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10 memory aids to help prevent misused words

Do you have trouble remembering which word to use in certain situations? Plenty of words are similar and easy to confuse -- and that can make you sound stupid even if what you've written is brilliant. Here are some tricks for choosing the right word.

Do you have trouble remembering which word to use in certain situations? Plenty of words are similar and easy to confuse — and that can make you sound stupid even if what you've written is brilliant. Here are some tricks for choosing the right word.


Using words correctly in our writing is crucial to maintaining credibility. Too often, though, we misuse words. Here are 10 of the most commonly misused words, along with memory aids to help you keep them straight.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Principal / principle

The principal of a school is the head of that school, in other words, the main person of the school. Likewise, the principal of a loan is the main portion of the loan. Because the principal of a school is responsible for our education, and loans help us meet our needs, both are our pals. On the other hand, a principle is an idea or a concept, and both of these words, like principle, have an e in them.

#2: Council / counsel

A council is a group of people who make decisions. Counsel, as a noun, refers to a person who gives (typically legal) advice. The last two letters of counsel are e and l, which appear at the beginning of legal.

#3: Loose / lose

When something is loose, it is still there, but not as tightly fastened. A loose button doesn't stay as close to your shirt or jacket as it should — in other words, it's farther away. Loose, because it has two instances of the letter o, is longer than lose. But it takes only an instant to lose something, therefore lose is shorter than loose.

#4: Compliment / complement

To compliment someone is to praise that person. Both of these words have the letter i near the middle. To complement something is to make it complete. Both of these words begin with comple.

#5: Capital / capitol

The capital of a state or a country is the city where the main functions of its government are located. Main has the letter a, as does capital, at the end of the word.

A capitol is the building where government officials meet. Such a building typically has a round dome, or rotunda — similar in shape to the letter o that is in capitol.

#6: To / too / two

When we go to a place, we start from one location and typically end up in the desired location. Think of the t in to as your start and the o as your ending.

Too refers to an excessive amount of something. Here, too has too many instances of the letter o.

Two refers to the number. The last two letters, wo, are the first two letters of won. This word, in turn, sounds like the number one, which immediately precedes two.

#7: Bankrupt / bankruptcy, insolvent / insolvency, pregnant / pregnancy

In each pair of words, the adjective form (bankrupt company, insolvent organization, pregnant woman) is shorter than the noun form (a company in bankruptcy, or insolvency; a woman with a difficult pregnancy). Adjectives modify nouns. In other words, adjectives are merely the window dressing, while the noun is the main act. A noun can exist by itself, but an adjective can't.

If you were to see, for example, George Strait in concert, you wouldn't see him right away. There would be one or more warmup performers preceding him (adjectives), usually with a smaller set of songs and a smaller audience. However, Mr. Strait, as the headliner (noun), would have the larger audience and the larger set of songs.

Caution: Bankruptcy can be a noun, but it can also be an adjective, as in bankruptcy court.

#8: E.g. / i.e.

E.g. means for example, while i.e. means that is. E.g. and example both begin with e. The phrase that is and the abbreviation i.e. both have the letter i.

#9: Imminent / eminent

Something that is imminent will happen soon, in other words, immediately.

An eminent person or idea is one that stands out from the rest. That is, it has made an exit from the rest. Both eminent and exit begin with e.

#10: Allude / elude

To allude to something means to refer to it. If you did so while speaking, such an action would be oral. The last two letters of oral are the first two letters of allude.

To elude someone means to escape capture or recognition. Escape and elude both begin with e.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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