Here are commonly misused words and suggestions for avoiding unnecessary words.

“-ize” and “-our” endings

We’re Canadian, eh? Use Canadian rather than American spelling, including -our endings (honour, not honor) and -reendings (not center, but centre). Exceptions are words appearing in formal American titles: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And we use Canadian rather than British spelling, including “-ize” endings (recognize, not recognise; realize, not realise).

That or which?

He entered the lab that researchers use to conduct their experiments. Here, that introduces a restrictive clause with essential information about this particular lab.

Example: He entered the lab, which was located on the second floor, in order to conduct the experiment. Here, what’s between the commas adds information but is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. A test: Remove everything between the commas, and the sentence still makes sense, even if it contains less information. Which (or whose) introduces a non-restrictive clause.

Always place a comma before which to set off the non-essential or extra information. Don’t use a comma before the restrictive clause introducing essential information:

  • He entered the lab that was on the second floor.
  • He entered the lab, which was on the second floor.


Include implies that a complete list is NOT provided. When providing a complete list, use is, consists of, is composed of, comprises, is made up of, etc.

  • Guelph’s colleges include CBS, OAC, OVC, CEPS, CME, CSAHS and the College of Arts. Include is incorrect because all seven colleges are listed.
  • Guelph’s colleges are/consist of CBS, OAC, OVC, CEPS, CME, CSAHS and the College of Arts.
  • Guelph’s colleges include CBS and OAC.

Because include tells the reader there are other colleges, there’s no need to end the sentence with words that suggest the same thing.

  • Guelph’s colleges include CBS and OAC, among others. Guelph’s colleges include CBS and OAC, to name a few. Guelph’s colleges include CBS and OAC and five others.


The word comprise means to contain, consist of or embrace.

  • The book comprises 10 chapters.
  • The book is comprised of 10 chapters.
  • Ten chapters comprise the book.

Also and as well

Also and as well tend to be used redundantly:

  • Besides working for his brother, he also trains horses.
  • In addition to writing prose, he also writes poetry.
  • In addition, C. jejuni and C. difficile affect animals as well.


Placement of only can change the meaning of a sentence, so to avoid ambiguity, put it directly before the word or phrase it modifies.

  • Only I am nominating Bob Smith. (I alone am nominating him.)
  • I’m only nominating Bob Smith. (I am nominating him but not campaigning or voting for him.)
  • I’m nominating only Bob Smith. (He’s the only person I’m nominating.)

While and since

While and since can be ambiguous. If they are used with their time-related meanings, it’s not a problem. It’s when while is used to mean although or whereas and when since is used to mean because that there’s room for confusion. Below are some examples with while:

  • John was a teacher in Toronto while his brother was the mayor of Hamilton.
    • Does that mean John was a teacher only during the period his brother was the mayor of Hamilton, or does it mean that, in contrast to his brother, John was a teacher? If it means the latter, whereas would eliminate confusion.
  • While he was a star athlete, he didn’t have any friends.
    • Does that mean he didn’t have any friends during the time he was a star athlete or even though he was a star athlete? If it’s the latter, even though or although would eliminate confusion.

Since is commonly used as a synonym for because, but be aware of any potential for confusion. If it exists, use because, as, given that, etc.

  • Since I decided to retire, I’ve been working on a collection of writing errors.
    • This could mean that I’ve been working on a collection of errors from the time I decided to retire or because I decided to retire.

Due to

Use due to only if caused by or ascribed to could be substituted.

  • The crash was due to ice.
  • Due to ice, the plane crashed.
  • The plane crashed due to ice.

Due to is used incorrectly in the following sentences:

  • It could take another 10 years before vaccines make their way to consumers, due to the long and demanding regulatory approval process.
  • The first-year seminar program was suspended in 2008 due to funding constraints.


Use the word feel when referring to senses, emotions and perceptions.

I feel happy, I feel sick, I feel the table, etc.

Don’t use feel with an opinion; use think, argue or believe instead.

Jane thinks her interview went well, and she feels good about her chances of getting the job.

And don’t use feel with a conviction or principle; use believe instead.

Jane believes there is life after death.

First events

When someone holds what they anticipate will become an annual event, there’s no guarantee that it will, so call it the first event or the inaugural event rather than the first annual event.


Although presently is often used as a synonym for currently and now, its original meaning is soon, so it’s best to avoid using it altogether to prevent misunderstanding.

Last and next

Be careful with the words last and next when talking about last fall, last summer, next winter, etc., to avoid confusion about which season/date/event you mean. If it’s July 2011 and the reference is to April 2011, say this spring or this past spring, not last spring.


Bi- is ambiguous in biweekly, bimonthly, biennial, etc. Better to say twice a week, every two weeks, semi-annually, etc.


Don’t use loan as a verb. Use lend and lent.

Older/Elder and Oldest/Eldest

If a father has two kids, the first-born is the older or elder child, not the oldest or eldest. A parent must have at least three children to call the first-born the oldest or eldest.

Who or that/which?

When writing about people, use the relative pronoun who.

  • The professor has a lot of students that don’t show up for class.
  • The professor has a lot of students who don’t show up for class.

When you’re talking about objects, use that and which.

Confusingly similar words are premiere (first public performance) and premier (first in rank or leading as an adjective, head of government as a noun). So Guelph is one of Canada’s premier research universities, not premiere research universities.

Affect or effect?

Most commonly, affect is used as a verb and effect is used as a noun.

The earthquake had a life-changing effect on the people of Haiti, and the repercussions will affect them for decades.

But effect can also be a verb, and affect can be a noun. As a verb, effect means to bring about or accomplish. As a noun, affect means a feeling or emotion.

Compared to or compared with?

Compared to is synonymous with liken to.

He compared her to a rose.

Compared with refers to similarities and differences.

I’m a great swimmer compared with my sister.

Compared with is the term usually wanted.

Emigrate or immigrate?

Emigrate means to move from one country to live in another. Immigrate means to move to another country.

Every day or everyday?

I get up every day and look forward to doing everyday things.

Enormity or enormousness?

Enormity means monstrous wickedness or serious error. Enormousness means great size.

Continual or continuous?

Continual refers to something that is frequently repeated (a dripping tap). Continuous refers to something that is uninterrupted (Niagara Falls).

Historical or historic?

Historical refers to whatever happened or existed in the past and to the study of the past. Historic refers to something important or famous in history. Note: Use the article a before these words, not an.

Farther or further?

Use farther when referring to physical distance and further for everything else:

Let’s walk a little farther before we talk further about our problems.

Home in or hone?

To home in is to focus on a target, goal or destination. To hone is to improve a skill or sharpen something.

Alternate or alternative?

As a verb, alternate means to take in turns, first one and then the other. As a noun, it means substitute. Alternative means a choice between two or more things (usually the word wanted).

Lay or lie?

“Lay” is a transitive verb that needs a direct object — the thing that you’re placing or putting down: Lay the pen on the table. You laid the pen on the table. You had laid the pen on the table. The hen lays eggs.

“Lie” is intransitive and refers to what you do yourself, so it doesn’t take a direct object: You lie down. Yesterday you lay down. You had lain down earlier.

Over or more than?

Although the dictionary lists more than as one of the many meanings of over, the preferred style is to use more than with numbers and dollar figures. To avoid repetition in a story, you can use alternatives such as in excess of, at least, upwards of, some and about. In some cases, however, over may be less awkward:

He is over 40.

Famous or notorious?

These are often used interchangeably but shouldn’t be. A notorious person is well-known for something bad.

Economic or economical?

Economic relates to economics. Economical means thrifty.

Dilemma or difficulty?

A dilemma is a choice between two equally pleasant or unpleasant things, not a synonym for difficulty.

Titled or entitled?

Use titled for books and entitled when referring to having the right to something.

Regimen or regime and regiment?

Regimen refers to a schedule or fixed process. Regime refers to governments or periods of rule. A regiment is a large group of soldiers. Someone who exercises regularly has a fitness regimen, not a fitness regime.

Specially or especially?

Specially means for a particular purpose. Especially means to a great degree.

Uninterested or disinterested?

Uninterested means not interested. Disinterested means impartial.

A while or awhile?

While is a noun.

They had to wait for a while (note use of for).

Awhile is an adverb.

They had to wait awhile.

Any more or anymore?

I don’t want any more coffee because I don’t want to get headaches anymore.

Between or among?

Use between with two objects and among with three or more.

Imply or infer?

Imply means to suggest or hint at. Infer means to deduce or conclude. A speaker or writer implies; a listener or reader infers.

As or like?

As introduces clauses:

It tastes good as chocolate should.

Like introduces a noun or pronoun not directly followed by a verb:

She swims like a fish.

Different from or different than?

Different from is used with a noun or pronoun: Her ideas are different from his. Different than introduces a clause: He is a different person than he was a year ago.

Fewer or less?

Normally, fewer is used with plurals (fewer people), and less is used with singulars (less money).

Number or amount?

Normally, number is used with plurals (number of people, number of books), and amount is used with singulars (amount of money, amount of coffee).

Fortunate or fortuitous?

Fortunate means lucky. Fortuitous means accidental or happening by chance.

Nauseated or nauseous?

Nauseated describes the experience of nausea. Nauseous describes something that is causing nausea because it’s sickening or disgusting.

However or nevertheless?

When using however to mean nevertheless in a sentence, preferred style is to not use it at the beginning.

  • However, the U of G team has found an alternative. Use but instead or incorporate however later in the sentence.
  • The U of G team, however, has found an alternative.
  • The U of G team has, however, found an alternative.
  • The U of G team has found an alternative, however.


The Canadian Oxford Dictionary says impact has become acceptable as a verb but can sound jargony and can lead to imprecise sentences. Other options are affect or influence.

Author and co-author

Don’t use author and co-author as verbs.


A veteran is someone who has served in the military or a person of long experience. So avoid such descriptions as a veteran of four football seasons at U of G.


Follow the noun couple with of.

I put a couple of books on the table.

Dropping the of to use couple as an adjective is considered casual and slang.


Don’t modify the word unique. It is incorrect to write somewhat unique or very unique. Something is either unique or not.

Excess words

To be or not to be

“There is” and “there are” weaken a sentence and can be easily omitted. Instead of writing: “There are 15 students who will be displaying their work,” write: “Fifteen students will be displaying their work.”

Of course, forms of “to be” are often the simplest or most straightforward verbs to use in certain situations. At other times, “is” and “are” signal superfluous words that effectively weaken stronger verbs. You could further shorten the above sentence — and lean on the stronger verb — by writing: “Fifteen students will display their work.”


When proofreading, check how many times the word that appears in the piece. More often than not, it isn’t necessary: He said (that) he wanted to go.

If there’s any chance of misleading the reader, however, leave that in: The premier said that on July 1 he would be heading to China.

Other extraneous words

There’s rarely a need to use in order to because to usually suffices: I’m participating in the race (in order) to raise money for charity.

Within is also rarely needed because in usually suffices: I enjoy working (with)in a university environment.

There’s no need to put on in front of a date or day of the week: The agriculture minister will arrive (on) May 5.

There’s often no need to add to after help as a verb: Volunteers are helping the first-year students (to) move in.

And it’s often not necessary to write all of because all usually suffices: All (of) the answers are at the back of the book.

Save a couple of words and sound less stuffy by using developing instead of the development of, producing instead of the production of, establishing instead of the establishment of, etc.

You rarely need to use a or the in a headline.

Currently and now are often not needed in a sentence. He is currently a teacher in Toronto can just as easily be written: He is a teacher in Toronto.

Here are various phrases that aren’t necessary, as indicated by the brackets:

  • The play involves 14 people between (the ages of) 18 and 22.
  • He came to Guelph when he was 21 (years old).
  • The economist will be on research leave during (the months of) June and July.
  • Members of the Armed Forces are separated from their families for long periods (of time).
  • The researchers conducted their study over (a period of) eight weeks.
  • The office is (in the process of) establishing a new protocol.

Many wordy or redundant phrases can be replaced with one word:

  • in spite of the fact that (although)
  • at this point in time (now)
  • in the event that (if)
  • in the majority of cases (usually)
  • I am of the opinion that (I think)
  • at the same time (while)
  • in view of the fact that (because)
  • with the exception (except)
  • in the course of (during)
  • in the neighbourhood of (about)
  • in addition to (besides)

It’s redundant to use could, may or might in the same sentence with possibly.

  • He might possibly join U of G in 2018.
  • He might join U of G in 2018.

It’s redundant to say the reason and because in the same sentence. Instead of writing: The reason I’m here is because I’m unhappy.

Write: The reason I’m here is that I’m unhappy OR I’m here because I’m unhappy.

It’s also redundant to say: The reason why I’m here is that I’m unhappy.

It’s redundant to use estimated and about together.

  • We estimate about 50 people will attend.
  • We estimate 50 people will attend OR We think about 50 people will attend.

Adjectives and adverbs are often excess verbiage. Strong verbs and nouns don’t need to be modified. Qualifiers such as very, quite, really, rather and fairly are rarely needed. They’re vague and add little information.

There is and there are are weak introductions to a sentence. Instead of writing: There are 15 graduate and undergraduate art students who will be displaying their work, write: Fifteen graduate and undergraduate art students will be displaying their work.

Other examples of redundant words include: added bonus, advance planning, end result, free gift, new innovation, please RSVP, very first, .

Complex versus simple words

When you have a choice of words, go short and simple and choose familiar over formal.

  • about rather than approximately
  • use rather than utilize or employ
  • try rather than attempt
  • help, ease or guide rather than facilitate
  • call for rather than necessitate
  • send rather than transmit
  • start or begin rather than commence
  • met rather than held a meeting
  • program or plan rather than initiative
  • serve, fit or house rather than accommodate
  • improve rather than ameliorate
  • get or buy rather than acquire
  • on or about rather than regarding, concerning, relating to or pertaining to
  • before rather than prior to
  • give rather than provide with
  • buy rather than purchase