Skip to main content

Grammar resource: Misused words

Fewer/less

Fewer should be used when referring to something that is plural. In the example below, students are being referred to as a plural i.e. there is more than one student.

Example: Fewer students are studying abroad. 

 

Less should be used when you are referring to something that is not plural and cannot be counted. In the example below, there is no plural for time and therefore less is a more appropriate choice of word.

Example: Young adults spend less time drinking. 

Advise/advice

Advise is a verb meaning to pass on information and to make recommendations.

Example: The lecturer is able to advise students. 

 

Advice is a noun used to describe a recommended action. In the example below, the verb is give and this refers to the noun advice.

Example: The lecturer can give students advice

Practise/practice

As with advise and advice, practise is the verb and practice is the noun.

Practise is a verb meaning one of the following:

  • To perform something regularly to improve or maintain proficiency
  • To perform something habitually or regularly
  • To actively pursue or be engaged in

 

Examples of sentences using the verb practise:

Examples: 

Lucy can practise her tennis serve.

Many churchgoers still practise these rituals.

He began to practise medicine in 1962.

 

Practice is used as a noun meaning one of the following:

  • Repeated exercise in something to improve or maintain proficiency
  • The customary way of doing something
  • The application of something rather than the theory behind it

 

Examples of sentences containing the noun practice:

Examples: 

Lucy spent hours at her tennis practice.

It is normal practice in this culture for children to be raised by their wider family.

Whilst this is theoretically possible, it is usually too expensive to put into practice.

 

Note: In American English, practise is not used - practice is used as both a verb and noun.  This means that if you are reading American journals or other literature you will see it used differently.

Affect/effect

Affect is primarily a verb meaning to make a difference to or to touch the emotions of.

Example: 

The timing and location of the interview could affect the data significantly.

The participant was visibly affected by the retelling of the incident.

 

Occasionally, in some academic papers, especially in the social sciences, you may see it is used as a noun meaning an emotion that influences behaviour. This has the same root as affection but it is rarely used in everyday speech.

Example: 

This study explored how affect relates to creativity at work.

 

Effect can be a noun or a verb.  As a noun it refers to:

  • A change that is the result or consequence of an action or occurrence. 
  • Becoming operative

Example: 

The beneficial effect of the research is still unclear.

The policy changes will come into effect at the end of the calendar year.

 

As a verb it means to cause something to happen.

Example: 

The new manager effected many policy changes at the senior management level.

This can only effect change if it is made compulsory.

They are most difficult to distinguish in their verb forms but if you remember that to affect alters something.

Literally

Although this is not confused with another similar word, it is constantly misused.  Literally means exactly as described. Somebody who is 'literally bursting with pride' is actually exploding.  When someone is 'bursting with pride' they are figuratively doing so. It is usually best not to use the word at all, but in academic writing you should only use it when there may be confusion between whether what you are describing was a literal or figurative occurrence, or when you are drawing attention to a phrase that is usually misused:

Example: 

It was literally hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement as can be seen in Figure 1.

When vasovagal syncope occurs, people can literally pass out with surprise.