" in manuals. Use "want" when the reader’s actions are optional (that is, they may not "need" something but may still "want" something).

Example

If you need to confirm receipt of your application, call the Branch Office.

Select the books you want and sign them out in the register.

Different

Use "different from" rather than "different than" when the next part of the sentence is a noun or pronoun (that is, two things are being compared).

Example

Form 123 is different from Form 124.

Ensure and Insure

"Ensure" means to guarantee. "Insure" refers to insurance.

Example

Ensure that the applicant has completed the necessary forms before continuing.

You can insure your house up to its market value.

Presently

Avoid using "presently" as it’s often taken to mean "now" rather than its actual meaning "soon."

Then and Than

"Then" refers to a time in the past or the next step in a sequence. "Than" is used for comparisons.

That and Which

"That" introduces a restrictive clause—a clause that must be there for the sentence to make sense. A restrictive clause often defines the noun or phrase preceding it.

Example

The form that is used for the final submission should be completed in ink.

"Which" introduces a nonrestrictive, parenthetical clause—a clause that could be omitted without affecting the meaning of the sentence.

Example

The green form, which is used for the final submission, should be completed in ink.

Use "who" or "whom," rather than "that" or "which," when referring to a person.

Their and There

"Their" is the possessive form of "they."

Example

It’s their responsibility to keep the minutes for the meeting.

"There" is an adverb used to indicate a place or position other than "here."

Example

Your book is over there.

Your and You’re

"Your" is the possessive form of you.

Example

This is your coat.

"You’re" is the contraction of "you are."

Example

You’re in charge today.

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