Cheat Sheet for Better Writing: Common Confusions

Cheat Sheet to Better WritingIf you’re intimidated by the idea of writing—especially writing anything that will actually be read—you’re not alone. Often it’s the subtle differences in similar words that trip us up. So here’s a quick cheat sheet to better writing that clarifies some of the worst offenders in the English language.

This post is the first in a four-part series of cheat sheets for better writing. You can also download the master cheat sheet.

There/they’re/their. There refers to place. They’re means “they are.” Their means it belongs to them (“Their website is beautiful”).

Then/than. Then is used for if/then statements and sequential statements (“First do this, then do that”). Than is only used to compare things (greater than, more than, etc.).

Its/it’s. Its is a possessive pronoun, like “his” or “her.” Only use it’s when combining two words (“it is” or “it has”). Tip: You don’t have an apostrophe on other pronouns (hi’s or her’s) so you don’t need one for its.

Your/you’re. Your is a possessive pronoun, like “his” or “her.” Tip: If you can substitute “his” in the sentence and it still makes grammatical sense, then use your; otherwise, it’s you’re.

Except/accept. Except refers to an exception (“I like her dress, except the big bow on the butt”). Accept happens when you receive something (“I accept your offer”).

Affect/effect. Affect refers to influence (“He was greatly affected by the movie”). Effect refers to cause (“The overall effect was powerful”). Tip: Effect implies that something was created. “He was greatly effected by the movie” would imply that the movie created the man.

i.e/e.g. I.e. means “that is,” as in, “in other words.” E.g. means “for example.”

Insure/ensure/assure. Insure means to cover or underwrite. Ensure means to make certain or guarantee. Assure means to promise, or to make someone feel secure.

Farther/further. Farther is strictly distance. Further is conceptual.

Loose/lose. Loose means how tight something isn’t. Lose is a verb; you can lose a game or a sock.

Whose/who’s. Whose refers to possession (“Whose sock is this?”). It’s like “his” or “hers.” Who’s is always a contraction (“who is” or “who has”).

Insecure/unsecure. Insecure is how you feel; unsecure is how easy something is to break into.

Master these confusing words and you’ll be well on your way to stronger business writing. Want to print them out? Download the entire cheat sheet!