Five Common Usage Mistakes to Avoid – Sheet 4 of 8
#1) Defiantly vs. Definitely
Beware! Spellcheck will let you down, and here’s one of the most common offenders. When misspelling definitely, it can become easy to type something that is closer to defiantly, and so a spellcheck program will likely “help” you by suggesting, or even inserting the wrong word. The meanings aren’t at all close to one another: definitely means “undoubtedly” while defiantly means “boldly resistant or challenging.” Keep your eyes open for this error.
Mark Twain famously offered the following advice on writing: “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Do not clog your writing with needless words, and very is one of the worst offenders. If a person is very upset, say that he is infuriated. Instead of very tired, say exhausted. And in your formal writing, avoid very at all costs.
You are only allowed to use this word when you are referring to something that is actually, in fact, real or literal. More and more commonly, people use this word, ironically, to mean the EXACT OPPOSITE of what it really means, in a sentence like, “When they announced the winner, I literally died.” No you didn’t. Buy a dictionary. (PS: this word should be used to stress that something is not believable, but is in fact real (I was literally at work until 3 AM). Do not merely use it to state dull facts, e.g. You are literally in Massachusetts.)
#4) May & Might
These words are often exchangeable, but they also carry a shade of difference in their meanings. Something is slightly more likely to happen with “may” than with “might.” “We may go to the movies” means you should get your coat. “We might go to the movies” is more like a polite rejection. Don’t get your hopes up.
#5) Who vs. That/Which
This one is a very common error. Who is a personal pronoun, which means it replaces a person or several people (similar to how he and they function). That and Which are impersonal pronouns, which means that they replace things (just like it does). You would insult someone if you called him an “it” (it puts the lotion on its skin), but people often wrongly use the impersonal that or which to replace a person, like in the sentences “He is the athlete that won the MVP” or “The candidate which I voted for lost”. Use who (or whom) – keep it personal.