16 Words You May Avoid Because You Can’t Recall 8 Rules

by | Writing | 8 comments

“[Word usage is] something teachers generally expect you to pick up on your own, and it’s the thing you’re most likely to get skewered for if you screw up.— Mignon Fogarty

image by geralt

image by geralt

Below are common word-usage errors. My resources are Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and Kathy Ide’s Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors.

8 Common Word-Usage Errors

  1. Awhile / a while – Stay for a while (or awhile)?

“Stay for a while” is correct.

In a while, while is a noun.

Awhile is an adverb

An adverb can’t be the object of a preposition, so here are the correct ways to use awhile and a while.

“Stay for a while.”

“Stay awhile.”


  1. Bad / badly – I feel bad (or badly)?

“I feel bad” is correct.

Badly follows action verbs. He wrote badly.

The adjective bad follows linking verbs, such as feel, smell, and am.

From Fogarty:

“When you say, ‘I feel badly,’ the adverb badly relates to the action verb feel. Since the action verb feel can mean “to touch things,” feeling badly can mean you’re having trouble touching things.”


  1. image by ClkerFreeVectorImages

    image by ClkerFreeVectorImages

    Blond / blonde – The blond (or blonde) shook his fist.

“The blond shook his fist” is correct.

According to Ide, blond is the adjective and noun used when referring to a man or boy. The blond boy followed the blond named Bill.

Blonde is the adjective and noun used for females. The blonde policewoman cuffed the voluptuous blonde.

Exception: In writing articles, the adjective blond is used for both genders.


  1. Clench / clinch – He clinched (or clenched) his jaw.

“He clenched his jaw” is correct.

Think closing for clench and securing an agreement for clinch.

Ide’s examples:

“Melissa clenched her teeth when Myra clenched her fist.”

“Jeanette’s evidence clinched the argument.”


  1. Might / may – I may (or might) win an Oscar when I grow up.

“I might win an Oscar…” is correct.

From Fogarty:

“If something is likely to happen, use may.”

“If something is a mighty stretch, use might.”


image by mammela

image by mammela

6.  Passed / past – They passed (or past) the house.

“They passed the house” is correct.

Passed is a verb.

Past can be:               

An adjective. My acting career is past.

A preposition. She walked past the couple.

A noun. All her memories centered on the recent past.


  1. Like / as – I ran like (or as if) a monster pursued me.

“I ran as if a monster pursued me” is correct.

 Fogarty: “The proper way to differentiate between like and as is to use like when no verbs follow.”

Or equally as good:

Ide: “Use as when comparing phrases and clauses that contain a verb. … Use like to compare nouns and pronouns.”

So, “I ran like the wind.”


  1. Raise / rise – I always raise (or rise) from my chair when ladies enter.

“I always rise…” is correct.

The verb raise needs an object; rise doesn’t. Johnny raised his hand. Johnny rose.

You can master correcting these 8 common word-usage errors. Click to tweet.

What words do you misuse? Does your publisher disagree with any of the above?

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  1. Robin

    That was so helpful. I’ve freelanced as a copy editor for several years, but I can see I’m still learning! I’ll definitely put these tips to use as I edit my book because I would feel BAD if I didn’t ;).

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Robin, I’m still learning too. For some reason, a few of the rules escape me when I need them, so I sometimes use a different word instead of looking it up. Now I have my cheat sheet.

  2. marilyn leach

    Thanks for the reminder, Zoe. Good to review and keep on hand. Cheers, Marilyn

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Yes, Marilyn, I’m going to keep it in my writing helps folder on my desk.

  3. Mary Wright

    Thanks for the timely tips Zoe!

  4. Zoe M. McCarthy

    You’re welcome, Mary. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Marcia A. Lahti

    Before spell check I used words I could spell, so I wouldn’t appear dumb. But I didn’t know I was a dumb blonde, with an e. Alas.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Marcia, you are NOT a dumb blonde. I’m one who can testify to that!

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