Show Don't Tell


Point of View

Tense Persons


Names, Pronouns, Descriptive Phrases



Plurals, Numbers, and Apostrophes


Common Errors


Favorite Bloopers

Contact HMG

Click here to read fiction by Susan L. Williams. Click here to learn more about Spider Web Press. Click here to go to The Teddy Lady. Click here for lessons from Holy Mother Grammatica.

Common Errors

| A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M |

| N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z |

Most of these are two (or more) words which have been confused with each other regularly. HMG will try to put them in alphabetical order, by the first word in the pair.


affect/effect: This is a toughie. Many people find these two words confusing. HMG can only ask you to remember that when something affects you, it has an effect. (One can also effect change, but that is a much less common usage.)

Example: The ear flushing affected Jim's hearing. This had an unfortunate effect on his temper. One of the side-effects was increased irritability.

all ready/already: The first means that everyone or everything is ready; the second means "so soon" or "now."

Example: We're all ready to go, Simon. Is it time already?

all right: There is no other word here. All right is two words. It is never one word. Never. No matter what you may see elsewhere. All right?

all too: It's all too easy to use this expression all too often. HMG recommends saving it for special occasions; otherwise, it becomes all too annoying. Especially when one could as easily have said: It's easy to use this expression too often. HMG recommends saving it for special occasions; otherwise, it becomes annoying.

a lot/allot: If you have many or a great deal of something, you have a lot. You do not have allot. Allot is a verb, meaning apportion, dispense, give out. (HMG's thanks to Julie.)

Example: Blair has a lot of practice at obfuscating. Jim gets a lot of headaches. Simon has to allot a bottle of aspirin to each detective every month.

another thing coming: The expression is not "If you think that, you've got another thing coming." If you think it is, you've got another think coming. (Thanks to Tex.)

any more/anymore: Any more means some more; anymore is one word meaning now, nowadays, or any longer, and is used negatively. You wouldn't say, "Do you want somemore?", would you? Of course not. ("Do you want s'mores?" is another question altogether.)

Example: "Joel, do you want any more ostrich chili?" "I've had three bowls, Blair, I don't think I can eat any more."

Example 2: Blair doesn't live in the warehouse anymore. I don't think I should eat chili anymore; it upsets my stomach.

any way/anyway/anyways: Is there any way that HMG can explain this to you so that you will understand? Any way at all? No? Well, I tried, anyway. Anyway, I think you should look this up on your own. By the way, there's no such word as "anyways." So, anyway, the anthropologist said....

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bona fide: Not bonefied, or bonafied, or any other misspelling.

bound and determined: Not bounden determined.

breath/breathe: A breath is what you take; breathe is what you do. Breath is a noun, breathe is a verb.

Not: "Breath, Sandburg! Breath!"

But: "Breathe, Sandburg! Breathe!"

Got it?

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complement/compliment: Complement means to balance, contrast, or offset. Compliment means to praise or flatter.

Example: Molly complimented Blair on how well his blue shirt complemented his eyes.

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defuse/diffuse: Defuse is what Taggert does to a bomb. Diffuse is to spread out or disperse.

Example: Blair knew he had to defuse the bomb, or it would blow up and his molecules would diffuse in the air.

discomfit/discomfort: Discomfit is what you do, a verb; discomfort is what you feel, a noun.

Example: Jim knew having to testify would discomfit Blair. Blair was discomfited by the thought.

Example: Blair's discomfort was obvious to Jim. Blair had been tied up, gagged, and hit in the head. He had seldom known such discomfort.

disburse/disperse: Disburse means to pay out; disperse means to scatter.

Example: Simon disbursed the funds from petty cash to a group of officers. When he was done, the group dispersed.

discreet/discrete: To be discreet is to be careful about what you say or do. To be discrete is to be separate and distinct from something else.

Example: Blair knew he had to be discreet about Jim's sentinel abilities. He maintained two discrete careers: police observer and anthropologist.

drag/drug: HMG is shocked--shocked!--by the misuse of these words. A drug is a chemical. To drug someone is to administer a chemical. The past tense of drag is dragged. It is not now, nor has it ever been, "drug." Use it and die.

NEVER: Jim drug Blair's unconscious form across the floor.

ALWAYS: Jim dragged Blair's unconscious form across the floor.

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either/neither: Just a reminder: it's either/or and neither/nor. They may not be mixed at will.

Used alone, either and neither are always singular. If in doubt, pretend a "one" is in the sentence. Either and neither used with or and nor gets complicated. If both subjects are singular, the verb is singular. If both subjects are plural, the verb is plural. If one subject is singular and one is plural, it depends on which one is closer to the verb. Proximity rules. Really. HMG told you it was complicated.

Examples: Either (one) was fond of Blair. Neither has his attention.

Example 2: Neither Jim nor Blair was able to persuade Simon to pay for a new truck.

Example 3: Neither detectives nor anthropologists were able to determine the origin of the dart.

Example 4: Neither co-eds nor his dissertation means as much to Blair as Jim does.

Example 5: Either HMG or her readers understand this now. With luck, we all do.

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farther/further: Another confusing one. Farther refers to distance, further covers everything else.

Example: Blair was exhausted and couldn't go any farther. Further research proved that Jim had a genetic advantage. Jim wouldn't discuss it any further.

formally/formerly: Formally means in a formal manner, usually having something to do with ceremonies, rituals, and that sort of thing. Formerly means used to be.

Example: Blair was formally dressed, in a top hat and tails.

Example 2: Jim was formerly in Vice; now, he works in Major Crimes.

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gonna/gotta/wanna: These contractions of "going to," "got to," and "want to" may be used, sparingly, in dialogue. Sparingly, do you hear? Don't overdo, or your characters will sound uneducated. And we wouldn't want that, now, would we?

gorilla/guerilla: A gorilla is a large ape. A guerilla is a military fighter whose tactics are based on secrecy.

Example: Under Jim's leadership, the Chopec became expert guerilla fighters. Under King Kong's leadership, the gorillas broke out of the zoo and took over New York.

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hanged/hung: People who are executed by means of suspension with a rope around the neck are hanged. Pictures, and men who have large generative organs, are hung. Please do not confuse the two. HMG will not give you an example; don't ask again.

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impact: Impact is a noun, not a verb. One does not impact something, one has an impact.

its/it's/its': Its is the possessive pronoun, "belonging to it." It's is a contraction of "it is" or "it has." Its is just like hers, yours, and ours. It takes no apostrophe. Its' is just silly. The plural of it is "they."

Example: The panther's in a bad mood. It's a good thing Jim didn't try to take its dinner away. It's got an antelope and it's very protective of its food.

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lead/led: The past tense of lead--as in guide or go in front-- is led. Pay no attention to the past tense of "read"; it doesn't work the same way.

Example: As Jim's Spiritual Guide, Blair can lead him anywhere he wants. This has often led to trouble.

lets/let's: Lets means allows. Let's is a contraction of "let us."

Example: Hey, Jim, let's take off and go to the game this afternoon. Only if Simon lets us, Chief.

lie/lay: This one confuses a lot of people. A subject lies; one lays an object down. (Chickens and sexual acts do not count.) However, the past tense of lie is lay, just to make things difficult.

Examples: Lie down, Blair. Blair laid his backpack on the table and lay down on his bed. Lying there, Blair thought about a time when he had lain in one position for three days, with only his teddy bear lying next to him. He lay there contemplating the meaning of life. Sometimes, Blair lays his papers on the floor, but Jim doesn't like it. He lies on the couch a lot, and he doesn't like to see anything lying on the floor.

literally: A friend of HMG's said it best: Literally means that what you are describing is not a metaphor, but is exactly what happened. It is not a term implying extreme emphasis. If someone's head "literally exploded," you are not saying he was particularly upset, or had an extremely bad emotional reaction or a severe headache. You are saying there was brain goo and bone shrapnel splattering the walls. (HMG's thanks to Jo.)

loose/lose: Something that is loose is not fastened tightly. To lose something is to misplace it.

Example: Simon, that button on your cuff is loose. Better sew it, or you might lose it. You know how losing buttons makes you lose your head.

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nauseated/nauseous: HMG is positively nauseated by the number of writers who refer to their characters as being nauseous. If Blair is feeling ill, he is nauseated. If he is nauseous, he makes other people ill. Yes, HMG realizes that everyone--even members of the medical profession--uses nauseous to mean nauseated, and this is therefore a lost cause, so you may do as you will. HMG doesn't wish to discuss this any further.

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obfuscate: Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean "to lie." It means "to muddle, confuse, or bewilder." So, if Blair is obfuscating, he is not lying, he is deliberately confusing the issue.

of: A perfectly nice little word, which sometimes sneaks into places where it does not belong, such as between an adjective and a noun.

Bad: How big of a mistake was it? How long of a wait will it be?

Good: How big a mistake was it? How long a wait will it be?

Or after such words as could, should, and would. It is not could of, should of, would of, it only sounds like that when people don't enunciate properly. What you are actually hearing is could've, should've, would've, which are contractions of could have, should have, and would have. For the proper use of "would have," see would.

overdo/overdue: To overdo is to do too much; overdue means late.

Example: Don't overdo the studying, Sandburg. You know how tired you get if you overdo it. Besides, I thought those books were overdue at the library. Simon's helicopter is overdue.

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phase/faze: One goes through a phase. If something doesn't bother one, one is not fazed.

Example: Daryl's going through a phase, but Simon doesn't let it faze him.

precede/proceed: To precede is to go before. To proceed is to continue, or to begin and then continue.

Example: Jim preceded Blair through the door, and proceeded to interrogate the suspect.

prone/supine: If one is prone, one is lying on one's stomach. If one is supine, one is lying on one's back. Is that clear? Probably not, as HMG has found dictionaries which list them as synonyms. Trust her, they are not. (Thanks to Susan.)

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rack/wrack: A rack is a torture device. Something that is racked is tortured, twisted, or strained. Wrack is debris from a shipwreck. Something that is wracked is destroyed.

Example: Blair racked his brain. He was racked with guilt after the nerve-racking shootout.

reign/rein: To reign is to rule, and is the job of kings, queens, and other such individuals. To rein is to control, curb, or restrain. (HMG's thanks to Terri.)

Example: Simon reigned over Major Crime. Jim had to rein in his temper, or Simon would rain invective upon him. Blair reined in his enthusiasm.

revere/reverie: To revere is to hold something in high esteem, awe, or fear; reverie is daydreaming.

Example: All the detectives in Major Crimes revere Jim for his incredible arrest record.

Example 2: Blair was in a reverie, his mind filled with images of Chris, Sam, and Molly.

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sight/site: A sight is something you see: a view, a spectacle, a thing worth seeing. A site is a location, the place where something is or something happened.

Example: Blair couldn't wait to see the sights of Peru. He was especially interested in visiting the site of the Chopec village Jim had told him about. He had found a site on the web with pictures, but he wanted to see for himself, even though he didn't have Jim's sentinel sight. He wished he had seen Jim when he lived among the Chopec. What a sight that would have been!

sneak/snuck: The past tense of sneak is sneaked. There is no such word as "snuck." Yes, people use it, and HMG will allow you to get away with it in dialogue, if you must. But you may not use it in narrative.

Example: Jim sneaked to the refrigerator, hoping to get the last of the Cherry Garcia without waking Blair. He had sneaked a spoonful earlier, but he wanted it all.

straight/strait: HMG will quote her friend again: Straight means without bend or curvature. It also means "not gay," as in heterosexual. Strait refers to something narrow, tight, or constrictive. Someone in bad circumstances is in dire straits. An anthropologist getting by on grants is in financially straitened circumstances. Someone old-fashioned morally or ethically is strait-laced. And psychiatric patients in need of restraint are confined in straitjackets.

suddenly: Bad word. Bad, bad word. Don't use it. Find some other way to indicate something that happens abruptly or without warning.

Bad: Blair crept through the old house. Suddenly, he heard boards creak. He was suddenly aware that he was not alone. Suddenly, a hand grabbed him. .

Good: Blair crept through the old house. Above him, boards creaked. His head jerked up. Oh, God, he wasn't alone. A hand gripped his arm, yanking him back.

suicidal assignation attempts: Malaprops are caused when you use an incorrect word that sounds like the word you should have used. They are often unintentionally hilarious, and can ruin the mood of your story. With apologies to whoever wrote this, HMG has appropriated her favorite recent example as an identifier of such malapropisms.
The author of the above phrase was not talking about extremely dangerous romantic liaisons, but about murders that would result in the deaths of the killers as well as the victims. The author meant, of course, to say "suicidal assassination attempts." This mistake occurred twice during the course of the story, escaping the attentions of at least five beta readers. HMG highly recommends the use of dictionaries. Even the best beta reader can miss things.

suppose/supposed: When you are obligated to do something, you are supposed to do it. You are not "suppose" to do it. If you "suppose," you are thinking or imagining something.

Example: What was he supposed to do now? Jim was supposed to be at the warehouse, but there was no sign of him. Blair sighed. "Well, I suppose I can sit here and wait."

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there/their/they're: There is where it is, and a lot of other things HMG won't attempt to define. Their means belonging to them. They're is a contraction of "they are."

Example: They're late. There isn't any sign of them. There they are! Where? There!
Do they have their guns with them?
No, they're unarmed.

This is another favorite. If your character is thinking, it is a given that he is thinking to himself. It is therefore not necessary to tell the readers that. Unless your character is telepathic, "he thought" will do nicely.

tiramisu: Not "tiara misu." There are no rhinestones on this particular Italian dessert.

to/too/two: HMG finds it difficult to believe that she has to include these words. The distinction should be obvious, but a reader asked her to include them because she has found too many examples of incorrect usage in stories she has read. She has found more than two. In HMG's opinion, even two is too many. Have you found some, too? That is really too much. HMG wants you to know that she feels for you. She does, too.

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unique: If something is unique, there is nothing else like it. It is one of a kind. You cannot say "very," "almost," or "sort of" unique. It is either unique, or it isn't.

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viscous cycle: Something that is viscous is sticky, like glue or honey. The correct term is "vicious circle."

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who's/whose: Who's is a contraction of "who is". Whose means belonging to who or whom.

Example: Whose dart is that? Incacha's. Who's he?

would: Would is a perfectly good word. It does not, however, belong after "if" and before "have," no matter what you may have heard. Had will do nicely.

Bad: If Jim would have asked Blair, he would have done it.

Good: If Jim had asked Blair, he would have done it.

Good, but old: Had Jim asked Blair, he would have done it.

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your/you're: Your means belonging to you. You're is a contraction of "you are."

Example: Sandburg, is this your sandwich? You're not going to eat that, are you?

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