10 More Words You Literally Didn't Know You Were Getting Wrong

Original header image by Andrea Piacquadio

Last October, I gave you 10 Words You Literally Didn't Know You Were Getting Wrong, and it generated a lot of discussion about common usage, which is often incorrect or imprecise usage; and good usage, which is usually the best way to use a word. I have ten more words for you, but first a brief discussion on common versus good usage and why we should care.

Common Usage versus Good Usage

As a Word Nerd, I often come across words used in a way that is acceptable to most readers or listeners but that is technically not correct or not a good use for the word. For some, this is an opportunity to show one’s language prowess and correct that person, while others recognize that, to a certain extent, all language is guided and molded by those who use it. Therefore, that word might do a fine job of expressing the speaker’s intention, especially if the listener knows what that person is talking about. If I use the word “irregardless” to mean “regardless” and you know what I mean, then have I really used it incorrectly? While we know-it-alls love to flex our big brains when we say, “Uh, that’s not even a word,” the laws of word-usage physics tell us that if a word is used often enough in a given context, it may, eventually, come to have meaning in that context. In many cases, that word becomes legitimate and useful in everyday communication.

Having worked in many places where word-snobbery is frowned upon, I find myself able to sympathize with both sides of the argument. When I worked at a shipyard, I was once kindly advised not to rewrite the work orders using grammatically correct prose because the workers would not be able to quickly interpret and follow through on the task. What seemed semi-incoherent to me was really a functional jargon that made sense to the people that needed to make sense of it.

I try to remember this when I’m teaching or when I’m in an environment where function and expediency take precedence over perfect grammar and usage. That said, there is a difference between good usage and common usage. Even dictionaries sometimes publish a word’s common usage, so style guides can be helpful in determining the best use for a word. When I published my list of 10 Words You Literally Didn't Know You Were Getting Wrong last October, I got plenty of argument about some of the words I picked (especially about the figurative use of the word literally). In some cases, debate is acceptable and people who think hard about the words they use can be allowed to veer from the best usage if they are using a word with intention. But, many, many, many people are not being so careful, and I can’t excuse laziness disguised as conviction.

Without further ado, here’s a list of ten more words that often get mistaken for each other.

1) Then versus Than

I rarely see than confused for then, but I frequently see then confused for than. Consider this incorrect usage:

I am prettier then you.

I think this happens because, spoken aloud and quickly as most native speakers speak, then and than sound very, very similar. They can sound interchangeable, but they are not. Then should only be used as an adverb to convey time and sequence of events.

We went to the store, then we had dinner.

Here, the use of the word then tells the reader that dinner occurred after the trip to the store.

Than, on the other hand, is a conjunction and should be used for comparison.

Your house is farther from the store than my house is.

The than here indicates that the distance from the store to the two houses (yours and mine) is being compared.

Be aware, though, that many people use than imprecisely which can be confusing. Sometimes writers omit words that a reader would need to truly understand what it being compared. Consider this example:

Sarah likes Frank better than Ted.

Does Sarah like Frank better than she likes Ted? Or does Sarah like Frank better than Ted likes Frank? Make sure to include words that specify which comparison is being made.

2) Lay versus Lie

I admit that I confuse these often, so I am as guilty of misusing them as anyone else. Let’s all learn which is which once and for all now, ok?

The verb to lay means to put or to place something. It is a transitive verb which means it must have a direct object. That means you cannot just lay, you must lay something.

Taylor lays the baby on the changing table.

The verb to lie means to recline. It is an intransitive verb which means it does not take an object.

The baby lies on the changing table.

 The confusion, I surmise, is because the past tense of to lie is lay.

Consider the past tense version of these two sentences:

Taylor laid the baby on the changing table.
The baby lay on the changing table.

Now, just for shits & giggles, consider the present perfect version which uses the past participle of each:

Taylor has laid the baby on the changing table.
The baby has lain on the changing table.

Frankly, I have no fancy trick for remembering these, so memorize them!

3) Sight versus Site versus Cite

Two of these are nouns, and all three of them are verbs. Confused?

  • Sight (noun) = a view or the ability to see. Here are examples of each meaning:
    • The mountain through the upper floor windows was a majestic sight.
    • They call me Mole because my sense of sight is very poor.
  • To sight (verb) = to perceive or to observe. Here is an example:
    • Scientist sight new asteroids every day, but only a few will ever get close to Earth.
  • Site (noun) = a place or a location. Here is an example:
    • The site of the new mall is just across the highway from the old mall.
  • To site (verb) = to situate
    • The toddler sited the pillow fort in the middle of the living room.
  • To cite (verb) = to quote or acknowledge. (Just for your information, citation is the noun form of this word.) Here’s an example:
    • If you plan to use a quote from that book, make sure you cite the author in your article.

4) Conscience versus Conscious

I admit, I have confused these two words once or twice, but they are two different parts of speech. Conscience is a noun, and it means an understanding of right and of wrong or the quality of a person’s character. For example:

I returned the stolen money because I didn’t want to have it on my conscience.

Conscious, an adjective, means aware, awake, or involving thought.

I was almost asleep, but then the baby coughed, and I was suddenly conscious.

5) Flaunt vs. Flout

These two verbs are quite different in meaning. The first, to flaunt, means to show off as in:

Maurice flaunted his new LitReactor t-shirt.

Flout, on the other hand, means to defy, reject, or scorn something.

Terry flouted traffic laws, and made a u-turn right in front of a cop.

6) Hanged versus Hung

I used to think this one was as hard to remember as the lay/lie thing, but once I learned that one is used only for a very specific reason, I was able to remember it easily. Both are past tense forms of the verb to hang.

Hanged is only for referring to a person who has been killed by being suspended by the neck.

The murderer was hanged for his crime.
They hanged three men in the town square as a warning.

Hung is for all other uses, including a person suspended (either to kill that person or not) by any other body part.

Jesus was hung from the cross.
The stockings hung from the mantle.
She hung a new calendar on the wall.

7) Immigrate versus Emigrate

This one was really confusing to me, especially because I used to hang out at a bar in Seattle called the Irish Emigrant, and I thought, “wait, shouldn’t it be immigrant?” The difference between these two depends (in part) on point of view. To immigrate means to move to a place where you were not born. To emigrate means to leave one country and live in another one. You can think of it as two different movements. To immigrate is to move in, to emigrate is to move out. A person who moves from Ireland to the United States is an immigrant in the US, and an emigrant in Ireland. Now, whoever named that old bar in the University District of Seattle may have been imagining him (or her) -self as an Irish person pondering those who have left the “old country.” Who knows. It was full of drunk college kids anyway.

8) Peak versus Peek versus Pique

I don’t think I’ve seen pique confused for peak or peek, but I have seen both peek and peak confused for pique. Peak is a noun, and it means the apex of something—either physical like the peak of a mountain or figurative like the peak of the holiday shopping season. A peek is quick look at something—usually something forbidden or hidden. The noun version of a pique is an episode of hurt pride. Though, I rarely see people use that word for that purpose, much less confuse either of the other two for that meaning. No, usually the confusion is with the verb: to pique is to annoy, arouse, or stimulate. The connotation of the illicit in the meaning of peek and the concept of arousal in the word pique is where I think people get confused.

A chance to peek at a woman’s (eh em) ‘twin peaks’ piqued the man’s interest, so he walked into the strip club.

C’mon now, that’s what you all were thinking… wasn’t it? Or maybe it’s just me who’s the perv around here.

9) Shall versus Will

Okay, admit it. You use the word shall when you want to be fancy. Did you know that it is not, actually, a highfalutin word for will—at least not in the UK? In fact, if you live in the UK, you would use shall to talk about yourself doing something in the future. If you talk about anyone else doing something in the future, you would use will. So the usage depends on subject. First person subject (I or we) would use shall, and second person (you) and third person (he, she, or they) would use will.

I shall call him tomorrow.
You will call him tomorrow.
They will call him tomorrow.

We Americans think shall sounds weird, so we say will for all subjects.

I/you/they will call him tomorrow.

The British also use shall to express determination to do something in the future either on their own part or for someone else. For example:

They shall know the truth someday.


They will know truth someday.

In this case, shall sounds more forceful. In the US, there are occasions where shall is used in this way also. For example:

We shall overcome.

In America, we think it sounds too Britishy (and you know how we can’t ever seem to get over that Tea Party thing…), so we eschew shall for good ol' American simplicity. Except in legal documents, where we feel perfectly comfortable trying to sound fancy or smart. Shall, in legalese, expresses obligation:

The lessee shall pay rent on or before the 1st day of each month.

I don't know why we use shall in this context because must or will would work perfectly fine.

Okay, and yes, in America, we say shall when we want to convey extra politeness or haughtiness. Ok, so maybe it is a fancy way to say will, but just ‘cause we made it that way.

The Elements of Style puts it this way. It says that shall is to “express the speaker’s belief regarding a future action.” Will “expresses determination or consent.” Here’s the rest of Elements’ explanation:

A swimmer in distress cries, “I shall drown; no one will save me!” A suicide puts it another way: “I will drown; no one shall save me!” In relaxed speech, however, the words shall and will are seldom used precisely; our ear guides us or fails to guide us, as the case may be, and we are quite likely to drown when we want to survive and survive when we want to drown.

Whether you are British or American, if you are drowning, either on accident or on purpose, I really, really doubt you are going to worry about which word you should be using.

10) That versus Which

Many people use these interchangeably, but these two relative pronouns have specific jobs. That is restrictive and should be used to narrow a category or name a specific item.

The sandwich that has bacon on it is a sandwich I want to eat.

The that identifies sandwiches with bacon as the specific types of sandwiches being discussed. It is the only type of sandwich the speaker wants to eat.

Which, on the other hand, is nonrestrictive. That means that whatever detail it introduces is not the detail that identifies the item being discussed. Which introduces extra information into the sentence. That information is usually parenthetical, so phrases that start with which are typically set off by commas, parentheses, or dashes.

The sandwich, which has bacon on it, is a sandwich I want to eat.

Here, the sandwich is desirable in itself, and the bacon is just an added detail. You can remove that section that starts with which, and the sentence will still make sense.

This sandwich is a sandwich I want to eat.

If, however, the which is preceded by a preposition, then it becomes restrictive, and the commas or other separating punctuation would be removed.

The sandwich on which the sandwich artist has layered bacon is the sandwich I want to eat.

Here, as with that, the statement is necessary to identify which sandwich is about to be eaten.

And if all this is too annoying to remember, you can move to the UK, as my Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. notes that speakers of British English rarely distinguish between the two. (But they distinguish between shall and will…go figure.)


It seems there are always a few arguments as to why a word should become acceptable in its common usage, so if you've got one, let us know. Or just let us know what other good vs. common usage words you'd like people to get right once and for all.

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break March 15, 2013 - 12:02pm

And for the Facebook grammar Nazi: your vs you're vs ur

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart March 15, 2013 - 12:17pm

@Brandon: you forgot yur and yer


dufrescm's picture
dufrescm from Wisconsin is reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep March 15, 2013 - 1:37pm

I work with people who don't seem to know of the existence of "those". They use "them" for everything, as in "Bring me them work orders."  Drives me insane every. damn. time.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart March 15, 2013 - 1:52pm

@dufrescm: Are they also the type of people that seem to be proud of the fact that they reject the rules of proper usage? :)

dufrescm's picture
dufrescm from Wisconsin is reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep March 15, 2013 - 2:55pm

Some of them.  Most are just backwater hicks, though.  


And I mean that in the most respectful and kind way possible.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 15, 2013 - 7:59pm

backwater hicks

Them's fight'n' w'rds.

Adam Jenkins's picture
Adam Jenkins from Bracknell, England is reading RCX Magazine (Issue 1 coming soon) March 16, 2013 - 1:20am

As someone living in the UK, I wish I'd been told before that I don't have to distinguish between That and Which.  It would have saved a lot of time and confusion, although I suppose I'd only have use the saved time learning the difference between Shall and Will (I shall go and learn those now).

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart March 17, 2013 - 4:31pm

Tell me, Adam Jenkins, is the Chicago Manual full of crap? I saw that note, and I did think to myself, really? If anyone in the U.K. wants to weigh in, I'm happy to hear if shall/will are different while that/which are not.


Tom Elias's picture
Tom Elias from Maine is reading Everything I can afford or that is within arms' reach. March 18, 2013 - 9:12pm

Taylor, at the risk of possibly violating some new trend, I've noticed the increasing misuse of woman vs. women.  I too often see things like this: "I am a strong women."  This always makes me think, 'And an uneducated one at that.' 

For some reason the incorrect substitution doesn't seem to happen in the reverse ("The group of woman all wore the same perfume")

Am I wrong here? 

Catherine Huggler Reed's picture
Catherine Huggl... March 19, 2013 - 10:35am

I've not finished reading the article yet, and I am enjoying it. That said, however, I fell impelled to comment ask: where Sarah may like Frank better than Ted...does Sarah like Frank better than she likes Ted, or does Sarah like Frank better than Ted likes Frank? It would appear that the author either could use some further lessons in American English (Ie she needs to improve her knowledge of using complete sentences), or else needs to improve at delegating responsibility (Eg: hiring a good, or better, proof-reader).

OK, OK...I err all the time and, although I am poking fun at the author, my point is quite valid. Should one not strive for perfection in their writing, especially when one is getting paid for that writing?

Isaac Rabinovitch's picture
Isaac Rabinovitch is reading Manhattan Noir, Part 2 March 19, 2013 - 10:54am

These are all good things to know. But it's important to remember that language rules are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

Like Taylor, I make my living writing technical docs. I prefer to take a slightly less legalistic and more intuitive approach to grammar and style. OK, this probably has a lot to do with my inability to memorize long lists of rules. But an obsession with rules can also get in the way of the job. Technical prose needs to be simple. For example, many technical style manuals consider the whole shall/will thing a potential source of confusion and ban "shall" entirely. I heartily agree with that.

The one principle I consider paramount is that context is everything. In very formal speech or writing, an obsession with rules helps connect you to your audience. In an infomal context, it's a good way to distract, confuse, and alienate. 

Chris Fitch's picture
Chris Fitch March 19, 2013 - 12:41pm

Thank you Taylor!  I quite enjoyed this article as well as your previous one.  Some of the words in this article seem a bit obvious (such as sight/site/cite) and I have a hard time picturing anyone with enough interest in grammar to read this as being the type of person who would confuse them, but nontheless a great read :)


And while I make it a practice to never correct a stranger's grammar (what place of mine is it?!), I feel the context of this article makes it okay to mention that you yourself used "that" in place of "than" in the "Than/Then" comparison, which might make a good jumping off point for an article on common typos :)


And okay, I can't help but mention: I think most will agree that the correct way to give the word "old" some of that down home colloquial feel is ol', not 'ol.  I'm assuming that the apostrophe is meant to substitute for the missing D :)

myraggedcompany's picture
myraggedcompany from Philadelphia, PA March 19, 2013 - 12:54pm

was reading the featured installment of 'ten words....', am aware that what I am about to say is way out of that context, but I need a venue in which to express my profound distaste for the abomination otherwise known as 'gonna', despite the arguments that might be made for clear usage, objective correlative, and so on. I hate this not-quite-word so much that an audiologist acquaintence noted that I had 'tagged' it with said hatred; because this has taken place, my acquaintence went on to suggest that I'll never lose my antipathy for it. ('Wanna' and 'hafta' are almost as loathesome, and IMO, state a good case for the linguistic sloth of their users. However, neither approach the generously-rounded vileness of 'gonna' and its other cousin, the many auditory colors of the sound of gum being smacked. Or 'smacking gum', something else I wish would leave the planet. 

Wishing gonna-rrhea was simply an STD....

Chris Fitch's picture
Chris Fitch March 19, 2013 - 1:06pm



Are you haunted by a traumatic rick-rolling experience? From whence comes this distaste for such a fine example of the vernacular??



Richard Fernandes's picture
Richard Fernandes March 19, 2013 - 2:12pm

Sorry Taylor, had to point this out 


"To immigrate means to moved to a place where you were not born."

Incorrect tense, it should be move not moved. Can't stand an article about proper language usage  having improper proofreading.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart March 19, 2013 - 3:31pm

Tom, funny you should say that, because I JUST (today) saw the word women used for woman. Now I can't remember where I saw it...crap. I don't think it's a trend. That's just bad typing or sloppy writing or both. I can see that just being a slip of the fingers on the keyboard (which, in a way, is a slip of the brain, too.)

All: Sheesh! I read this dang thing three times through before I put it up because I knew--I just KNEW--you all would eagle-eye my typos. I can edit other people's stuff easily, but it's really, really hard to self edit to 100%.

Anyway, I fixed the typos. Thank you for reading & commenting.

Chris Fitch's picture
Chris Fitch March 19, 2013 - 3:34pm

Taylor, you're welcome and please keep writing articles like this!  Also, you are a saint to not bust me on my "nontheless".  Nontheless.... what is this, amateur hour?? ;)

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart March 19, 2013 - 3:55pm

Ha! No worries. It seems no matter how many times I read over something I have written, some things just never stand out to me. And yet, I can spot an error on something written by someone else. For instance, in the Safeway near my house, I noticed a sign they had hung up advertising a sale was missing the dot on the "i". And yet, I can't seem to find all of my own typos. So unfair. Oh well.

Kelly A Egan's picture
Kelly A Egan from New Zealand is reading The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss March 19, 2013 - 5:14pm

Then and than. For some reason that error drives me totally around the bend!

Great article!! I love the immigrate/emmigrate, shall/will and that/which ones. I shall never confuse immigrate/emmigrate again, though I'm still going to have to think hard about that which issue. ;)

nk's picture
nk March 19, 2013 - 6:09pm

Affect vs. Effect?

Todd Martin's picture
Todd Martin March 19, 2013 - 7:26pm

M a n t l e - something stockings are hung from.

Tom Elias's picture
Tom Elias from Maine is reading Everything I can afford or that is within arms' reach. March 19, 2013 - 7:56pm


Glad to hear your opinion, but now I've realized that many of the things you and all of my fellow commentarians (Affect v Effect - excellent recommend!) might be missing here is this:  how many of these irritating trends are fed by the reliance upon Spellcheck and Grammarcheck, both of which fail reliably?  Of note, Word is horrendous at correcting the difference between it's and its.  I point that one out because I am a ten-thumbed gorilla and cannot remember the subtle rule for that one.  I always proof with an actual red pen on actual paper copy... that is my only defense.


Isaacfen's picture
Isaacfen March 20, 2013 - 2:25am

Oh man. There are a million of these that I see every day.

site / sight

between / among

insure / ensure

right / rite / write

into / in to

advice / advise

allude / illude / ellude 

dufrescm's picture
dufrescm from Wisconsin is reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep March 20, 2013 - 6:30am

Another one that drives me nuts is borrow/lend. I absolutely hate it when someone askes me to "borrow them something". 

John Lemon's picture
John Lemon March 22, 2013 - 6:15pm

Nicely done. In particularl, I liked your shall vs. will treatment. 
It's good to know written precision is not dead. 
You've made this technical writer's day!

Garry Dixon's picture
Garry Dixon March 25, 2013 - 7:42pm

I think it's cool that you use people that instead of people who in the third paragraph.

Jennifer Gustar's picture
Jennifer Gustar March 27, 2013 - 4:19pm

Okay, here is one you didn't sight, but which is a site of much aggraviation for me, as an English prof:  "Quote" is not a noun; it is a verb form.  Just like "citation," quotation is the noun form.

thanks for the language fun!


TOEFLMan's picture
TOEFLMan April 8, 2013 - 7:20pm

I'm sorry to point out that there is a problem with the "that/which" section.  

"The sandwich that has bacon on it is a sandwich I want to eat."

This is a defining relative clause, and because the subject is an inanimate object, the relative pronoun may be either which or that.  Of course a much better way to write that would be "I want to eat the sandwhich which/that has bacon on it."  Anyway, your explanation was more or less right, but it is the clause, and not the word that, which determines the meaning of this sentence. 



"The sandwich, which has bacon on it, is a sandwich I want to eat."

Here we have a non-defining relative clause, which adds non-essential information about the subject(usually by combining the information of two sentences into one).  Here the rule is that you can't use that instead of who(for people) or which(for things).  




UKGrammarPedant's picture
UKGrammarPedant October 16, 2013 - 11:23am

A few points follow about your discussion of the difference between 'than' and 'then'.

You state that the word 'than' is a conjunction, but this word works as a preposition when introducing the second element in a comparison: 'Funnily enough, the youngest of my children is much taller than my eldest.'

It also works as a preposition when used in expressions indicating an exception or contrast: "He claimed he had nothing to declare other than his genius."

However, it works as a conjunction in examples such as: "The Queen reigns rather than rules."

It also works as a conjunction when used in expressions indicating one thing happening immediately after another: "Scarcely was the performance of all her great compositions started than it was completed." (Perhaps considered slightly archaic now)

Interestingly, considering the original comment on this word and the confusion with the now very different 'then', these two words have the same stem in Old English: than(ne), thon(ne) thaenne.