English is a notoriously difficult language to learn. Many verbs are conjugated with no recognizable rhyme or reason. Supposedly helpful “rules” often come with so many exceptions that they render the original guidelines useless. And for those who believe you can simply “sound out the word”, be warned: silent (and deadly), unpronounced letters have long duped even the most careful spellers.
To help you navigate the sea of confusion, we picked out five of the most frequently confused and misused word pairs. These are words that can be confusing even for native English speakers, let alone English learners.
1. Affect vs. effect
These two homophones, identical in spelling save for one letter, are one of the most frequently looked up word pairs. Affect is to “produce an effect upon” or “to act upon” while effect is the “result” or “consequence.” For example, The mother’s emotional detachment greatly affected her daughter’s upbringing. The effects of 9/11 on airport security will be felt for years to come.
A helpful mnemonic device is to remember that “a” is for action (affect) while “e” is the result (effect).
*There is a noun version for the word “affect” but this usage is obsolete and rarely used. More often than not, unless the literature you’re reading, the word “affect” refers to the verb form.
**There is also a verb form for effect, which means “to bring about” (For example, “to effect change”). By and large, however, the noun form is more pervasive.
2. Fewer vs. Less
Fewer and less are especially tricky because they have the same meaning but are used in different contexts. Both refer to a smaller or reduced amount, but fewer means “not as many things” while less means “not as much stuff.” Fewer is used with people and nouns that can be numbered (also known as “count nouns”), while less refers to nouns that cannot be counted or do not have a plural (otherwise known as “mass nouns” or “collective nouns”). Words like hunger, water, air, time, money, music and traffic are considered mass nouns/collective and would use “less.” Words like houses, dogs, people, children, and pocket calculators would use “fewer.” For more information on mass and count nouns, this entry may be useful.
If you’re still unsure, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Can I (realistically) count this noun? Does this noun take a plural?” If the answer is yes, use “few” or “fewer.” If not, use “less.”
3. Who vs. Whom
“Who” is a pronoun that refers to the subject of a clause, while “Whom” refers to the object of a clause. Put another way, “who” is the person performing the action, while “whom” is being acted on.
One tip is to try replacing “who/whom” with “he/him.” If the sentence makes sense when replaced with “he,” use who. If it makes sense when “him” is replaced, use whom. For example, we know that whom is incorrect in the sentence, “Whom gave you the book?” because when the subject is replaced, the sentence clearly sounds wrong: “Him gave you the book?” The correct question would be “Who (He) gave you the book?”
Him? Who? He? Whom? Not much help if you can’t remember which pronoun goes with which. Which is why we like this memory tip offered by Grammar Girl: just remember that both whom and him end in “m.”
We hope this post has been informative and trust that you are now better equipped to wield the ins and outs of the English language. Please stay tuned for an upcoming Part 2!
Fleming, Grace. “Confusing Words.” About.com
Fogarty, Mignon. “Less Versus Fewer.” Grammar Girl.
“‘Less’ or ‘fewer’?” Oxford Dictionaries.
Lynch, Jack. Guide to Grammar and Style.