I’ll start with one of the most confusing verbs: lay versus lie. If you’re using present tense, follow this rule:
I lie down on the couch. (Use lie if there is no direct object in the sentence.)
I lay the CD on the couch. (Use lay if there is a direct object, such as a CD.)
The past tense is more confusing: lay is the past tense of lie, and laid is the past tense of lay:
Yesterday I lay down on the couch.
Yesterday I laid the CD on the couch.
Another pair of tricky words is further and farther. When writing about a specific distance, the two are interchangeable:
How much farther is the bar?
It’s only five blocks further.
But when used in these ways, the following is customary:
Puffy’s Tavern is the farther of the two.
The lead singer needed no further introduction.
Then/than has tripped up many a good writer. It helps to remember that than is only used when comparing two things:
Jack was taller than Julia.
Julia was more reserved than he imagined.
Then can mean that something occurs next:
I’ll probably leave the studio at ten, and then I’ll stop by your place.
It can mean at a certain point in time:
I’ll call you then.
It can mean “in addition to”:
Dinner cost fifty dollars, and then there was the tip too.
Between you and me/you and I is a puzzler. The correct phrase is between you and me, because a preposition should be followed by an objective pronoun: me, him, her, or us. Yet if you said “Jack and me went to the concert,” you’d be wrong. That’s because a subjective pronoun should be used in this case: I, he, she, or we: “Jack and I went to the concert.”
Finally, there’s affect versus effect. It helps to keep in mind that affect is a verb, whereas effect is a noun. Use affect when a change is being made:
Jack was affected by Julia’s seeming lack of interest when they first met.
The ticket price will affect the concert attendance.
Use effect when you want to indicate a result. For instance:
What effect did Jack’s flirting have on Julia?
The guitarist’s outrageous behavior had an effect on the band’s success.
I hope that I’ve cleared up some questions about these confusing word choices. Have a question about writing? Comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Leslie Wells has edited forty-nine New York Times bestsellers in her thirty-year publishing career. She is the author of Come Dancing, a novel about book publishing and rock and roll, set in New York City in the 1980s. Visit her at http://www.lesliewellsbooks.com
CC Photo by John Irving of actor Scott Bakula