There are some grammar guidelines that, no matter how often you review the rules, some writers are still going to mess up. And not just fresh-faced, inexperienced writers, but also seasoned authors who know their way around a style guide. One of the most common grammatical errors is to confuse two seemingly similar words.
If you’re a writer who is confident you would never (ever!) make such a basic mistake, then feel free to move on to stories about upcoming Mardi Gras revelry -- let the good times roll! But if you’re not one to let sleeping dogs lie…or lay…here are some helpful reminders of how to deal with commonly confused words:
Lie or Lay?
We are not referring to the definition of “lie” that means “untrue” -- as in: Liar! Why would you lie and say your pants are on fire, when that is obviously not true?
We are referring to the confusion between “setting down” and “reclining.”
In the present tense, keeping your meaning clear is easier: “lay” requires a direct object; “lie” does not:
Olivia lays her book on the table. (“Book” is the direct object.)
I need to lie down on the sofa. (No direct object.)
But in the past tense, the distinction gets a little trickier; since the past tense of “lie” is also “lay.”
Yesterday, I lay on the sofa for hours while thinking about verb tenses.
However, the past tense of “lay” is “laid.”
Olivia laid that book on the table a week ago -- is she ever going to read it?
By keeping in mind the verb tense, whether or not there is a direct object, and what is occurring (setting something down or lounging on the sofa), you can determine if you mean to “lie” or “lay.”
Affect or Effect?
Here’s another pair of words where one is often mistaken for the other. The standard rule is: “affect” is usually a verb; “effect” is usually a noun. Yes, yes -- we know there are a few exceptions to this guideline. But 99 times out of 100, if you use “affect” as a verb and “effect” as a noun, you’ll be right.
The poetry affected Christine in an alarming way.
Allison’s chamomile tea had a soothing effect on her throat.
Then or Than?
These two words are mixed up so often -- especially on the Internet -- that this grammar gaffe has become a major pet peeve of many writers (and readers!). Let’s set the record straight:
The word “then” indicates time, sequence, or even “as a consequence.” An easy trick to help you remember when to use “then”: “then,” “time,” “sequence,” and “consequence” all have the letter “e.”
Back then, Olivia read her books promptly.
Christine sneezed repeatedly and then blew her nose.
If Allison had shared her tea, then we all wouldn’t be so thirsty.
“Than” denotes comparison. It’s often seen loitering around with comparatives or words such as “more” or “less.” A handy memory aid: “compare” and “than” both have the letter “a.”
Steve’s soup has more carrots than celery.
I am taller than you.
While these are just a few of the words that can confuse writers... if we affected the way you lay your thoughts on paper, then we’re glad we could help!