Which of These 4 Word Pairs Have Tripped You Up?

Even native English speakers make these common mistakes.

Posted Oct 21, 2011

dictionaries
I've always been pretty good at grammar and spelling, but sometimes I make a mistake. Such errors haunt me and I usually don't make them again, but some rules simply won't stick in my mind.

Thus I was curious to read The Bugaboo Review: A Lighthearted Guide to Exterminating Confusion about Words, Spelling, and Grammar, by Sue Sommer. Sommer teaches honors English and creative writing at Marin School of the Arts at Novato High School. Her book began as a photocopied reference for her students. It would be useful for grammar lovers, those who are learning English for the first time, and the rest of us who have certain, let's call them blind-spots, regarding common usage.

These four examples are of word pairs that cause a lot of trouble:

* Bad/badly: Bad is an adjective and describes a noun or pronoun; badly is an adverb, so it modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. A friend caught me out on this one in an email I had sent her. I said "I felt badly," but it should have been "I felt bad." Then I felt even worse. Handiest way to remember is to try saying "I felt coldly." Doesn't work, does it?

* Lay/lie: Who hasn't stopped a moment before committing to lay or lie? To lay is to place something or put something down, and it must be followed by a noun or pronoun, a thing; to lie is to recline. A good hint offered by Sommer: Lay sounds like place; lie sounds like recline. But be careful, she adds. "Lay is also the past tense of the verb to lie: Jay lay on the couch all day yesterday." (That's why this is such a handy book to keep around.)

* annual/biannual/semiannual/ biennial/perennial: Annual events happen once every year; biannual or semiannual events occur twice a year; biennial events happen every two years. Hey, I didn't know that. Sommers goes on to add more detail and ways to remember which is which.

* prophecy/prophesy: The former is a prediction, while the second, whose ending is pronounced "sigh," is a verb meaning "to foretell."

The book contains lots of other tricky word pairs differentiated with utmost clarity. I recommend it even for those who are cocky about their verbal skills. You can see some of the troublesome words (illustrated amusingly) at Sue Sommers' blog.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry

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