By the time they reach adulthood, most people are pretty good writers and speakers. At a minimum they understand the fundamentals and try hard to write good copy. Unfortunately, even the best writers sometimes slip up by misusing common words and phrases. This problem is compounded when society begins to accept that new (but improper) usage, and the errors start showing up in dictionaries and other resource material.
Consider this article a refresher course on commonly misused words and phrases. It is by no means comprehensive, however. You may have your own examples that give you fits; make sure you are constantly reviewing your material, looking for the types of mistakes you frequently make.
1. Criteria vs. Criterion -
Criteria often gets misused because people don’t realize it is the plural form of a word. (Data is another such word.)
Use criteria when you refer to a list or group of items.
The criteria for choosing the pump include delivery options, warranty, ease of upgrade, and price.
Our criteria have not changed since last year’s negotiations.
Use criterion when you focus on just one of the variables.
Price is only one criterion we are using to decide which pump to buy.
One criterion is the machine’s ability to cut through inch-thick carbon steel.
2. Inter vs. Intra -
Of the two, inter is used more frequently, and is sometimes mistakenly used in place of intra.
Inter refers to actions between members of different groups.
The Brewers played the Rangers in an inter-league game.
If you are referring to elements of the same group or area, use intra.
The two teams from Marketing faced off in some friendly intra-office rivalry.
Calls from Milwaukee to Oconomowoc and West Bend are considered intra-LATA.
3. Less vs. fewer -
Express check-out lanes often mention that they accept “X items or less.” Ooops. Typically, less refers to aggregate amounts while fewer refers to numbers or quantities.
Less waste is generated since we switched to the new process.
The latest model consumes less fuel than earlier versions.
Use fewer when you know the number or quantity.
Twelve fewer people attended this year’s conference.
Our 2005 model has five fewer moving parts.
4. Placement of Question Mark When Working With Quotes -
Improper placement of the question mark creates a confusing sentence, as in:
Have you heard the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away?“
The adage is a statement, not a question. The proper way to write this is:
Have you heard the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”?
If the person is asking a question, of course, the question mark is set inside the quotation marks.
“How soon do you expect the package to arrive?”
5. Putting only in its place -
Where you place only affects the meaning of your sentence. For example,
I only went to the store.
means that of your planned tasks (going to the store, riding your bike, and planting your garden), all you did was go to the store.
What you meant to say was:
I went only to the store.
In most cases only belongs before a noun rather than a verb.
I want only executives to attend.
She purchased only three copies of the sales guide.