Lie / lay— To lie down means “to rest in or get into a horizontal position,” and to lay something is to place it or put it somewhere. The verb form lay usually takes an object, and lie does not:
He laid the book on the table. [Book is the object.]
She wanted to lie in the sun. [To lie has no object.]
So if you write The injured man laying on the ground . . . you should ask: What was the injured man laying down on the ground? He wasn’t laying anything down on the ground. He was lying on the ground. Memorize: Chickens have to lie down to lay eggs. Check a book on English grammar to see how these two verbs are conjugated.
Like / as if / as—Incorrect: Tom looked like he was angry. This is an example of the conjunctive use of the word like, which still inspires debate. Like has been used as a conjunction for more than 600 years, but the usage police ruled that like should not be used as a subordinating conjunction that introduces a clause (a group of words containing a subject and verb). This rule still holds true in standard English, although informal English exerts a great deal of pressure against it. Remember the flap about the cigarette that “tastes good like a cigarette should”? Instead of like, use as, as if, or as though, whichever one works best in context. When as if doesn’t work, the way usually does: Belgian chocolate tastes good, the way chocolate should. You should use as if or as though in the “Tom looked” example sentence above instead of like. You may, however, use like as a subordinate conjunction in dialogue or in narration that reflects a fictional character’s way of speaking.
Don’t let this rule scare you into using as when you should use the preposition like. Examples:
He squealed like a pig.
The water smelled like rotten eggs.
He was built like a bull.
Problems like this are hard to solve.
Miami, like most cities, has too much traffic.
Note: As if/as though comparisons can be useful, but don’t use them often.
Little / few— Little is used for something that cannot be counted, like sugar: Give me a little sugar. Few is used for something that can be counted: She owned a few cats.
Loan / lend—Use lend as the verb that means “to give on a temporary basis” and loan to describe whatever it is you are giving or receiving: The World Bank decided to lend Brazil $1.6 billion. The bank has decided to approve our loan.
Lose / loose—Lose means “to be defeated” or “to fail to keep,” among other things, and loose usually means “not securely attached or rigidly fastened.” Therefore, don’t write things like before I loose my mind.
May / might & will / would—Would, the past tense of will, and might, the past tense of may, serve a variety of auxiliary functions, often to express an action or outcome that is conditional. Would, for instance, when linked to another verb, can express a contingency or possibility (If they were coming, they would be here by now); a wish, desire, or intent; willingness or preference; plan or intention; customary or habitual action; consent or choice; probability or presumption, etc. Might serves a similar auxiliary function, often expressing a condition of less probability or possibility than may.
Maybe / perhaps—As adverbs, both of these words mean the same thing: possibly but not certainly. Many writers tend to overuse maybe, which turns up in informal (and ungrammatical) sentences such as: He looked at me like maybe he was going to hit me.Don’t overuse the word maybe. Use perhaps or possibly instead, particularly in narration in a novel (you have more freedom with dialogue), or else eliminate it if you can.
Mixed metaphor—In a mixed metaphor, two or more ideas are combined in a way that clashes, resulting in an incongruous comparison. Example: a parasitic, fat-cat politician. This is a mixed metaphor that compares the politician to two different things at the same time—a parasite and an overfed cat.
Numbers / time of day—In narration, spell out numbers up to and including one hundred, any number that begins a sentence, and any number that ends with -hundred, -thousand, -million, etc. In dialogue, spell out all numerals, including Roman numerals, no matter how large or small—with the exception of dates and addresses. The rationale with dialogue is that people can speak in words but not in numbers.
When you designate the time of day in narration, use numerals with A.M. and P.M. (writing A.M. and P.M. in small caps). If you are emphasizing the exact moment (the 6:20 train, my 2:10 flight), use numerals. Add zeros to even hours only when you’re emphasizing the exact minute (I woke up at about 2 A.M.). Otherwise, spell out the time for even, half, and quarter hours (I woke up at two-fifteen). Also: Avoid writing morning with A.M. and evening with P.M. That’s redundant.
Numerals are also used with abbreviations: 9 mm, 250 hp. And when you refer to specific decades, you may write the ‘80s, the 1980s (without an apostrophe), or the eighties (lowercase). Never use numerals to begin a sentence. Use The Chicago Manual of Style as your guide.
Neither / nor—Neither must be paired with nor, and either must be used with or in a sentence: Neither John nor Ellen attended the ceremony. Either John or Ellen will be there.
Nice—According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word nice entered Middle English in the sense of “stupid” from the Latin word nescius, meaning “ignorant.” Over the years it developed a range of senses, from “wanton and dissolute” to “strange or rare” and “coy or reserved.” It was first used with a positive connotation in the sense “fine or subtle” in the 16th century, and the current main meanings, such as “agreeable” and “kind,” are recorded from the late 18th century. Nice is overused today. Writers should find a better word.
Old / former—If you write Mr. Sherman, an old client of mine . . . is Mr. Sherman an old man or a former client? Do not use old to mean “former.”
Once—This word may be used as a conjunction or an adverb. Example: Once he had been allowed to attend the exorcism of a boy in rural Nigeria. Sometimes you need to insert a comma for no other grammatical reason than to avoid the misreading of a sentence. The example sentence could be easily misread. Without placing a comma after the first word, Once, the reader will take that word as a conjunction that means “at the moment when” or “as soon as.” The sense that we want to convey in this sentence refers to time, with Once used as an adverb that means “at some indefinite time in the past.” To communicate the latter meaning we have to place a comma after Once.
Only—This word is often misplaced in a sentence. It can be used as an adjective or an adverb. It is normally inserted immediately before the word it modifies (He found only milk in the refrigerator). In this case only is modifying the noun milk, so it should be placed right before that word. Do not insert only between the subject and verb when it is used to modify a noun (He only found milk in the refrigerator). The song title “I Only Have Eyes For You,” if written properly, would be “I Have Eyes for Only You” (or “You Only”). The song “For Your Eyes Only” from the James Bond movie is written correctly.
Pet words—Most writers have pet words and phrases that they love to use over and over (or use again and again unconsciously). Especially beware of repeating the same meaningful word in a sentence or paragraph. Search these out and replace them with a good synonym.
Plural, forming the—The plural of words is often formed simply by adding an s to the end of the word. Book becomes books, and cat becomes cats. The same rule applies to other terms as well. For example, if you own more than one VCR, then you have VCRs. If you carry two six-guns, then you have a pair of .45s. Likewise, if you’re talking about more than one Russian MiG-25 figther jet, then you have MiG-25s. You don’t need the apostrophe in those expressions.
Possessive singular of nouns—The apostrophe (‘) is used to indicate possession (except with personal pronouns such as hers), to mark omissions in contracted words or numerals, and to form certain plurals. The general rule is that the possessive of a singular noun is formed by the addition of an apostrophe and an s, and the possessive of plural nouns is indicated by the addition of an apostrophe only (except for a few irregular plurals): the horse’s mouth; her parents’ home; the puppies’ tails; the children’s desk. To form the possessive singular of nouns, add ‘s whatever the final consonant may be. Examples: Charles’s friend, Burns’s poems, the witch’s spell. Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names ending in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus’, and such forms as for conscience’ sake and for righteousness’ sake. Note, however, that such forms as Moses’ laws and Isis’ temple are commonly replaced by the laws of Moses and the temple of Isis.
Premier / premiere—If the word is used as an adjective, meaning “the first in rank or importance” or “the first in time (earliest),” then it is spelled premier. If it is used as a noun to mean “a first performance or exhibition,” then it is spelled premiere. When the word is used as a verb (“to give a first public performance or to appear for the first time as the star of a show”), it may be spelled either way.
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