Monday, June 20, 2011

Common English "Stumpers"

There are many words in the English language that sound similar and/or have a similar definition.

Let us start with Presume and Assume:
Presume is generally used when a fact is being assumed without any evidence to the contrary yet.  Therefore it is often used in legal cases.  'He is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.'
Assume is used when there is no evidence to either possibilities and so the one desired is chosen.  "Is he going to the fair with you?" "I assume so."
Assume and presume are usually interchangeable, and so you only need to think about it if you have a specific attitude to get across.  If you're pretty sure he's going to the fair with you, and you have no evidence otherwise, but you're not quite sure, you could use presume, to try to make that clear.  However, if you've no inclination to his actions one way or the other, you might use assume.
Even so, most people probably won't know the difference and so it likely won't matter.
"H.W. Fowler’s opinion was that in using presume, the speaker believes the supposition is true and will believe it until he learns otherwise. In using assume, the speaker feels no certainty that his supposition is true or not."-

Another commonly confused pair is Effect and Affect.  While in speaking you don't have to think about it, you should be concerned in your writing (although, sadly, the mix up is more and more common in writing these days).
The simple answer is 'effect' is a noun and 'affect' is a verb.  It is a little more complicated than that, however, since both words have other meanings.  For example, has anyone seen 'Pirates of the Caribbean'?  Jack says, "Not without my effects."  Note 'effects'.  You can also use 'effect' as a verb when it means 'to bring about' or 'to accomplish' (usually used with 'change').  I will refer to the following:,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=951dc7972bfd90fb&biw=1024&bih=605


Acapella, A Capella, or A Cappella?  Well, the answer is actually quite simple.  The first is American, the second is Latin, and the third is Italian.  Since music usually uses Italian words, the third is the one you want to go with.  The Latin is acceptable, however, but the first is a common American spelling and is usually considered wrong.

Which brings me to another one: accept and except.  This one seems obvious - accept means 'to include or receive'; except can take the place of 'but' and means 'leaving out'.  'Except' can also mean 'to leave out': "He excepted the twins." - So remember this last definition and you're golden!

Altogether and All Together: "They are all together," and, "They are altogether ridiculous."  The second is an adverb, the first is an adjective, in simplest terms.

Note about Adviser and Advisor: same thing! - this also clears up 'documentor' or 'documenter'

As for Fiance and Fiancee, the first is the male, the second is the female.  That is, 'fiance' is the male who is betrothed; 'fiancee' is the woman to whom he is betrothed.

And now for perhaps the toughest one: Who and Whom.  (*Lightning flashes, thunder rolls.*)  Easiest part: 'who' is the subject of the sentence, 'whom' is the direct object of the sentence.  However, replacing 'sentence' with 'phrase' works better for, in fact, "The police gave tickets to whoever had parked in front of the fire hydrant."  'Whoever' is the subject of the phrase 'whoever had parked', the subject of the action 'had parked'.
A good test is the substitute method.  "He had parked," or "Him had parked"?  The correct pronoun doesn't have a 'M' so neither does 'who'.  Use this test with 'he' and 'him' even when the subject was a girl for easiest results.

A few other notes: while avoiding prepositions at the end of phrases and sentences is a noble effort, it is not always practical ("This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.").  Also, although split infinitives are often scorned, there is no real reason why you can't put a word between 'to' and the verb: "To boldly go where no man has gone before," or, "To go boldly where no man has gone before."  The only reason you might keep an infinitive "together" is for flow.
For more "non-errors" see

Awhile or a while?  Use 'a while' when in a prepositional phrase.

Irregardless is not a word!

To understand the difference of 'began' and 'begun', see

By the way, criteria is plural.  Criterion is singular.

Have you ever confused Remuneration with Renumeration?  ...No, neither have I.  However, just so you know, the first simply means 'payment', not 'repayment' as is often supposed; while the second means 're-counting' or counting again.

Hey, born and borne?
"This distinction is a bit tricky. When birth is being discussed, the past tense of “bear” is usually “born”: “I was born in a trailer—but it was an Airstream.” Note that the form used here is passive: you are the one somebody else—your mother—bore. But if the form is active, you need an “E” on the end, as in “Midnight has borne another litter of kittens in Dad’s old fishing hat” (Midnight did the bearing).But in other meanings not having to do with birth, “borne” is always the past tense of “bear”: “My brother’s constant teasing about my green hair was more than could be borne.”" -
On the following site, someone made this good point: "when you're talking about where something came from (e.g. "laws are born of ideas"), the analogy is to childbirth, so you use "born."" -

Also, 'reoccur'?  - Is not a word. says that "after all" is always two words, as does everything else I can find.  However, I think if you were to say, "I guess it worked out afterall," I'd be okay with you putting it together.  Even so, it worked out after all that had happened.  So your pick - shall we be English pioneers or shall we stay with the old fashioned ways?

Now for just a few more homophones (some aren't really homophones):
advice - remember, the 'C' is soft.  This is a noun.
advise - the 'S' sounds like a 'Z'.  This a verb

site - a location
cite - to reference

decent - kind etc.
descent - going down, family origins
dissent - disagreement with prevailing view

Then and Than are especially annoying to me when I see them used incorrectly - 'than' compares, 'then' refers to time or space.

wander - to walk
wonder - to think and contemplate etc.

If you have any further troubles with English, let me know.  I'll try to clear it up! (< another usage of a preposition that must come at the end)



  1. This is great! The then and than error annoys me too, as does confusing too with to. Anyway, this is fantastic!

  2. I found "afterall" in one of my previous posts!

  3. New. Favorite. Post.

    I am soooo going to use this!!


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