Common word choice confusions
There are words that you should avoid in academic writing, but some other words are simply misused or misunderstood, creating confusion in your writing.
This article discusses some of the most frequently misused and confused words in English. Learning the rules to distinguish between them can quickly improve the clarity and quality of your writing.
Research is a tricky word. It is both a noun and a verb.
- I conduct research.
- I research crustaceans.
The word researches is commonly misused as a plural noun, but there is no plural form of the noun research. Researches can only be used as a third-person verb.
- He conducts researches.
- He researches crustaceans.
The noun research is an uncountable noun (other examples include sugar, oil, homework, and peace). These are nouns that we don’t normally (if ever) count as individual entities, so they don’t (normally) come with –s or –es plurals.
To fix this mistake, you can simply use the singular research, or use a countable noun like study.
- All of these researches are discussed in the literature review.
- All of this research is discussed in the literature review.
- All of these studies are discussed in the literature review.
However has two different meanings. First, we have however as in but, expressing contrast. Secondly, we have however as in regardless of how, to whatever degree, or in whatever manner, expressing not contrast but disregard.
We can tell the two versions of this word apart because the first is always followed by a comma while the second is never followed by a comma. In grammatical terms, we call the first a “conjunctive adverb” (or “transitional adverb”) and the second a “plain old adverb.”
- She liked popcorn with butter, however too much salt would spoil it.
- She liked popcorn with butter; however, too much salt would spoil it.
- He would get to the chapel for his wedding; however, he had to get there.
- He would get to the chapel for his wedding however he had to get there.
This/these vs. that/those
The main difference between these two sets of words (called demonstrative pronouns) is the distance they suggest. This and these suggest closeness, while that and those suggests more distance.
In academic writing, you will generally use these words to refer to something you have just mentioned. Because the words are in close proximity, this or these is usually the better choice.
- All parties in the coalition abide by the law. Those countries are aware of the consequences.
- All parties in the coalition abide by the law. These countries are aware of the consequences.
- The study was inconclusive. That suggests more research is required.
- The study was inconclusive. This suggests more research is required.
Who vs. that
When you are referring to a person (as opposed to a thing), use who instead of that.
- The researcher that discovered the mutation won a Nobel Prize.
- The researcher who discovered the mutation won a Nobel Prize.
Who vs. whom
The simplest rule to remember here is that who is used in cases where he or she would be appropriate, while whom is used in cases where him or her would be appropriate. Another helpful tip is that only whom appears after a preposition (e.g. of, in, by, around, upon, etc.).
In grammatical terms, who appears only as a subject (the word doing the action) and whom appears only as an object (the word being acted on).
- The man whom left his car unlocked got robbed. (Him left his car unlocked)
- The man who left his car unlocked got robbed. (He left his car unlocked)
- The man, who she robbed, is now destitute. (She robbed he)
- The man, whom she robbed, is now destitute. (She robbed him)
- The man in who she trusted left her no choice but to steal. (She trusted he)
- The man in whom she trusted left her no choice but to steal. (She trusted him)
Which vs. that
The confusion between these words arises from confusions between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive clause restricts the meaning of the sentence: if it is removed, the key point or idea of the sentence changes. That marks a restrictive clause, telling us that the information following it is essential.
- The wheel that squeaks gets the grease. (The wheel gets greased only if and because it is squeaky)
A nonrestrictive clause, in contrast, adds extra information that is not essential to understanding the main point of the sentence. In US English, which marks a nonrestrictive clause, telling us that the information following it is of secondary importance.
- The wheel, which squeaks, gets the grease. (The wheel gets greased in any case; the fact that it is squeaky is extra but unnecessary information)
Note that nonrestrictive clauses are always set off with commas.
In UK English, which can mark both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses (but that only marks restrictive clauses). The comma usage rule is the same.
- The wheel which squeaks gets the grease. (Restrictive)
- The wheel, which squeaks, gets the grease. (Nonrestrictive)
Affect vs effect
These words sound similar in speech and are often confused. Both can be used as either a noun or a verb, but they have different meanings, so use them carefully.
Most commonly, affect is used as a verb and effect is used as a noun.
- Although the candidate was not effected, the incident did have an affect on the campaign.
- Although the candidate was not affected, the incident did have an effect on the campaign.
In this context, affect means have an effect on, while effect means the result of being affected. If it’s preceded by an article (the, a, an), you almost certainly want to use effect.
However, there are specific cases in which effect is used as a verb. In this context, to effect means to cause or bring about effects.
- The candidate has already affected positive reforms in the district.
- The candidate has already effected positive reforms in the district.
The first example suggests that the candidate has had an effect on the positive reforms (but was not responsible for them). The more likely intended meaning is that the candidate has brought about the positive reforms, which requires the verb to effect.
There are also cases in which affect is used as a noun. In psychology and other academic fields, affect is commonly used in reference to feelings and emotional responses.
- Researchers are increasingly interested in the role of affect in political decision-making.