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Commonly Misused Words and Phrases

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  From the pages of:

Novel Writing Made Simple

by Gordon A. Kessler

C) Word Choices. Word choices are extremely important.  Often, people from different parts of the country, religions, races or upbringings will have different connotations for some of the same words.  Take care in ensuring your word choices are not abstract, generic, used for an obscure meaning of the word or even be archaic.

       (1) Tone Setting. Tone setting words are very effective tools for the writer; however, when used unintentionally they can create quite an opposite effect with the reader. If you describe a character who loves his home and childhood, being raised in the bowels of the Appalachian Mountains, your reader might not understand that this character is proud of his home and has cherished memories of his boyhood. How about making his upbringing be in the heart of the Appalachians where the summer valleys are plush and green and the clear mountain streams are alive with trout?  

These tone-setting words are especially useful to put the reader into the intended mood of the story.  They help characterize the POV character through interesting internalization and introspection by the way she considers and relates to the world around her.  This notion is examined further in section 2.7e) Thought.

          (2)  Abstract and Stock vs. Specific and Concrete Terms.  The use of specificity in descriptions helps to ground your story in realism.   These descriptions conjure familiar images in the readers’ heads and shift them smoothly into a believable fictional world.  Stories without this kind of specificity and concreteness are like looking from behind a Hollywood movie set where you can see the boards propping up the scenery.  Even in an unfamiliar setting, using specific article names and concrete terms will help the reader see these places you take her to as real.  Describing the unfamiliar through familiar shapes, colors, movements, smells, tastes and textures provide verisimilitude to readers who are willing to step into the fictional world you’ve created between the pages. 

Here’s an example excerpt taken from my novel Dead Reckoning


At sunset Spurs stood alone on the signal deck and watched as a tinny, prerecorded version of Taps sounded, and the sun dipped into the darkening sea. 

The Atchison’s stem plunged into the turquoise ocean before her and cut through, laying it open in white slices that curled away from the bow and sizzled past the hull.  The frigate’s screws churned in a rhythmic hum as she gazed past the bow to the last quenching gold and white rays of sunlight.  On the horizon off the starboard side, the blackening silhouette of the Enterprise was pinned against a dimming sapphire mantle. 

She smiled, the sea-freshened air in her hair, light ocean spray on her face.  This was the ecstasy her father had spoken about-the solitude, the wonderful emptiness that filled the soul, stretching it to the point of bursting with an awe-inspiring realization of insignificance in the enormity of the world. 


Hopefully, this narration allows the reader to imagine what the POV character sees and is experiencing even though the reader might not have ever been on a ship. 

One of the biggest concerns most beginning novelists have about specificity is to avoid getting sued by some mega corporation for using their product name. If you feel uncomfortable with this, don’t do it. Otherwise, the key is to not defame or show in a negative light the brand-name product your story characters are using or that you are depicting in your story. That’s not to say you can’t have one of your characters drive an old, beat-up Ford, Chevy or Dodge. That Ford, Chevy or Dodge isn’t beat up because that’s the way they were manufactured, but from years of abuse-and they’re common; we’ve all seen them on the street. 

          (3) Economy of Words.  Another rule of thumb few writing instructors, agents and editors will argue with is that the writer should say what needs to be said in as few words as possible-avoid wordiness.  This is a value judgment when considering descriptions and relating important information.  But this notion is especially important when writing simple exposition andthe narration of needed story elements.  

Following, you will find some examples of wordy phrases.


Consider replacing


 could be quoted as saying


 due to the fact that


 engaged in conversation

 talked or spoke

 could be compared to


 gave instructions to


 in order to


 made adjustments to


 made mention of


 the majority of times


 was capable of


 was reflective of




Unnecessary Words and Redundancies (the words in parentheses could be stricken) 

(a/an)-sometimes unnecessary 

add/combine/link/mix/weave (together) 

(added) bonus 

(advanced) warning 

(advanced) planning 

all (of) 

audible (to the ear) 

(began/started to)-often unnecessary 

blinked/frowned/squinted/winked (his/her eyes) 

by (means of) 

(close) proximity 

consensus (of opinion) 

(dead) corpse 

(deadly) killer/murderer/sniper 

disappear (from sight) 

Easter (Sunday) 

(end) result 

(excess) (waste)-use one or the other 

(fatal) death/drowning/murder/suicide 

few/many (in number) 

(first) discovered/introduced/began 

flew (through the air) 

followed (behind) 

free (of charge/gift) 

(fully) comprehensive 

funeral (service) 

the guy/man/woman (who was/is) 

(had been)-usually unnecessary 

(had the appearance of) looked like 

hung up (the phone) 

invisible/visible (to the eye) 

(it is)-often unnecessary 

(Jewish) rabbi 

(just)-usually unnecessary 

large/small (in size) 

lead/led (in front of) 

leaning (up) against-or on 

(located) in 

(mass) exodus/extinction/genocide 

(mental) telepathy 

nodded (his head/yes)  

nodded (in agreement) 

(old) relic 

parked (the car) 

(past/previous) experience/history  

plan (of action

(positively) sure 

(preliminary) draft 

punched (with his fist) 

rain (down) 

reason (why) 

red (in color) 

reiterate (again)  

(remaining) vestige 

(safe) haven/sanctuary 

(sat there)-usually unnecessary 

(stood there)-usually unnecessary 

shook his head (no) 

shrugged (his shoulders) 

sailed (on the ocean/sea/water) if a boat 

spin (in circles) 

(that)-often unnecessary 

(the fact that)-usually unnecessary 

(the sound of)-as in “. . . breaking glass” often unnecessary in narration 

(there is/are)-often unnecessary 

thought (to him/herself) 

(two) opposites 

(was)-often unnecessary, and passive, consider rewording sentence in more active manner  

(went into) entered 

wrote (down) 

(she/he heard/saw)-often unnecessary in POV narration  


          (4) Active vs. Passive.  Active verbs and sentences (active voice) are essential to a clear, fast-moving story.  Using more precise verbs instead of adverbial phrases and modifiers is the first step.  The “killer to be verb” should always be scrutinized, that is: any form of the verb be when used in your story, should be carefully considered.  Of course, the forms of to be are is, are, am, was, were, had been, have been, and will be.  But don’t get carried away with stomping out all of the be’s.  If you can’t replace a to be verb without making your sentence sound forced, don’t do it.  Your sentences must flow smoothly and naturally so that the prose doesn’t attract attention to itself, while your story does.

In an active sentence the subject acts, performing the action expressed by the verb.  In a passive sentence the subject is acted upon, being the receiver of the action expressed by the verb.  For example: 


Passive:  The burglar (subject) was arrested (action) by the rookie cop (actor). 

Passive:  The burglar (subject) was arrested (action). 

Active:    The rookie cop (subject) arrested (action) the burglar (object of action).   


This is another time for you not to get carried away with sentence revision.  There are times when the object of the action is important and the actor of the action doesn’t matter or is unknown

Generic verbs are action words that are vague and allow for considerable interpretation by the reader.  Sometimes they work well for the purpose of describing a non-dramatic action taking place that should not draw attention.  However, overuse or repetition of these words becomes boring and might imply lazy writing.  Three of the most overused words in beginning novelists’ stories are looked, walked and ran.  In most cases, whenever a more descriptive and precise verb for a perceived action is available, use it-sprinted, jogged or raced for ran; gazed, glared, stared for looked; and stepped, sauntered, strode, strolled, ambled, marched or even moved or went for walked.  But always be careful that the replacement of such a verb, perhaps to avoid repetition in adjoining sentences, does not appear forced or stilted

Beginning novelists sometimes try much too hard in the wrong places to avoid forced prose and to not use the same words repetitively.  A particularly troubling example is in the use of dialogue tags.  They replace with a vengeance the words said and asked with tags that sometimes are perceived as sore-thumb, stilted words such as interjected, conveyed and queried.  Said and asked are considered invisible to the reader and are only used to help tag the character that the dialogue is attributed to.  Some less-distracting replacements are okay on occasion, e.g. replied, answered, teased and suggested-however, the writer, when using these more distracting tags needs to remember the purpose of dialogue tags-to name the speaker or how the words are spoken, when necessary.  In many cases, if you’ve done a good job on your dialogue you won’t need many dialogue tags at all.


Rule:  Avoid using passive voice at all cost (stomp out the “killer be!”). 


Exception:  Mike McQuay’s opening of Escape from New York, in which he describes the rough-tough protagonist with passive verb metaphors.  The effect is a clear, dramatic and immediate understanding of the character described. 


Who should attempt breaking this rule:  You, once you understand the rules. 


          (5) Misused Words.  Words are misused continually by your friends, coworkers, family and the public you meet on the street.  You hear the butchery of the English language every day in movies, on TV shows, in songs, even by professional newscasters.  You see it in letters, novels and even in textbooks.  Sew, whose two tell yew your wrong?  Let’s take a look at a few examples. 

You know the meanings of the following words (if you don’t, this might be a good time to look them up), but while you were on autopilot trying to get the image in your head onto paper before it vanished forever, did you type the intended word’s homonymor one that sounds similar by mistake? Check and see.

Word intended                     Word used mistakenly                            Word intended                        Word used mistakenly

                   a board                                      aboard 

                   accept                                         except 

                   advice                                         advise 

                   affect                                          effect 

                   ally                                              alley 

                   altogether                                  all together 

                   alumna                         alumnae/alumnus/alumni 

                   among                                        between 

                   assail                                         a sail 

                   backward (pref.)                       backwards  

                   bad                                             badly 

                   crème                                        cream 

                   croissant                                   crescent 

                   desert                                         dessert 

                   din                                               den  

                   diner                                          dinner 

                   elicit                                             illicit 

                   excess                                       access 

                   fewer                                          less 

                   farther                                         further 

                   forward (pref.)                            forwards  

                   fury                                               furry 

                   grown                                          grounded 

                   hallo                                            halo/hollow 

                   hanged                                       hung 

                   have                                             of 

                   height                                         heighth (archaic) 

immigrate                                             emigrate 

imminent                                              eminent 

loose                                                    lose 

may                                                       might 

melee                                                    may lay 

merry                                                     marry 

misses                                                  missus 

more than                                            over 

pin                                                         pen 

principal                                               principle 

quit                                                        quiet/quite 

rout                                                        route 

scald                                                      scold 

scent                                                     sent 

seal                                                       sill 

suit                                                         soot 

summery                                              summary  

super                                                     supper 

then                                                        than 

to                                                             into 

toward (pref.)                                       towards 

tortuous                                                 torturous 

voila                                                       viola 

weather                                                whether 

who                                                       whom 

who                                                       which/that 

                wonder                                                   wander 



The following are homonyms, words with the same pronunciation but different meanings and spellings.  See if you recognize a few of the ones you commonly misuse.

Intended word      Homonym                       Intended word      Homonym 

aide                            aid                                     pi                           pie

bough                         bow                                   pore                      pour/poor  

break                          brake                                 purr                       per      

callous                      callus                                quire                     choir 

cannon                      canon                                rein                      rain     

canvas                       canvass                            rime                     rhyme 

capitol                         capital                              ring                       wring 

censor                       censer                               rot                         wrought 

cession                     session                             sane                     seine 

chord                          cord                                   seem                    seam 

complement             compliment                     seen                     scene  

council                       counsel                             sheer                    shear 

course                        coarse                              sit                          cit

cue                             queue                               sot                        sought 

deer                            dear                                  soul                       sole 

discrete                     discreet                            stile                        style

duel                             dual                                  taut                       taught/tot 

foreword                    forward                             tee                        tea 

fourth                          forth                                   thyme                    time 

grisly                          grizzly                                 throne                   thrown 

here                            hear                                   vain                       vane 

its                                it’s                                      ware                      wear 

led                                lead                                   whoa                     woe 

meet                           meat                                  way                        weigh 

naughty                      knotty                                 wry                         rye 

need                           knead                                         

pain                            pane                                           

passed                      past 

peer                            pier 

peal                            peel 


Having seen these lists, use them when you’re giving your manuscript that final edit before printing it off to be sent to a prospective editor or agent.   It only takes a few minutes to do a word search for some of the preceding words to ensure you’ve used them properly. 

Another misuse to watch out for concerns the subjunctive mood.  For the most part, this is when the verb were is used instead of was in a clause that is contrary to fact.  With this old rule being ignored often in fiction and informal writing, I believe the main thing here is to be consistent.  For a detailed overview of subjunctive mood look in the lexicon in the back of this book.

          (6) Common Grammatical Errors.  The incorrect use of irregular verb tenses is one of the most common grammatical mistakes.  Some of the most frequent are: 


Present tense(clarification)        Past tense             Past participle 

begin                               began                     (have, has or had) begun 

come                               came                     (" " ") come 

dive                                  dived/dove             (" " ") dived 

drag                                 dragged                (" " ") dragged 

drink                                 drank                     (" " ") drunk 

hang (an object)            h ung                       (" " ") hung 

hang (a person)            hanged                  (" " ") hanged 

lay (to place)                   laid                         (" " ") laid 

lie (to recline)                 lay                           (" " ") lain 

plead                                pled                        (" " ") pleaded 

run                                     ran                          (" " ") run 

sink                                  sank/sunk           (" " ") sunk 

slay                                  slew                       (" " ") slain 

speed                              sped                      (" " ") sped 

spring                              sprang/sprung   (" " ") sprung 

swim                                swam                    (" " ") swum 

tear                                    tore                        (" " ") torn 

wake                                waked/woke        (" " ") waked/woke/woke


The rule for the use of italics is often misunderstood. First things first, in a novel manuscript consider underlining the object word(s) instead of using italics when mailing your manuscript to an editor or agent. This is an old rule from before word processors and computers, when writers used typewriters without italic keys. Still, some writers find it wise to adhere to this rule. In the old days, the typewritten underlined words indicated clearly to the typesetter that those words should be italicized when put into published form. Even today, a few copyeditors work from a hard copyof the manuscript rather than a word processing file. In this case, especially, it is easier for the copyeditor to notice your underlined words to be italicized than it is for him to spot the italicized ones and transpose them onto the published page. If you're sending your manuscript as an attachment with an email, or submitting to an online or Internet publisher, you should probably go ahead and use italics and not underline, because they're dealing directly with the electronic version of your manuscript.  But don’t forget that any requirements made in the submission guidelines of the publisher or agency you’re querying supersedes what you find in this book. 

Some of the words that should be italicized or underlined to indicate italicization in your manuscript are direct internalization, titles of books, names of ships, sometimes when referring to a word as a word, foreign words, spelling out a sound or onomatopoeia, and words needing emphasis. I don’t recommend for you to indicate emphasis by settingwords in bold or all caps when writing a novelmanuscript.

          (7)  Commonly Misspelled Words.  There are a number of words that are commonly misspelled, and your spellchecker might not pick up on them because they are becoming acceptable due to continual and widespread error. Although the incorrect spelling might, at some point in the future, become acceptable, why take the chance when you’ve finally gotten your pristine, fast-paced suspensenovel in front of an editor who likes your story idea?  Here are some examples: 


Misspelled                                                             Correct spelling

alright (becoming accepted due to misuse)           all right

alot                                                                                    a lot

heighth                                                                            height 


          Getting the Words Right by Theodore A. Rees Cheney is an excellent book to help writers in rewriting, editing and revising their stories. 




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