Five Word Pairs Even Grammar Geeks Get Confused

by • December 12, 2013

pears, word pairs, grammar, writingEven the best of us make mistakes sometimes. English majors, professional proofreaders, and even grammar bloggers occasionally misplace a modifier or dangle a preposition. It’s embarrassing, but it happens. Here are five of the most commonly confused words in the English language.

Who vs. Whom: According to Mignon “Grammar Girl” Fogarty, the easiest way to choose between these pronouns is to ask yourself if the answer to the question is he or him. For example, if the sentence is “To whom did she lend the pogo stick?” the answer would be “She gave it to him.” In contrast, the answer to the eternal question “Who let the dogs out?” is “He did.”

Who refers the subject, or the person who does the action in a clause. Whom, on the other hand, refers to the object of a clause, the one to whom things are done.

That vs. Which: Philip B. Corbett, writing for the After Deadline column in The New York Times, advises using “that, not which, in a restrictive clause — a clause necessary to the reader’s understanding of the sentence,” as in the following example: “Cats that have more than five toes on each paw are called polydactyls.” The clause “that have more than five toes on each paw” is necessary, or restrictive, to the meaning of the sentence. On the other hand, in the sentence “Ernest Hemingway was well-known for keeping polydactyl cats, which have more than five toes on each paw,” the clause is non-essential, or nonrestrictive, because the sentence would still mean the same thing without it.

Lie vs. Lay: These are tricky little blighters, all the more so because the past tense of lie is actually lay, proving that whoever planned our language did a poor job of it.

Brian Klems breaks it down in the handy chart from Writer’s Digest, recreated below:

 

Infinitive Definition Present Tense Past Tense Past Participle  Present Participle
To lay To put or place something down  Lay(s) Laid Laid Laying
To lie To rest or recline  Lie(s) Lay Lain Lying

Here they are in action:

Lay: I lay the pencil down/I laid the pencil down/I have laid the pencil down/I am laying the pencil down

Lie: He lies on the floor/He lay on the floor/He has lain on the floor/He is lying on the floor

Fewer vs. Less: The misuse of these words at the grocery store checkout line has sent more than one stickler into a fit of nerd rage. Fewer refers to people or things—countable items. Therefore, it should be “Ten items or fewer” in the express line. According to Oxford Dictionaries, less should be used in reference to things that can’t be counted or don’t have a plural (sand, air, money). For example, you have fewer dollars but less money.

The difference between the two words involves count nouns and mass nouns. Count nouns, as the name implies, are things you can count: bears, Werther’s Original hard candies, librarians, and ocelots. Take one of those away and you have fewer than you did before. Mass nouns refer to things that can’t easily be counted or quantified: gravel, sugar, cotton, and clutter. Mass nouns typically don’t have a separate plural, nor do they get a or an as articles. For example, you wouldn’t say “I’d like a bread,” or “give me more breads, please.”

Farther vs. Further: This one is actually sort of a trick question. In the U.S., farther is usually used to indicate actual, physical distance, while further is more of a metaphorical, intangible distance. For example, “We’re farther from Austin than San Antonio” but “Her statement couldn’t have been further from the truth.” However, in U.K. English, further is used for both meanings, and, according to Grammarist, farther is rarely used. Even in U.S. English, however, many dictionaries and style guides make no distinction between the terms or recommend further to be used across the board.

Which of these notoriously tricky word pairs gives you grief?

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