Writing is a fundamental form of communication. From books, blog posts, and case studies to emails, social media posts, and more, writing permeates practically every facet of our lives. And, along with it, comes misinformation, typos, word choice errors, etc., which can all affect how your message comes across and how it’s understood.
Word choice errors can negatively affect your writing and your intended message. Depending on the error, it could change the meaning of what you intended to say to something else completely. Here’s what to know about word choice errors and a few common word choice errors to avoid:
What is a Word Choice Error?
A word choice error isn’t just a typo or a spelling error; it’s a mismatch between the word you’re using and the meaning you intend. Word choice errors occur when you intentionally make the choice to use a word and it turns out to be incorrect. The foundation of a word choice error is the act of choosing. It’s just that the result of using the word you chose in a particular context doesn’t accurately convey the message you intended.
4 Common Word Choice Errors to Double-Check in Your Writing
Editing is a necessary step in any form of writing that you do, but it still isn’t foolproof for catching everything all of the time. It can make a difference to go back and double-check things, especially anything that you’ve caught yourself doing as a pattern. Here are a few common word choice errors to double-check in your writing:
1. It’s vs Its
With just an apostrophe making the difference, it’s vs its is a common typo in addition to a common word choice error. It’s worth reviewing any instances of these in your writing to make sure you’re using the right one and the one you intended.
“It’s” is a contraction of two words – either “it is” or “it has”. Try substituting “it is” or “it has” in place of “it’s” in your sentence. If it works and your intended message still makes sense, then you’re in the clear.
- It’s time to leave. = It is time to leave.
- It’s been a while. = It has been a while.
“Its”, without an apostrophe, is a possessive noun – it indicates ownership or possession of the noun that comes after it. If you’re reading back a sentence using “its”, consider whether there is any sort of ownership involved. As a trick, you can also try substituting “it is” or “it has”; if those substitutions do not make sense, then “its” is the right word choice in that context.
- The cat plays with its mouse toy. = The mouse toy belongs to/is associated with the cat and the cat plays with it.
- You place the phone on its charging station. = The charging station belongs to/is associated with the phone and you place the phone on it to charge.
2. They’re vs Their vs There
They’re vs their vs there are common word choice errors because they are pronounced the same way. If you use voice-to-text, they can also be typos. It’s worth double-checking specific mentions of these in your writing to make sure you’re using the right one for your intended message.
“They’re” is a contraction of two words – “they are”. Similarly to “it’s”, try substituting “they are” anywhere you’re using “they’re”. If your sentence still makes sense and conveys what you mean with “they are”, you’re on the right track.
- They’re coming over to play games. = They are coming over to play games. The sentence still makes sense and the intended message is the same.
- They’re car is in the shop. = They are car is in the shop. The sentence does not make sense and the intended message does not come across.
“Their” is a possessive pronoun and is the possessive form of “they”. Similar to “its”, “their” indicates possession or ownership of the noun that follows it and deals with what relates to, belongs to, is done by, or is made by specific people, animals, things, etc. If you’re reading back a sentence using “their”, consider whether you’re referring to ownership or possession. If not, you may be making a word choice error.
- They are protective of their books. = The books belong to them and they are protective of them. The sentence makes sense and the intended message is the same.
- Their coming over to play games. = The coming over to play games belongs to them. The sentence does make sense and “their” does not convey the intended message; it’s a word choice error and should be corrected to “They’re”.
“There” indicates location and presence, in both specific and abstract senses. Think about the context in which you’re using it. If you’re dealing with location or the presence of something, you’re on the right track. If you substitute “they are” and it doesn’t make sense or if you’re trying to describe ownership, it’s a word choice error.
- The hotel is over there. = The sentence indicates the location of the hotel. It makes sense.
- Good friends are there for you. = The sentence indicates the presence of friends in an abstract sense. It makes sense.
- That is there car. = The sentence deals with ownership of the car, not location, so there does not make sense in this context. It is a word choice error and should be corrected to their.
- There coming over to play games. = The intended message is that they are coming over to play games. It indicates an action for “they”, so there is a word choice error that should be corrected to they’re.
3. You’re vs Your
You’re vs your is a common typo, especially when typing quickly or using voice-to-text. It’s also a common word choice error. It’s worth the effort to double-check mentions of these throughout your writing to make sure you’re using the right one for your intended message.
“You’re” is a contraction of two words – “you are”. Similar to “they’re”, you can try substituting “you are” in a sentence to ensure the sentence is saying what you intend for it to say.
- You’re welcome. = You are welcome. The sentence makes sense and the word choice is correct.
- Your welcome. = The welcome belongs to you. The intended message is for someone else and is not meant to imply ownership. If the intended message is “You are welcome”, then “your” is a word choice error and should be changed to “you’re”. In order to make the word choice correct in the initial example, the intended message would have to be something in the context of “You give your welcome to them.”
“Your” is a possessive adjective meant to indicate ownership or possession of the noun that follows it. Think about the message you’re trying to convey. If it deals with establishing possession or ownership, then “your” is the right choice. You can also try substituting “you are”. If “your” is the correct word choice, then “you are” would not make sense.
- Your car is in the garage. = The car that belongs to you is in the garage.
- You’re car is in the garage. = You are car is in the garage. “You are” doesn’t make sense in this context and is a word choice error.
4. Insure vs Ensure vs Assure
These three words have a long history of overlapping. At least according to the historical records we can find, it wasn’t until the 19th century that more specific definitions started to be put in place to better differentiate their uses.
In this case, these may not necessarily be word choice errors depending on the context and nuance of your message, the specific style guide you’re following, local usage, and more. Although there is still some overlap in some usage guides, for the most part, we can differentiate these three as follows:
“Insure” is generally used in the context of insurance and financial assets; specifically things that can be assigned numerical value.
- Make sure your jewelry is properly insured. = Make sure your jewelry is properly covered by insurance.
- Insuring your car to only the state minimum limits is often not enough coverage. = Getting insurance for your car that only meets the state minimum limits is often not enough coverage.
“Ensure” is generally used as a synonym for “make sure” or “guarantee”. “Ensure” usually deals with things relating to outcomes, accountability, and control. So, if you are making sure or dealing with actions around establishing certainty, “ensure” is a good word choice. A decent trick to use is to substitute “ensure” with “make sure” or “guarantee” in a sentence; if it makes sense in both cases, you’re on the right track.
- He ensured the doors were locked before he left. = He made sure the doors were locked before he left.
- Can you ensure you will finish the paper? = Can you guarantee you will finish the paper?
“Assure” is generally used in the context of removing doubt or suspense, or attempting to remove doubt or suspense, from someone’s mind, even your own. Think of “reassuring” someone or yourself, or the phrase “rest assured” meaning “peace of mind”.
- She assured them she would be fine. = They were unsure that she would be fine and she said something to remove that doubt, or attempt to.
- Can you assure me you will finish the paper? = Can you convince/remove doubt for me that you will finish the paper?
5. Compliment vs Complement
Compliment vs complement is a common word choice error, especially when using voice-to-text. Although the intent is still usually understood from the context of the rest of the sentence, it’s worth checking mentions of these in your content to ensure you’re using the one that best fits your intended meaning.
“Compliment” refers to a positive remark that someone gives you or you give to someone else. Generally, it’s meant to boost, uplift, and communicate esteem, approval, admiration, etc. It’s a form of courtesy. When it comes to “complimentary”, this can either be used to describe a person who offers a lot of praise or a specific action that offers praise, approval, etc. It can also mean “free” to refer to something that is given for free, usually as a favor or a courtesy.
- Her shirt was really cool so I complimented her on it. = Her shirt was really cool so I communicated my admiration of it to her.
- Her shirt was really cool so I complemented her on it. = Her shirt was really cool so I completed or helped complete it. “Complement” does not make sense in this context because the context is praise not referring to the completion of something.
- The hotel offers complimentary breakfast. = The hotel offers free breakfast.
- The reservation includes complimentary breakfast. = The reservation includes free breakfast as a courtesy.
- The reviews of the play were complimentary. = The reviews of the play were positive and full of praise.
On the other hand, “complement” is used to refer to something that completes something else or supports completion. If something is “complementary”, it completes something, usually in a way that enhances or improves its quality.
Things that fit together aesthetically, functionally, etc. are “complementary”. A good trick if you get stuck sometimes is to think of “complete”. If the context you’re trying to communicate involves completing something or working towards or supporting completion, then it’s the one with the “e”.
- Her shirt was really cool and complemented her look. = Her shirt was really cool and completed/supported her look.
- Her shirt was really cool and complimented her look. = Her shirt was really cool and offered praise for her look. The intended context is to describe how the shirt completes her look, so “compliment” is not the right word choice.
- They make a good couple; their traits are complementary. = They make a good couple; their traits work well together/enhance each other/complete the relationship.
6. Affect vs Effect
Affect vs effect is another common word choice error. Sometimes, it’s a word choice error and sometimes it’s a simple typo. In the context of word choice errors, it’s worth checking for these to make sure you’re using the one you intended, especially when using voice-to-text, typing quickly, etc.
In the context of impact, results, outcomes, etc., it can be helpful to think of whether your mention is a verb or a noun. If it’s a verb, then “affect” is the right choice and if it’s a noun, then “effect” is the right choice. Are you talking about something that has an impact on something (affect) or are you talking about a specific result or outcome (effect)?
“Affect” can be used as a noun and a verb. When used as a noun, “affect” is used to describe the strong experience of emotions or feelings. This is less common and is used in specific contexts. More commonly, “affect” is used as a verb to refer to impact or producing a change in something or someone.
- His character had a sad affect. = His character had a sad emotional state.
- The rain affected his mood. = The rain impacted his mood.
- The rain effected his mood. = The rain was a result of his mood. The intent of the original message was to communicate a verb that had an impact, so “effect” is a word choice error in this instance.
“Effect” can also be used as a noun and a verb, but it is most commonly used as a noun. As a verb, “to effect” means to cause a specific result. As a noun, “effect” refers to the outcome or result of something.
- It can be hard to effect change. = It can be hard to bring about the specific result of change.
- The effects of sleep deprivation can be extensive and damaging. = The results/consequences of sleep deprivation can be extensive and damaging.
- The affect of sleep deprivation can be extensive and damaging. = The impacting of sleep deprivation can be extensive and damaging. The original intent is a noun, not a verb, and nothing is “affecting” sleep deprivation; the sentence describes how sleep deprivation can “affect” others, but is referencing the specific “effects” associated with it, so “effect” is the correct word choice in this instance.
Avoid Word Choice Errors For Clearer Messaging
Sometimes, it can be difficult to accurately convey what you mean in writing, especially in more conversational tones. Visual and verbal cues are missing, so you have to rely on the words you use and how you use them to convey the message you want. Consistently improving your writing skills, editing well, and avoiding word choice errors can help you present and communicate your message effectively.