4 Common Word Choice Problems

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Farther or further? (Photo: racorn)

Word choice matters. Here are four common conundrums that writers encounter all the time—and how to sort them out.

1. Farther vs. Further

“Farther” has the word “far” in it. Therefore, remember that “farther” means physical distance.

  • The bathroom is on the farther side of the hall.
  • How much farther downstream is the bridge?

“Further” means additional or continued.

  • Further investigation is required.
  • She will look further into the matter.

2. Oral vs. Verbal

Wondering whether you have a “verbal” or “oral” agreement? The Associated Press style guide tells us to do the following:

Use the word “oral” when you are referring to spoken words or to the mouth.

  • The student gave an oral report in front of the class.
  • He gave us an oral promise.
  • I had oral surgery to remove a tooth.
  • We talked over the details and came to an oral agreement.

Use the word “written” when you’re discussing actual words committed to paper.

  • We signed a written agreement to buy the car.

Finally, use “verbal” to compare words with some other form of communication.

  • Her tears showed us the sentiments that her poor verbal skills couldn’t express.

3. “You and Me” vs. “You and I”

Maybe your mom used to teach you this nugget: “It’s you and I, not you and me.” But sometimes Mom was wrong.

One quick grammar tip for figuring out “you and me” vs. “you and I” is to simply drop “you” from the sentence.

Example 1: “You and I had ice cream.” {Correct}
Try leaving “you” out of the example sentence. Naturally, you wouldn’t say, “Me had ice cream.” So “you and I” is right in this example.

Example 2: “He will treat you and I to ice cream.” {Incorrect}
Try leaving “you” out of this sentence, and you end up with, “He will treat I to ice cream.” Wrong. The correct sentence is, “He will treat me to ice cream.” Thus, our Example 2 should have been, “He will treat you and me to ice cream.”

4. Affect vs. Effect

In general, use “affect” as a verb and “effect” as a noun.

  • Use the word “affect” as a verb to mean influence or change (His temper affected the outcome) or stir emotions (Her abrupt departure affected her sons).
  • Use “effect” as a noun to mean a result or consequence (One effect of the new law was a higher tax on cigarette sales).

A couple of uncommon exceptions:

  • Use “affect” as a noun to mean a feeling or an emotional response (She has a flat affect and doesn’t show a lot of personality). Though correct, this use of “affect” as a noun is best avoided in everyday language.
  • Use “effect” as a verb to mean accomplish or carry out (The upstart politician hopes to effect many changes immediately).

One final note: “Affect” and “effect” are classic examples of homonyms, words that are similar but have different meanings.

Dave Baker

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Hi, I'm Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

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