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The English language has many confusing word pairs, those word pairs that make people stop and ask, “Is it this word or that word? Which word do I use?”

Writing, of any type, is for communication. When you use the correct word, you can accurately communicate your ideas. On the other hand, if you use the wrong word, you risk communicating the wrong idea, and you risk losing credibility with your reader, whether your reader is a potential client, a professor, a publisher, or a visitor to your web site.

The following 6 word pairs give people the most difficulty:
  • affect vs. effect
  • that vs. which
  • that vs. who
  • who vs. whom
  • among vs. between
  • lay vs. lie

The information below is the quick and dirty explanation of which word to use.

Affect vs. Effect

Affect: This is a verb that means change, influence, or alter.
example: Technology affects our lives in many ways.

Effect: This is typically used as a noun that means result, conclusion, or response.
example: My poem had a good effect on her.

Effect: This can be used as a verb that means create or cause.
example: This new law will effect a change in the way we do business.

That vs. Which

That: Use this word to point out one thing in a category of things, to indicate which one.
example: Cut down the tree that was hit by lightning.

Which: Use this word to provide additional information or a description.
example: I bought a new book, which I found in the bargain bin. (The comma is required.)

That vs. Who

That: Use this word to indicate a thing. See above.

Who: Use this word when referring to a person; use it like either that or which.
example (similar to that): I have an aunt who loves water skiing.
example (similar to which): My aunt, who is 93 years old, loves water skiing.

Who vs. Whom

Who: This pronoun is the subject of a verb.
example: I know who robbed the bank.

Whom: This is an object pronoun (use it like him).
example: Whom shall I send this book to? (or: To whom shall I send this book?)

Among vs. Between

Among: Use this to indicate a position within 3 or more things.
example: The flowers grew among the trees.

Between: Use this to indicate a position within 2 things.
example: I placed the book between the two vases.

Lay vs. Lie

Lay: This means to place one thing on another.
example: The vet lay the dog on the table.

Lie: This means to rest in a horizontal position.
example: I think about life when I lie on the bed.

Obviously, this list doesn’t discuss all the uses of these words. Some of these words can be used in other ways, too. (For example, lie can also mean to make an untrue statement intentionally, and that can be used as a subject pronoun.) However, if you are trying to decide which word to use, you are probably trying to communicate one of the two meanings described above.

These 6 word pairs are not the only confusing word pairs in English. The usage guide Which Word Do I Use contains a full discussion of these confusing words and 17 others that frequently confuse writers.

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Comment by scribbler on February 22, 2011 at 6:42am

You know what I also mix up? Past and passed. It's so silly too! Every single time I have to stop and think about which version to use. I have a real mental block on that.  Thanks David for the tips! I didn't know the difference between lay and lie was so specific.

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