This guide to word usage is based on several sources, which are not always in agreement. Remember American English is a “living” language. Also, writers must always consider their audiences.
When we weren’t sure about one of these words or phrases, we checked American Usage and Style, by Roy H. Copperud. We could compare various dictionaries and grammar guides… if we had nothing else to do for several years. Copperud compares at least nine sources, noting when major references differ. Dictionary definitions used on these pages are quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary or the Oxford New American Dictionary.
naked / nude - Naked is considered whimsical while nude is considered suggestive or artistic. The choice is left to the writer (and editor).
The drunken painter sat naked on his stool, painting dancing nudes.
need - Avoid when possible. There are few needs in life: food and shelter, top the list.
neither - Use a singular verb and the conjunction nor.
Neither he nor she is the author of the poem.
nevertheless - One word; means in spite of that or notwithstanding.
nice - Overused. Avoid when possible.
no man’s land - Three words, with a possessive.
noncontroversial - Avoid. All issues are controversial. Anything else is a statement of fact.
nonetheless - One word; means in spite of that or notwithstanding. Synonym to nevertheless.
not - Avoid when it is possible to use a single word without weakening the sentence. Sometimes, not works best. Negative words often begin with un, an, a, in, or im.
The show was not interesting.
The show was uninteresting.
I am not going.
Edited, yet weaker:
I am remaining here. (Awkward.)
notwithstanding - One word; means in spite of. See also nevertheless and nonetheless.
nowadays - One word, not nowdays.
nowheres - Nonstandard for nowhere.
numerous - Avoid as imprecise. Use many when necessary.
There were numerous books on the desk.
There were ten books on the desk.
of - One of the most overused words in English (yes, sarcasm). Remove when possible. Also, remove of in most cases dealing with groups or measurements.
One of the writers left early.
One writer left early.
of between / of from - Use to indicate a range of measure.
The script requires a budget of between 20 and 30 million dollars.
of course - Avoid. Implies the reader is ignorant.
Of course, anyone can ride a bike.
Anyone can ride a bike. (Still hyperbole, but less insulting.)
off of - Simply off.
He fell off of his chair.
He fell off his chair.
often - An adverb of time, use with caution. Often is not precise.
We went to the beach often.
We went to the beach weekly.
OK - Do not use okay according to the Associated Press. O.K. is also considered acceptable.
old friend - Cliché. Often considered ironic, use with care.
on - Use more precise prepositions when possible. On should apply only to a physical location. Try to substitute about or of; at or by; for; toward; or in. Avoid on before a date or day of the week.
We will meet on Monday
We will meet Monday.
on / upon - As prepositions, increasingly synonymous in American English. Any editorial decision to use upon is based on a desire for literary effect. Use upon (sparingly) for time, abstractions, and repetitions. Upon may also be used to indicate “old” things or ideas. Use on for locations, connected parts, and direct correlations.
“Upon my love for you, I must act!” he declared.
She placed his calling card on the desk.
He wrote her letter upon letter, declaring his loyalty.
Based on her seeming lack of response, he moved to France.
Though his name was on the cover, the story was based upon a familiar legend.
(We assume the legend is old, hence upon is acceptable.)
on the grounds that - Use because.
one - Avoid as a replacement for I or you, except in formal writing.
One should be honest in poetry.
You should be honest in poetry.
online / on-line - On-line is considered correct; online is increasingly common.
only - A common cause of split verb phrases.
He has only been writing a few years. (Has been writing is the verb phrase.)
He has been writing only a few years.
on to / onto - Onto is a preposition while on to is part of the verb phrase.
Placing her credit card onto the counter, she asked to travel on to New York.
onward / onwards - Only onward is an adjective while either can be used as an adverb.
The onward journey would be challenging.
Walking onwards, his feet ached.
or / nor - Use nor in the negative sense when the introductory statement does not directly affect the action refused. Use or if the two relate.
You must fish or cut bait. (You free the bait if you do not use the smaller fish as lures.)
She refused to finish the script, nor would she give it to another writer.
other than - Avoid when redundant. Use otherwise or except.
ought - Do not use with auxiliary verbs and do not omit to when using the infinitive phrase.
She ought to write nightly for practice.
outside - Do not use of.
He stood outside of the agent’s office.
He stood outside the agent’s office.
over - For numbers use more than. Use over as a preposition of location.
overall - The adjective and adverb are one word.
Overall, they succeeded. The overall effect was unknown.
owing / owing to - Use because or since.
pair / pairs - Either is a correct plural, though pairs is increasingly common. In relation to people use a plural verb.
The pair were scheduled to appear on the same panel. The host requested three pairs of shoes for the taping.
paramount - Avoid. Use important when possible. We like paramount, but most editors will remove it.
pass / passed / past - A common mistake is to use past as a past tense of pass. The proper verb is passed. The past is a time.
We watched as he passed the store, remembering how alive he looked in the past.
people / persons - People is the correct use for the plural of person.
per - Use a or an adverb when possible.
He mailed query letters twice per week.
He mailed query letters twice a week.
— or —
He mailed query letters twice weekly.
percentage - Often mistakenly used to indicate a small fraction, percentage refers to any number. Because it is meaningless without a value, avoid using.
perfect - Avoid modifiers with perfect, something is perfect or not. Some clichés are acceptable, but use them wisely.
perform an analysis - Use analyze.
per se - Avoid, as per se means “of, by, or in itself” and should not be used to define or clarify a statement.
He wasn’t gifted, per se, but worked hard.
He wasn’t gifted, but worked hard.
petite - Avoid. Petite refers to height only, but most assume the word implies a complete smallness.
Ph.D. - The correct form for a Doctor of Philosophy degree’s abbreviation.
pique vs peak - It’s pique (prick, tease) your interests, not peak.
plead innocent - In law there is no such phrase; the correct phrase is “plead not guilty.” Innocence is not a legal finding.
pleaded / pled - Pleaded is preferred by journalists, but pled is considered correct American English, too.
p.m. - The correct form is p.m., not pm or PM. See a.m.
plus - Use and when possible. Plus requires a singular verb. Do not use plus to join independent clauses.
The dress plus her expression is the formula for seduction.
precede / proceed - Precede is a verb meaning "to come before in time." Proceed is also a verb, but means "to begin or continue a course of action."
pretty - Avoid in the sense of moderately.
It was a pretty nice day.
It was a nice day.
Also avoid: pretty well, pretty close, pretty bad…
principal / principle - Principle refers to "an origin, source of action, or a primary element, source or law that produces particular results (OED)". Principal means "belonging to the first rank; among the most important; prominent, leading, main (OED)".
prior to - Use before.
private industry - Redundant. Industry is private, unless you are in a socialist or communist country with state-owned industry.
probe - Use investigation when appropriate. Probes are popular tools of aliens, some publications claim.
professor - Reserve for those with a Ph.D.
prophecy / prophesy - The noun and the verb forms.
The prophecy was bleak. Why would he prophesy such a thing?
protagonist - Greek meaning “the principle actor in a story.” The protagonist is not necessarily good.
protest - Do not use the preposition of. One protests against an injustice.
put - Use for a physical action. Usually, a better word can be chosen.
He put the pen on the desk and walked away.
quality - Items have quality or they do not. Avoid modifiers, such as high or low.
quasi - Hyphenate with adjectives.
It is a quasi-historical novel.
quick / quickly - Use quickly as an adverb.
Roadrunners are quick. We saw one quickly cross the highway.
quite - Avoid when possible, quite is like pretty when used as a modifier.
She was quite nice.
She was nice
quote / quotation - Quote is a verb. Quotation is a noun. For clarity, do not use quote as a shortened version of the noun.
raised / reared - Animals are said to be raised while children are reared. It is increasingly common to use raised in both instances.
rather - The equivalent of somewhat or moderately. Avoid using additional modifiers.
He was a rather talented poet.
real / really - Real is an adjective. Really is an adverb. In informal writing and speech, real is sometimes mistakenly used as a shortened version of the adverb, but avoid this in formal writing.
reason why - Redundant. Just use reason.
recur / reoccur - Recur is preferred for a repeated event.
rebut / refute - rebut is to argue the contrary. Refute connotes success in the argument.
regardless - Irregardless is not a word. To regard is to consider; regardless means without consideration. Irregardless is technically a double negative, with the prefix and suffix canceling each other.
Regardless of the final score, the team earned respect.
rendezvous - Properly used as a noun. One cannot rendezvous with; there is a rendezvous event.
The lovers’ rendezvous was ruined by her husband.
respectfully / respectively - Respectfully is the adverb form of respectful, "to show deference or respect." Respectively is also an adverb, but means "separately and in the order already mentioned."
I must respectfully correct you, sir. Tom, Dick, and Harry, are the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker, respectively.
result - Use the preposition in, not with.
Poverty might result in crime.
review / revue - Use revue for stage performances. A review is a study or critique.
The critic’s review of the revue was cruel.
Rio Grande River - Redundant, since rio means river. Use Rio Grande.
routine - Often redundant, anything normal or expected is routine.
Sahara Desert - Redundant as Sahara means desert.
said / stated - Written words are stated. Only the spoken word can be said. We see evidence said and its forms are being used for printed words, but academic editors still prefer stated.
“It states in his will that the money goes to the dog,” the lawyer said.
same - Avoid using as a pronoun. Sometimes it reads more naturally and should be used, but attempt to rewrite the passage except in dialogue.
He lied on the stand today. The same was true yesterday.
He lied on the stand today, just as he did yesterday.
sans - Replace with without; most people don’t use sans.
scattered in all directions - Redundant. Use scattered.
scholar - Reserved for a specialist at a university.
see that / see where - Use see that, not see where unless you want to indicate a specific location.
I see that he was shot twice. Can you see where he was standing before he fell?
seldom ever - A contradiction. Use seldom alone.
She seldom ever signs autographs.
She seldom signs autographs.
sensual / sensuous - Sensual is an adjective meaning "gratifying the senses," particulary with regards to sexual pleasure. Sensuous is also an adjective, but means "relating to or affecting the senses rather than the intellect." Something can be sensuous without necessarily being sensual.
set / sit - Set means "to put or place in a specified place or position." Sit means "to adopt a position in which your weight is supposed by your buttocks instead of your feet."
Sarah, please set this bowl on the counter, then sit down at the table.
shall - The first person indication of intention. Increasingly, will is used in American English.
I shall write forever, as you will, too.
sharp - Redundant in reference to time.
Please arrive at 7 p.m. sharp.
Please arrive at 7 p.m.
shoestring - One word.
should / would - Follow the same rules as shall/will.
should of - Nonstandard for should have.
Sierra Nevada Mountains - Redundant. Use Sierra Nevada. Sierra is Spanish for jagged mountains. Amazingly, this appears in print frequently, as does Rio Grand River, another redundancy.
since - Use as an adverb of time. As a conjunction or conditional, replace with for or because when possible. However, because clauses should introduce new information and should end the sentence, not begin it. Since clauses repeat information the reader should already know; they should begin the sentence. Some grammar books insist that since must only be used in its temporal sense, but there is a causal meaning that has been in use for more than a thousand years, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage. In its causal use, since implies a milder relationship than because.
Since it was raining, she remained indoors.
She remained indoors because it was raining.
sir - Correctly used with the full name of a British gentleman.
Sir Winston Churchill.
Skid Road / Skid Row - A skid road is a logging road (“skids”) and in Seattle there is a street named Skid Road where loggers first gathered. Skid Road became slang for poor, unemployed, or homeless in Seattle. As the slang spread, Skid Row became the generic slang.
slander - To defame verbally, such as by spreading a rumor. See libel.
He slandered his former lover, saying she was a liar.
slow / slowly - Slow may be used as an adverb and an adjective. Slowly is preferred as an adverb, but not required.
The new driver was a slow learner. He drove slowly out of fear.
small - Use for size, but avoid for numbers of items.
smell - Follow with an adjective such as bad, sweet, sour, or good. Do not follow with an adverb.
The rose smelled sweetly.
The rose smelled sweet.
snack - Use as a verb.
He snacked on potato chips.
so as - Redundant.
so far - Avoid.
sobeit - One word.
somebody / someone - Both are correct.
something / somewhat - Something is preferred.
She is somewhat of a tart.
She is something of a tart.
some time / sometime / sometimes - Some time is an adverbial phrase meaning an interval. Sometime is an adverb indicating an indefinite event. Sometimes indicates a probability.
After some time, the detective said, “The poison is sometimes fatal.” Sometime later, the victim died.
species - Both singular and plural.
splendid - Avoid as hyperbole.
square - For areas, precede the unit of measure.
The estate covered six miles square.
The estate covered six square miles.
state of the art - Overused. Most new technology products are “state of the art.”
stunning - Overused, hyperbole.
such as - Use like when possible.
sudden death - Common in sports, but avoid in most writing.
suggest - Use to imply a tentative statement.
She suggested there was enough evidence for an arrest.
suggestive - To imply a sexual situation.
The dress was quite suggestive.
suicide - Use as a noun, not a verb.
supine - Lying face upward.
suppose to - Use supposed to.
sure and - Nonstandard use for sure to.
sure / surely - Use surely as an adverb, sure as an adjective.
He was sure she loved him… as her kiss surely proved.
temperature - Use fever for the result of an infection.
than / then - Use than as a conjunction in most cases, not a preposition. Some experts do disagree, however. Than compares items by degree or extent. Then is an adverb meaning "at that time."
He is a better writer than she is.
that - Overused. Remove that when possible.
We believe that she lied.
We believe she lied.
that / which - That begins a restrictive clause and which begins a nonrestrictive clause. A good rule is to look for a comma, which marks the start of a nonrestrictive clause.
That red car was speeding. The driver ignore the light, which was red.
that / who - Use who for people and that for things.
Any student that is late will be penalized.
Any student who is late will be penalized.
theater / theatre - Use theatre for stage productions or groups of people organized to present classical drama, theater for buildings. This guideline is not observed closely, as some buildings are named “Theatre” and some groups use “Theater” in their names.
thee / thou - Thou is the nominative and thee is the objective form. This guideline is violated in the King James Bible and within Shakespeare’s works.
theirselves - Nonstandard use for themselves.
them - Do not use them in place of those. Them is a pronoun. Those is the plural form of that.
Them books are hard to read.
Those books are hard to read.
then - Do not confuse with than; then indicates the next event in a timeline. See than.
He stabbed his lawyer then hid the body.
there - Avoid there is and there are to begin sentences. Rewrite when possible.
There is evidence of his guilt.
Evidence suggests his guilt.
there / their / they're - There is an adverb specifying a place or position. Their is a possessive pronoun. They're is the contraction of they are.
They're running down the street to get to their car. The car is parked over there, in front of the fire hydrant.
this / these - Often confusing as pronouns, associate with a noun when possible.
This book is popular.
though - See although.
thus - Avoid. It sounds pretentious, thus omit the word.
to / too / two - To is a preposition "expressing motion in the direction of." Too is an adverb meaning "to a higher degree than desired." Two is a number.
I went to the store to pick up two steaks, but they were too expensive.
together with - Redundant. Use one or the other.
We went together with the other class.
We went with the other class.
toward / towards - Towards is often used for movement in the direction of a real object, but either is correct. According to Bryan A. Garner, in American English, toward is preferred. In British English, towards is preferred. The same rule holds true all directional words: upward, downward, backward, and forward.
truth be told - Unless you are a professional liar, this is unnecessary to state.
try and - Nonstandard for try to.
tsar - Use czar
unaware / unawares - Unawares is an adverb, unaware the adjective.
She was unaware of his love, walking unawares beside him.
unhuman - Possessing no human traits, as opposed to inhuman, which means cruel. However, it is common to use inhumane for cruel.
The unhuman monster was the creation on the inhuman scientist.
uninterested - Not paying attention. See disinterested.
unique - Overused. If necessary, avoid modifiers since unique cannot be more or less so.
Her excuse was the most unique.
Her excuse was unique.
unmoral - Immoral means contrary to accepted standards. Amoral and unmoral mean without regard to moral standards. See immoral.
until - Overused. All situations exist until they change.
upon - Used to indicate time or immediacy. Use on for locations. See on / upon.
Upon entering, he gasped at the horrorific scene.
upward / upwards - Use upward. According to Bryan A. Garner, in American English, upward is preferred. In British English, upwards is preferred. The same rule holds true all directional words: downward, backward, forward, toward.
use to - Nonstandard for used to.
utilize - Replace with use. Depending on the reference source, utilize means to employ a strategy or plan effectively or to resort to using a tool out of practicality. In science and technology writing, to utilize is to “make use of resources efficiently.”
The football team utilized an unusual formation in fourth down situations.
The human body utilizes beneficial parasites during the digestive process.
We used the rusty key to open the door.
Always use the right tool for the job.
vast - Avoid. Most phrases using vast are clichés.
very - Overused. Either delete or try revising the sentence.
visit with - Use visit.
wait for / wait on - Use for, not on unless referring to a service provider waiting on a client. To wait for is "to await." To wait on is "to serve."
We were waiting on her to finish.
We were waiting for her to finish.
ways - Nonstandard for way when representing distance.
weather / whether - Weather is a noun referring to the "state of the atmosphere." Whether is a conjunction expressing "doubt or choose between two alternatives."
well - 1) A state of health.
He is well today.
2) An adverb of manner. See good.
She writes well.
3) Hyphenate in compounds before a noun, but not after.
The well-dressed man was well tuned as a politician.
West - A region of the United States.
what ever / whatever - Use what ever in questions, whatever in other instances.
“What ever are you doing?” she demanded.
“Whatever I wish,” he replied.
whatchamacallit - One word. Slang for an unnamed object; short for what you might call it.
whatsoever - One word; means at all.
where - Do not use where in place of that. Where is an adverb referring to a place or position. That, in this case, is a determiner "used to identify a person or thing being observed or heard by the speaker." In the example given below, the meaning of the first sentence is unclear and can refer to a specific location where the taxes may increase.
I heard where the county is going to raise our taxes.
I heard that the county is going to raise our taxes.
whereabouts - A singular, requiring a singular verb. It is better to use a prepositional phrase, for ease of construction. (is, not are, in U.S. English)
Her whereabouts is unknown.
We did not know the whereabouts of the suspect.
whereas - Use whereas to mean “while on the contrary.” See although, while.
wherewithal - One word; refers to the money or means necessary to pay for something.
whether / if - Whether is preferred when offering alternatives. Use if only for conditional statements. See if.
If the writer receives a Hugo he can decide whether or not to attend the ceremony.
which - See that / which.
while / although /whereas - Garner’s Modern American Usage states these three words are, for the most part, interchangeable. We prefer to eliminate potential ambiguity by using while only in its temporal sense to mean “during the time that,” using although to mean “in spite of the fact that,” and using whereas to mean “while on the contrary.”
While I stir the cookie dough, can you turn on the oven?
Chocolate chip cookies are Scott's favorite cookie, whereas double chocolote chip cookies are my favorite.
Although I love homemade cookies, I try not to make them more often than once a month.
who / whom - Use whom with care. Whom is an objective form, but is falling from common use. As the object of a preposition, use whom. Look for to whom and by whom. A simple test is replacing whom with him or them, which are objective case pronouns.
To whom should we mail the check?
whomsoever / whosoever - One word; formal terms for whomever and whoever.
who’s / whose - The contraction who’s is used for “who is/has.” The posessive form whose is replaced mistakenly with who’s by some writers.
word-of-mouth - Always hyphenate, as a noun or adjective.
workday / workweek - Both are compound words.
would of - Nonstandard (misuse) of would have.
would likely - Use might.
yearlong - The adjective yearlong is one word in some style manuals.
your / you’re - Your is a possessive pronoun. You’re is a contraction for you are.
You’re going to spoil your appetite if you eat cookies this close to dinnertime.
Our guide to word usage is based on American Usage and Style, by Roy H. Copperud. We could compare various dictionaries and grammar guides… if we had a year or two. Copperud compares at least nine sources, noting when major references differ. We also use the Associated Press Stylebook, which is the primary style guide for reporters and editors at daily newspapers and many periodicals. The AP is not the Modern Language Association, nor does the AP adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style so many graduate students have struggled to master. Never assume the style of a publication, publisher, or university. Always ask for the name of the current standard to save yourself rewrites or rejection.
Partridge, Eric, and Janet Whitcut. Usage and
Abusage: A Guide to Good English. 1942. Rev. by Janet Whitcut.
New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 5th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001. (ISBN: 1557988102)
Turabian, Kate L., John Grossman, and Alice Bennett. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. 6th ed. Rev. by John Grossman and Alice Bennett. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. (ISBN: 0226816265, 0226816273)