There are several instances where even the most competent writer may have to stop and think about his/her choice of words. There are a number of words in English, which sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. There are also many words, which are very similar and easily confused. This next section looks at some of these words and explains when they should be used. You can either work your way through them all in turn, or you can go straight to the words that are giving you problems.

Less/Fewer.

This decision can cause some problems. Luckily, it is easily solved. The most common mistake is to use ‘less’ when ‘fewer’ would be correct. It is unlikely you would make the reverse error.

Less is used with things/material that cannot be counted or separated into individual parts. You can not count orange juice, sunshine, sand etc (although you can count litres of orange juice, hours of sunshine, grains of sand etc)

I would like less custard please. (Custard is not countable)

You get less jam in a smaller jar. (Jam is not countable)

There is a lot less rain in the Greek islands than in Bristol. (Rain is not countable)

Once I heard what happened, I had far less sympathy with her. (Sympathy is not countable)

Fewer is used with discrete things that can be separated or counted. CDs, sausages, cows, people etc can be counted. By far the most common mistake is to use ‘less’ when ‘fewer’ is needed.

If only there were fewer people in this bus. (People are individual, countable things)

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He decided he should buy fewer CDs. (CDs are individual, countable things)

Steve always buys fewer drinks than the rest of us! (Drinks are individual, countable things)

I will have to take fewer holidays this year. (Holidays are individual, countable things)

Test your understanding of less/fewer in this exercise.

I or me.

This can cause some problems and again, is easily sorted.

If we can get a little grammatical here, I should be used when it is the subject of the sentence, that is the person doing the verb. Me should be used for the object of the sentence either direct or indirect.

A good test as to which one to use is to think which one would be used if the other person were not included in the sentence.

These are the kinds of situations where there could be a problem deciding whether to use I or me.

The situation was awful for Paul and me. (…was awful for me.)

Paul and I were out strolling along the seafront when the ship sank. (I was out…)

She asked if she could come out with Julia and me. (…come out with me.)

Julia and I were very pleased to have her along. (I was very pleased…)

She thought she’d seen Jane and me. (…she’d seen me.)

My best friend and I are off to India at the end of the month. (I am off …)

Imagine that the other person or people are not included in the sentence. It should then be obvious whether to use I or me.

Test your understanding of I and me with this exercise.

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Like or As.

This is another instance where a simple rule will help you to make sense of something that many people still get wrong.

Like is a preposition (don’t panic), which means that it can come before a noun but it should not come before a whole clause containing a verb. As is a conjunction, and can be used before a clause containing a verb.

As I told you, the car was parked behind a tree.

We could take a trip to the coast, just like old times.

As we thought, the weather was awful.

In formal academic text, you should avoid using ‘like’ in a sentence like this one.

It looks like it is going to rain.

The hero feels like he is the most powerful man on earth.

He looks like he has had a rough night.

It is better to substitute ‘like’ with ‘as if’

It looks as if it is going to rain.

The hero feels as if he is the most powerful man on earth.

He looks as if he has had a rough night.

When listing things that are similar it is better to avoid ‘like’ and use ‘such as’, as in these examples.

The hero has many engaging qualities like courage, kindness and compassion.

The hero has many engaging qualities such as courage, kindness and compassion.

I have visited many tropical countries like India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and Brunei.

I have visited many tropical countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and Brunei.

In this country we eat a lot of junk food like chips, hamburgers and other rubbish.

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In this country we eat a lot of junk food such as chips, hamburgers and other rubbish.

Test your knowledge of like and as with this exercise.

Culled from University of Bristol Faculty of Arts

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