Ultimate Usage Guide: Which Word or Phrase is Correct?


1/23/20243 min read

This is an ever-growing page, so check back often and feel free to share any words that give you trouble!

A While or Awhile

The key difference here is that awhile is an adverb, while a while is usually the object of the preposition for. Awhile simply means “for a while.”

One might sit and study these words awhile, or they might decide to watch TV for a while.

There are exceptions, though, if you want to take a while longer to learn about light verbs.

*As a light verb here(have, make, take, etc.), take doesn’t have its own meaning by itself, so you can’t just put an adverb. It’s like saying “I’ll have tomorrow” instead of “I’ll have a nap tomorrow.”

Affect or Effect

This was a fan favorite with my former 9th and 10th graders.

Affect is the verb—think a for action. This goes for influencing things and for pretending (he affected surprise).

Effect is the noun. It might help to remember that the “and” in “cause and effect” separates two e’s.

*Bonus points for affect in the psychological sense. When you hear it pronounced with the a in cat, it’s referring to the emotions associated with an object, thought, or expression.

Compliment or Complement

Complement is the easier of the two for me to remember. I think of two elements that complete one another. Both element and complete have an e following the l.

A good trick for compliment is that compliments often start with I. “I like your hat,” for example.

Complimentary breakfast is a little harder, since it seems like the breakfast is adding to or completing the hotel visit. I suppose we can say the hotel giving you breakfast is a way of treating you like royalty, which is quite a compliment!

Discrete or Discreet

The best way I’ve found to remember the difference between these two is that the t separates the two e’s in discrete, which is the one that means separate and distinct.

I also like to think of how the double e in discreet reminds me of the double e in creep, which I associate with a need for stealth and secrecy in being discreet about something.

Faze or Phase

Though a common error to confuse the two, phase has to do with time and sequence, as in “start phasing in more difficult words” or “going through a phase.”

Faze is the word you’re looking for when wanting to disturb or confuse somebody.

“It didn’t even phase me” makes me think of narrowly avoiding a time-travel accident in Star Trek.

Plus, if this is something you struggle with, it may help to recognize that the spelling of faze does itself faze you a bit every time you see it.

Further or Farther

A great deal of confusion centers around further and farther. One often hears the advice of only using farther for physical descriptions—and often in an exasperated tone, like it’s obvious. But this convergence is a relatively new phenomenon from the past century or so!

Plus, a quick look at Google’s Ngram viewer for “farther away” versus “further away” shows the opposite occurring in British English!

So, unless you want to move farther away from the person you’re arguing with, you can further your argument by being a little less pompous about it.

Imminent or Eminent

Eminent means “outstanding” or “standing out” either literally or figuratively. E is for extraordinary.

Imminent can be remembered as i for incoming.

Lay or Lie

Honestly, this one is just ridiculous.

Lay (present) is for “setting something down.”

Lie is for “reclining.” BUT lay is also the past tense of lie, as in “I lay in bed for an hour.”

“I laid in bed for an hour” would consist of quite a few eggs...

On to or Onto

There are really multiple ways of distinguishing between onto and on to, so choose a favorite!

First, there’s usually a directional meaning, so you should be able to put up before it and not change the meaning of the sentence (unless the direction is metaphysical, like “putting data onto a disk” or “the missing book put me onto your schemes”).

  • I logged up on to my computer.

  • I jumped up onto the trampoline.

I also like to check if either word pairs with words before or after it—like in “log on” or if the “to” begins an infinitive.