This unit is a brief review of some of the common word pairs that often cause trouble for writers. You also might know of others that cause you uncertainty.

It would not be difficult for you to make up your own exercises on pairs that are not found here; if you do so, ask your teacher or a friend to check your work.

Below are the pairs that we’ll consider in this unit. You can see that some are homonyms (words that sound alike but have different meanings), and some are not.

1. a/an

2. accept/except

3. affect/effect

4. amount/number

5. bare/bear

6. coarse/course

7. conscience/conscious

8. finally/finely

9. have/of

10. hear/here

11. it’s/its

12. passed/past

13. principal/principle

14. than/then

15. their/there/they’re

16. threw/through

17. to/too/two

18. weather/whether

19. who’s/whose

20. you’re/your

Troublesome pairs

1. A/An

A and An are both noun markers. A is used before words that begin with consonant sounds, and an is used before words that begin with vowel sounds. You probably remember that the vowels are a, e, i, o, and u.

There are two more things you should know. One is that the letter h is sometimes silent, and when it is, you use an. For example, you write, “It is an honor to speak before the assembly.” On the other hand, when h is sounded, you use a. For example, you might say, “I wonder if there is a heaven.”

The other special concern is the letter u. Words that begin with a long u are preceded by a; words that begin with a short u are preceded by an. Study these correct examples: a united student body; an unsung hero.

2. Accept/Except

Accept is the verb form of the noun acceptance, and it means to receive something, not to reject it. The word except is a preposition that is related to the noun exception. Examples: You accept praise from your teacher. You might enjoy all dances except the polka.

3. Affect/Effect

If you look in a good dictionary, you’ll find a complete explanation of the difference between these two words. For our purposes, it’s enough to say that affect is a verb, and effect is usually a noun. Examples: Your moods affect your performance. The effect of too little sleep is obvious.

4. Amount/Number

Use the word number when you’re writing about something that can be counted; use amount when you’re writing about something that can’t be counted. Examples: an amount of peanut butter, a number of peanuts. Use number if something is “countable,” even if you don’t know the exact count.

Most people don’t make errors with number; they make errors by overusing amount. Here’s a typical mistake: “I had a large amount of friends when I lived in Houston.” Friends can be counted, even if you don’t actually recall how many you had; therefore, it should be “I had a large number of friends.”

The words fewer and less operate in the same way. Fewer is used as number is—with things that can be counted. Less is used as amount is—with things that can’t be counted. Is the TV commercial that tells us one type of beer has “less calories” than another type grammatically correct? The answer is no.

The words many and much also operate similarly. Many is used with things that can be counted; much modifies things that can’t be counted. Study these correct examples:

5. Bare/Bear

The word bare is an adjective that means naked, plain, unadorned. It is also a verb that means to reveal. Bear has two basic meanings: It’s a noun that refers to a certain animal; it’s also a verb that means to carry a burden or to tolerate something. Examples: The room is too bare; it needs a few warm touches. He wants to bare his soul to you. You may encounter a grizzly bear in Glacier National Park. I can’t bear to think about final exam week.

6. Coarse/Course

The word course means an academic subject, such as a mathematics course. It also means a path or route, such as the course of a river or a golf course. Course means a duration, as in the expression “throughout the course of history.” Its most frequent use is probably in the phrase of course.

Coarse, on the other hand, is an adjective that means rough; it can describe such things as the texture of fabric or the sound of language.

7. Conscience/Conscious

Conscience is a noun; it’s what is supposed to bother you when you do something wrong; we could say it’s your sense of right and wrong. The word conscious is an adjective that means aware. It’s related to the noun consciousness. Examples: He had a guilty conscience after betraying his friend’s trust. She was conscious of someone watching her.

8. Finally/Finely

Finally means at last or eventually. Finely means delicately or in small pieces.

9. Have/Of

This problem is a little different. Sometimes writers use the preposition of when they really mean the verb have. The only time this mistake occurs is after helping verbs such as should, could, will, would, may, might, and must. In the middle of a verb phrase, you don’t want a preposition. Here’s a typical error: “I should of known better.” Here’s the correction: “I should have known better.”

10. Hear/Here

Hear is the verb that means listen. Here is an adverb that designates a place.

11. It’s/Its

It’s is the contraction of it is. The word its is a possessive pronoun. Examples: It’s a new day. The snake shed its skin.

12. Passed/Past

Passed is a form of the verb pass. Past can be a noun or an adjective. Examples: They all passed the exam. You passed me on the street without saying a word. Who ever really forgets the past? (noun) Your past mistakes are forgiven. (adjective)

13. Principal/Principle

We all remember that the principal is our pal. The noun also refers to a sum of money on which we can earn interest. But the problem most students have is that they don’t realize the word principal is also an adjective that means main, central, most important. The word principle is a noun that means a basic truth, a law, a rule, a belief, a standard, or an ideal. Examples: Solving world hunger is the principal goal of the organization. Ozzie’s principal problem is lack of confidence. This experiment demonstrates the principle of supply and demand. Charlie has no principles; he’ll do anything for a price.

14. Than/Then

Than is used to make comparisons. For example, a person can be stronger than someone else, and one climate can be warmer than another. Then is an adverb of time; it describes when an action occurred. For example, we say, “Then I woke up” and “If you decide you want to talk it over, then call me.”

15. Their/There/They’re

Their is a possessive pronoun. It modifies a noun by showing that the noun belongs to someone. We speak of their pencils, their cars, their future. There is an indicator of location, as in “Let’s go there now.” It is also a sort of meaningless sentence starter, as in “There are a few problems we need to discuss.” They’re is the contraction of they are, as in “They’re going to be here for an hour.”

16. Threw/Through

Threw is the past tense of the verb throw. Through is a preposition.

17. To/Too/Two

To can be part of an infinitive verb phrase, as in “She wants to ride.” To is also a preposition, as in “The poem to his daughter was never completed.” Two, of course, is the number between one and three. It’s too that gives writers the most trouble. Too is an “intensifier”; it makes the adjective that follows it more intense. Roughly, it means “excessively.” For example, you can say, “You are too impatient,” which means you are excessively impatient. Too has another meaning, which is “also.” For example, you can write, “Please clean up this mess, and do the dishes, too.”

18. Weather/Whether

Weather, of course, refers to the climate. Whether is a conjunction used in sentences such as “I don’t know whether I should sign up now or wait until tomorrow.”

19. Who’s/Whose

Who’s is the contraction of who is. Whose is a possessive pronoun, and you’ve worked with it as an embedding word.

20. You’re/Your

You’re is the contraction of you are. Your is a possessive pronoun.

Exercise 6.15

Fill in the blanks with the correct choices.

1. Reindeer’s milk has three times more protein ___________ (than / then) cow’s milk, and some people prefer the taste, ___________ (to / too / two).

2. The ___________ (principal / principle) center of diamond trading in the United States is New York City’s 47th Street; in fact, more ___________ (than / then) 75 percent of the action in the American diamond trade goes on ___________ (their / there / they’re).

3. Richard Nixon was the first person ___________ (to / too / two) put a telephone call ___________ (threw / through) to the moon.

4. The ___________ (principal / principle) of self-service, which of ___________ (coarse / course) had a negative ___________ (affect / effect) on the employment of a great ___________ (amount / number) of waiters and waitresses, goes all the way back ___________ (to / too / two) 1885 when the first self-service restaurant, the Exchange Buffet, opened ___________ (it’s / its) doors near the New York Stock Exchange.

5. Joe Louis, ___________ (who’s / whose) considered by many to be the greatest fighter who ever lived, held the heavyweight title longer ___________ (than / then) anyone else; if ___________ (you’re / your) up on ___________ (you’re / your) boxing trivia, you know that he was the champion from 1937 ___________ (to / too / two) 1949.

6. Each of the precisely etched, ___________ (finally / finely) carved faces of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore is ___________ (to / too / two) times higher ___________ (than / then) the Great Sphinx of Egypt.

7. The Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the sale of liquor in the United States, was the only one ever to be repealed. The American people ___________ (finally / finely) ___________ (threw / through) the amendment out on December 5, 1933, after almost 14 “dry years” had ___________ (passed / past). Apparently, they came to the conclusion that, for adults, drinking alcohol should be considered less a matter of legislation ___________ (than / then) a matter of individual ___________ (conscience / conscious).

8. The first American husband and wife team to ___________ (accept / except) the Nobel Prize was Dr. Carl F. Cori and Dr. Gerty T. Cori. ___________ (Their / There / They’re) work in medicine won them a joint prize in 1947.

9. The United States publishes a greater ___________ (amount / number) of newspapers ___________ (than / then) any other country.

10. ___________ (It’s / Its) a fact that ___________ (their / there / they’re) are exactly twenty possible first moves in chess.

11. If ___________ (you’re / your) ever watching a television sitcom and the laughter seems just a bit ___________ (to / too / two) mechanical, it might ___________ (have / of) been produced by a machine called a “Mackenzie.” ___________ (It’s / Its) job is to cough up canned laughter for a considerable ___________ (amount / number) of television shows.

12. Throughout the entire ___________ (coarse / course) of American history, ___________ (their / there / they’re) was probably only one president who didn’t let his spouse’s views ___________ (affect / effect) his political decisions in even the slightest way. That was James Buchanan, who served from 1857 to 1861 and who was the only American president never ___________ (to / too / two) marry.

13. By the standards of centuries ago, it didn’t really take ___________ (to / too / two) long for the Mayflower to cross the Atlantic; in fact, the ship left Europe and arrived ___________ (hear / here) in only ___________ (to / too / two) months.

14. The presidential candidate who received the greatest ___________ (amount / number) of votes in one election in American history was Richard M. Nixon. But he must ___________ (bare / bear) the stigma of being the only president to resign, ___________ (to / too / two).

15. During the time of the Civil War, ___________ (their / there / they’re) was no doubt that money could ___________ (affect / effect) a young man’s chances of serving in the military; to put it plainly, ___________ (a / an) inductee could pay someone else ___________ (to / too / two) take his place if, of ___________ (coarse / course), he could do so without disturbing his own ___________ (conscience / conscious) ___________ (to / too / two) much.