Avoid these word usage mistakes

Ten Word Slipups to Avoid

Lori Baxter Editing Tips, Grammar, Writing Tips

by Ashley Smith, Scribe Contributor

“How often misused words generate misleading thoughts.”   – Herbert Spencer, English philosopher (1820-1903)

As much as I’d like to think I have a way with words, I admit to the occasional slipup. Just the other day I sent an email to someone asking if I could “site” something she had said, rather than “cite” it. It wasn’t until after I’d sent the email that I recognized my error.

Sometimes our writing mistakes are things we would catch with closer review. Other times, we may not know or remember the correct usage or spelling. Add to this the fact that so much of what we read on the Internet is not formally edited, and we are also in danger of perpetuating the mistakes made by others.

Thankfully, my communication with this person was not business related. Had it been, my credibility likely would have been damaged. Although it is sometimes acceptable to intentionally misuse a word for the sake of great copy, careless mistakes or errors of ignorance can, as Herbert Spencer put it, “generate misleading thoughts.” Or worse yet, they can cost you a client.

Below are ten examples of commonly misused words. Are you guilty of misusing any of them?

  1. Averse/Adverse: He was averse to taking the medication due to its adverse side effects.
    If you are averse to something, it means you are strongly opposed to it. Adverse means unfavorable, damaging, or conflicting.
  2. Assure/Ensure/Insure: The agent assured the customer that insuring his RV would ensure a stress-free journey.
    Assure means to give confidence to. Insure means to acquire insurance. Ensure means to make certain of.
  3. Complement(ary)/Compliment(ary): The sauce complemented the steak well. I complimented the chef and he gave me a complimentary desert.
    Two things or people that go well together complement one another and are therefore complementary (think, “complete”). To compliment is to give praise. Also, something that is complimentary is free.
  4. Continual(ly)/Continuous(ly): My family called me continually during the three-day continuous blackout.
    Something that is continual happens frequently, in succession. Something that is continuous is uninterrupted.
  5. Economic/Economical: Does an economical government produce economic growth?
    Economic pertains to the production and use of income, while economical means being careful with resources.
  6. Farther/Further: Ryan and Sarah decided to further their conversation farther away from the noise.
    Use farther for physical distance and further for distance in degree, time, or space.
  7. Imply/Infer: When my boss implied that she had to let someone go, I inferred that it was me.
    If the suggestion is intended by the person speaking, it is implied. If a conclusion is reached by the person listening, it is inferred.
  8. Less/Fewer: The back office has less light because it has fewer windows than the front office.
    “Less” and “fewer” both mean a smaller quantity of something. Use “less” for things you cannot count, such as light or time; use “fewer” for countable things, such as windows or doors.
  9. Number/Amount: The amount of effort we have to spend on advertising depends on the number of sales we make.
    Similar to less/fewer, use “number” for things you can count, such as sales or books. Use “amount” for things that aren’t so easily measured (effort, confidence, or time/money as a concept).
  10. Sight/Site/Cite: The newspaper cited the mayor as saying that the site was a poor choice for a school. If you ask me, I think the mayor’s sight is going; it’s a perfect choice!
    Sight is the ability to see. A site is a place or setting (also used as a short version of “website”). To cite is to quote or refer to.


To avoid errors of ignorance, be sure you understand the correct meaning and usage for these and other commonly misused words. To avoid accidental slipups, double-check your work or, even better, enlist the help of a good editor or proofreader.