1. Lie vs. Lay
We’re all pretty clear on the lie that means an untruth. It’s the other users that trip us up. Lie also means to recline: “Why don’t you lie down and rest?” Lay requires an object: “Lay the book on the table.” A lie is something you can do by yourself, but you need an object to lay. It’s more confusing in the past tense. The past tense of lie is—you guessed it—lay: “I lay down for an hour last night.” And the past tense of lay is laid: “I laid the book on the table.”
2. Ironic vs. Coincidental
A lot of people get this wrong. If you break your leg the day before a ski trip, that’s not ironic—it’s coincidental (and bad luck). Ironic has several meanings, all of which include some type of reversal of what was expected. Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but clearly, means another. Situational irony is when a result is an opposite of what was expected. O. Henry was a master of situational irony. In his famous short story The Gift of the Magi, Jim sells his watch to buy combs for his wife’s hair, and she sells her hair to buy a chain for Jim’s watch. Each character sold something precious to buy a gift for the other, but those gifts were intended for what the other person sold. That is true irony. If you break your leg the day before a ski trip, that’s coincidental.If you drive up to the mountains to ski, and there was more snow back at your house, that’s ironic.
3. Nauseous vs. Nauseated
Nauseous has been misused so often that the incorrect usage is accepted in some circles. Still, it’s important to note the difference. Nauseous means causing nausea; nauseated means experiencing nausea. So, if your circle includes ultra-particular grammar sticklers, never say “I’m nauseous” unless you want them to be snickering behind your back.
4. Comprise vs. Compose
These are two of the most commonly misused words in the English language.Comprise means to include; Compose means to make up. It all comes down to parts versus the whole. When you use comprise, you put the whole first: “A soccer game comprises (includes) two halves.” When you use to compose, you put the pieces first: “Fifty states compose (makeup) the United States of America.”
5. Imply vs. Infer
To imply means to suggest something without saying it outright. To infer means to draw a conclusion from what someone else implies. As a general rule, the speaker/writer implies, and the listener/reader infers.
6. Fewer vs. Less
Use fewer when you’re referring to separate items that can be counted; use less when referring to a whole: “You have fewer dollars, but less money.”
7. Bringing it all together
English grammar can be tricky, and, a lot of times, the words that sound right are actually wrong. With words such as those listed above, you just have to memorize the rules so that when you are about to use them, you’ll catch yourself in the act and know for certain that you’ve written or said the right one.