Sometimes we just mislearn them. Sometimes we never learned them at all. And sometimes we adopt wrong usages because we've heard them so often that they wipe from our memory and practice the difference between correct and incorrect. Yet, as we quoted in another article on diction, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. It's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." (Mark Twain)
The words in the following list are often and easily confused. Sometimes the confusion won't matter much; your intended meaning will come through anyway. But at other times one word is the lightning and the other the lightning bug; the one you choose sets the meaning. And at all times, fairly or not, grammar, including diction, represents you and so affects your credibility.
Use a while after a preposition such as after, for, or in to indicate an indefinite length of time:
- The candidate waited for a while before accepting the position.
But awhile does not require a preposition and is used to signify a short period of time:
- The respondent searched his notes awhile before answering.
Beside means next to:
- They arranged the conference room so the tables were beside the windows.
Besides means other than or in addition:
- That was the only report besides Horatio's that we consulted.
- Besides the sushi bar, the award reception will feature panino and taco stations.
Bring indicates something or someone moving toward a nearer place:
- The team decided to bring the white paper to tomorrow's meeting.
Take indicates something or someone moving farther away:
- He forgot to take the revised spreadsheets.
If you're referring to something that occurs at regular or frequent intervals, use continual:
- His continual objections to the proposed revisions are rarely supported by anything more than an occasional anecdote.
But if something is ongoing, if it occurs without a break, it’s continuous:
- Her continuous support of the candidate led to his being selected for the position.
If you are discreet, you are careful, circumspect, judicious, guarded in your speech or conduct, especially in order to show respect for privacy or to gain an advantage:
- They promised to be discreet in their inquiries.
But discrete means separate, distinct, detached, individual, discontinuous:
- First, we'll evaluate each discrete section and later consider the whole.
Each other refers to two people:
- Delia and Karin argue with each other at every meeting.
One another refers to three or more:
- The team members congratulated one another on the success of their presentation.
Farther designates physical distance:
- The Dallas site is thirty miles farther.
Further refers to figurative distance, to time and degree, to an addition:
- We'll discuss this further next week.
- Further, this product is the first of its class.
Use percent when you're writing or speaking of a specific number:
- The vaccine has reduced the infection rate by 64 percent.
But use percentage when you’re using a descriptor such as "higher" or "small":
- A small percentage of respondents opted out of the phone interview.
With these pairs, choose the lightning or the lightning bug – just make sure it's what you mean.