Common Errors – Page 1

Five Common Usage Mistakes to Avoid – Sheet 1 of 4

#1) Affect vs. Effect

This troublesome pair is actually four distinct words: two common ones, two rarities. The most common “affect” (pronounced ‘aFECT’) is a verb, and it means “to influence.” The most common “effect” is a noun, meaning a result. If you can keep those parts of speech in line, you’ll be OK 99% of the time. Here’s a quick mnemonic device: affect is an action, and those both start with A. A less common form of “affect” (pronounced AFFect) is a noun that means “emotion.” 

#2) Allusion vs. Illusion

An allusion is a reference to something that is better known. For example, a person might make an allusion to a recent embarrassing incident, and the title of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is an allusion to Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse…” An illusion is a semblance of reality, like seeing a mirage or a ghost. If it helps remember the difference, think of how an illusion and an illustration are both visions of things that are not real.

#3) Less & Fewer

You’re doing a quick grocery run, basket in hand, and you’re ready to pay. Do you go to the “10 Items or Less” line, or the “10 Items or Fewer” line? Think quick! Your artichokes are starting to go bad! Less is correct when it refers to something you cannot count, while Fewer goes with nouns that can be counted. You might have less strength which means you can do fewer sit-ups. Or fewer enemies causes less stress.

#4) Illicit vs. Elicit

Something illicit is something illegal. Illicit drug use, therefore, is the using of illegal drugs. Elicit is a verb, meaning “to draw forth” or “to bring out” like when an investigator elicits the truth from a witness, or a high-pressure situation elicits a person’s courage. The prefixes might help with this one, if you remember that the prefix il- means “not” (as in “not legal”) while the e/ex- prefix means “out” (as in “to bring out”).

#5) It’s vs. its

OK, this is simply one that you have to memorize, because you could argue both of them really ought to be the same thing, if you follow the rest of the rules of English grammar. Its is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to it.It’s is a contraction, meaning “it is.” Here are two ways of remembering this forever. 1) Think of the apostrophe as the dot over the missing “i” in “it is.” Or, if that doesn’t help, remember that his and hers are possessive pronouns, and those do not require an apostrophe in the same way as “Blaire’s” or “the cat’s” does.


Give two sentences that properly use “elicit”

Now give two sentences that properly use “illicit” 

Allusion / Illusion (fill in the blanks)

The novel made several _______________ to the Bible and to Greek mythology.

We didn’t want to bring up the uncomfortable topic, but several of us tried to make  ___________ to it, in order to make her tell us all about it.

Affect & Effect

This medication has no known side-_______________.

Even the slightest change in the wind can ________________ the migration paths of the monarch butterfly.

Less & Fewer

Come up with two original sentences that correctly use Less and Fewer 

Its & It’s

(Its  It’s)  starting to look like it might rain.

The cat resumed playing with ( its   it’s) fake mouse

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