Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Words and Language

In our society, we rely heavily on language to communicate. Words are the building blocks of language, and as such, it is imperative we use them correctly. Otherwise, expressions and messages we wish to convey to others won’t be understood.

With that being said, there are many words that get used incorrectly in speech and writing. In speech, it is easier to flow over these errors in word use. This is because when you are talking with another person, you use other aspects for communication, like context, facial expressions and body language. But in writing, all you have are the words. When words are used wrongly, communication through writing is greatly affected. There are many mistakes in word use, but for this lesson, we will look at three common mistakes and how to avoid making those mistakes.

Wrong Situation

The first common misuse of words happens when words are used in the wrong situations. Every word has a certain function or definition for communication. It is important that words are used according to those functions. For example, we use transitional words in writing to show relationship and connect ideas. Many people easily confuse transitional words and use them incorrectly. Look at this sentence: ‘Mike wanted to go to the baseball game; furthermore, he had to work that night.’ The transitional word ‘furthermore’ is being used in the wrong situation. Furthermore has a function of adding on similar information or ideas. The ideas in this sentence are contrasting, thus you need a contrasting transition like ‘however.’ ‘Mike wanted to go to the baseball game; however, he had to work that night.’

Another wrong situation mistake includes the words ‘set’ and ‘sit.’ Some people use these words interchangeably, but that is a major mistake. Sit can only be used when referring to being seated. On the other hand, set should be used when placing an object somewhere. For example, this sentence: ‘He sat the books on the desk,’ should be changed to, ‘He set the books on the desk.’

A final example of words used in the wrong situation involve ‘who’ versus ‘which.’ ‘Who’ always refers to people. As in this sentence: ‘The girls, who love to swim, spent their whole summer at the pool.’ In this case, the girls are people, and so ‘who’ needs to be used to add in the information about loving to swim. Use ‘which’ when referring to inanimate objects. As in this sentence: ‘The desk, which belongs to Tim, was broken during the move.’ ‘Which’ is referring to the desk, an inanimate object, and so is being used correctly. Always pay attention to what you are referring to when using who and which, so you do not use either word in the wrong situation.

Adjective vs. Adverb

A second common mistake with word use has to do with adjectives and adverbs. Remember, an adjective is a word that describes a noun, whereas an adverb is a word that describes a verb, an adjective or another adverb. The most common way to identify adverbs is to look for the suffix ‘-ly’. Almost all adverbs end with this suffix. If you are using a word to describe a verb, adjective or another adverb, you need to use the adverb form.

Look at this sentence as an example: ‘Some people use words wrong.’ Do you notice anything incorrect? Some of you may be thinking this sentence is correct. However, you need to look at the form of the word ‘wrong.’ ‘Wrong’ is an adjective; it describes nouns. You can have the wrong answer, or the wrong outfit. What is ‘wrong’ describing in this example? In this sentence, ‘wrong’ is describing the verb ‘use,’ thus the adverb form needs to be used. The sentence should read: ‘Some people use words wrongly.’

Pay close attention when using adjectives and adverbs to what those words are describing. ‘Quick’ is an adjective and needs to describe a noun, while ‘quickly’ is the adverb form for describing verbs. ‘Real’ is an adjective that needs to describe a noun, while ‘really’ is the adverb that needs to describe an adjective, verb or another adverb. In your writing, be sure to look for adjectives and adverbs being used mistakenly.


A final way people use the wrong words is using words that aren’t really words, or nonwords. Nonwords are very common in our speech, but should be avoided at all costs in writing. Again, the spoken word can stretch basic grammatical rules, since other aspects can help communication.

A first example of a nonword is ‘ain’t.’ Many people use ‘ain’t’ to stand in for the verb ‘to be’ combined with ‘not.’ For example, look at this sentence: ‘He ain’t going to the game.’ The correct version is: ‘He is not going to the game.’ ‘Ain’t’ is never a replacement for using the verb ‘to be’ along with ‘not.’ The sentence should read: ‘He is not going to the game.’

A second nonword commonly used is ‘y’all.’ This nonword is used as a contraction for ‘you all.’ Look at this sentence: ‘Y’all can go shopping tomorrow.’ In this case, the word ‘all’ should simply not be used. The pronoun ‘you’ can be used to refer to a single person or a group of people. The correct way to form that sentence is: ‘You can go shopping tomorrow.’ The ‘you’ refers to multiple people, and the ‘all’ is completely unnecessary.

A final example of a nonword is ‘supposably.’ This nonword is often used in a sentence meaning theoretically, as in this example: ‘Ben supposably wrote the English paper himself.’ This is a case of simple mispronunciation. Speakers of this nonword really should say ‘supposedly,’ since the root word is ‘suppose,’ which means ‘to assume.’ There is no b-sound in this word. You should be sure to pronounce it correctly and say ‘supposedly.’ The sentence should be: ‘Ben supposedly wrote the English paper himself.’

There are many more nonwords that are used in our language, but be sure to check your writing and avoid using any of these nonwords.

Lesson Summary

To review, identifying and correcting mistakes with word use is very important for correct communication. There are many mistakes made with words in the English language. But here are three ways to steer clear of common mistakes.

First, try to avoid using the wrong words in the wrong situations. For example, pay attention to the transitional words you use. Don’t use ‘furthermore’ when you want to show contrasting ideas; instead, use ‘however.’ Also, make sure you are using ‘sit’ as in to be seated and ‘set’ for placing objects. Last, use ‘who’ when referring to people and ‘which’ when referring to objects.

Secondly, be careful when using adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives must describe nouns, and adverbs must describe verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. The adjective ‘wrong’ must be used to describe a noun, whereas ‘wrongly’ is an adverb and needs to describe a verb. Be sure to use the adverb form, which usually ends with the suffix ‘-ly,’ and not the adjective form when describing verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

Finally, avoid nonwords, which are words that don’t exist, at all costs. Instead of ‘ain’t,’ use ‘is not.’ Instead of ‘y’all,’ delete the ‘all’ and use the pronoun ‘you.’ Instead of ‘supposably,’ use ‘supposedly.’

Remember, this is not an exhaustive list of all the errors in word use. But if you use these tips to avoid making these common mistakes, you will improve your grammar and your writing greatly.

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