Whether you are a novice or an expert content writer, we are all bound to make mistakes. These mistakes can be syntactical, semantic or just plain old wrong choice of words. It can become embarrassing when we find that we are making common mistakes, which could have been avoided. While no one is going to ask you to stop writing if you make a mistake here and there, it is always good to write well using good English.

Unlike French, English is not governed by a language body

The English language does not follow strict rules like French, which is controlled by the Acadamie Française (The French Academy). The Academie Française stipulates the rules for using words and for giving directions about which are the formally accepted words & which are not. Of course, common French people do not follow or take these rules very seriously. A walk on the streets of Paris will reveal a number of accents, dialects and words that are unfamiliar to Standard French speakers. It is the result for centuries of French colonization.

Yet, French language has remained almost unchanged for the last 200 years because of the strict regulations put forth by the French Academy. English, on the other hand, is not governed by any such academies. It is a democratic and fragmented language, which exists in various colors and shades. From the Caribbean English to Australian, South African and the American & British, English exists in various forms, which are all recognized and valued for the contribution they have made towards Anglosphere.

While many would disagree, English is an Indian language as well and a distinct Indian English is a recognized dialect and form of English. In fact, despite the current urge to equate English with colonialism, Indian English has a distinct culture and origin, which makes it as Indian as any other language. With that in mind, we can only imagine the number of words and phrases that English in general has received from various cultures & countries, through years of colonization, migration, immigration, trade, science and cultural exchange. It is no wonder then that many people misuse words and end up creating ambiguity when they write.

Commonly misused words

The purpose of this article is to highlight the fact that English comes in various forms but it is good to avoid ambiguous words, if you are a professional writer. In spite of all these regional and international variations in English, there are certain rules that are common to all countries and people across these countries tend to make similar mistakes. Let us take a look at some of the word pairs that are often misused or used incorrectly.

1. Farther and further

This is a word pair that many people confuse each other with. “Further” is a word that refers to the physical distance. For instance, if you are about 10 kilometers away from your house, you can probably say “My house is still farther from here”. You can also say “Your house is farther than mine for I live closer to the centre of the city”. “Further”, on the other hand, refers to an extension of something. This is a more abstract concept and does not have much to do with actual physical distance.

You can use “further” like this – “How can a business further its SEO optimization plans?”. In this context, further refers to the moving of a certain plan or strategy. It does not refer to the physical distance. Both the words are spelled and pronounced similarly. “Farther” has a longer vowel sound, whereas, “further” has a short vowel sound. It is important to bear these things in mind because when we write, we are mentally reciting what we write. If we recite what we write correctly, we also write correctly. This is one of the ways to “further” our writing skills.

2. Affect and effect

“Affect” is a verb and it means to influence. It also tends to have a negative connotation though it is not always the case. You can probably say “This movie affected my mind in so many different ways”. When “affect” is used as a noun, it refers to emotions. For example, positive “affect” refers to emotions such as joy, pleasure, calmness etc. Negative “affect” refers to emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety and others. It is important to know these differences so that we do not make wrong choices of words. Another word commonly confused with “affect” is “effect”.

“Effect” is, usually, a noun and is the result or consequence of something. It could be either positive or negative. For example, “the effects of global warming can already be seen in our larger cities”. It could also be used in a verb form but that is quite rare. When done so, it means “to bring into existence”. It is important to know the differences between “affect” and “effect” as even native speakers of English make mistakes while choosing between these two words. Again, learning the right pronunciation between the two and pronouncing them correctly while writing can help you to avoid making mistakes.

3. Among and between

One of the most common mistakes that even seasoned writers make and there does not seem to be any awareness of the difference that exists between the two words. “Among” is a word that is used when there are more than two items. For example, you can probably say “among those three boys, I find the younger the most hard-working” or you can probably say “Among countries, it is important to foster goodwill and transparency”.

“Between”, on the other hand, is usually, used to differentiate between two items. For example, you can use “between” like this – “There is no great difference between a man and a woman, except for some minor physical differences”. Another way to use “between” is at the starting of a sentence. You can probably say “Between the two, I choose the first”. Clearly, “between” is used when there are two items and “among” is used when there are more than two items. If you remember this rule, you will not make any mistakes. Among all the word-choice mistakes you can possibly make, the choice between “between” and “among” stands out as the most glaring.

4. Speak and talk

This is a very common mistake that people make while choosing between “speak” and “talk”. The differences between the two words are very subtle and in fact, the author of Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English Usage, Theodore M. Bernstein, reveals that they are almost synonymous. However, there is a difference between the two. It is more about formality than anything else and also about correct usage in certain exceptional situations. “Speak”, originally meant a one way of communication like “A father spoke to his son about the ill effects of smoking”.

On the other hand, “talk” is more informal and is used to convey a message of exchange of ideas like “The son later talked with his friends about the ill effects of smoking”. In this case, we can surmise that the son had a debate or there was an exchange of information between the son and his friends. There was “talking”. Not “speaking”. “Speak” can, thus, be used for one-sided communications and “talk” for more conversational & discussion-based communication. In fact, we always tell people “You are speaking to me but not talking with me”.

Knowing that words have to be used in the right context

If you notice, all the four word pairs listed above need not be used in the right context or they might be confused with each other. However, when that distinction is made, your communication is more effective and natural. This list was not meant to be an exhaustive list of word pairs that are commonly misused by writers and speakers.

Instead, it was written to highlight that in spite of various cultural and regional differences among English speakers across the world, there are certain words which are used the same way all over the world. It was also written to highlight the fact that there can be subtle differences among word pairs that we, usually, assume are synonymous with each other. It is important to be careful and think twice before using a word. When you are in doubt, at least run a Google search to probe the correct usage of the word.

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