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SPAG: Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: Word choice

Tips to improve and correct common errors in academic and formal writing.

Correct words

Use the correct word. Look it up. Is this really what you meant to say? Watch out for confusable words. Some common ones are listed here.

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Its or it's

More about its or it's

Its means belongs it it; it's means it is.

If you can substitute it is, then use it's.

If you can substitute his or hers, then use its.

Notice that neither his nor hers (nor theirs) has an apostrophe. Neither does the word its, meaning "belongs to it."

It's that simple. Really.

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Lay or Lie

More about lay or lie


The verb lay is transitive. It denotes action that is transferred to a recipient, or object.

The verb lie is intransitive (no transitive). Someone or something is acting.

This table shows why the two are often misused.

Present Tense Past Tense Past Participle







*requires an object

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Lose or loose

More about lose or loose

Lose/ Loose

Loose means unrestricted, not tight, physically or morally.

Lose means to not win, not earn money, or to not find.

Remember the saying, "Loose laces lose races."

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Affect or effect

More about affect or effect

Affect and effect mean different things in different uses.

Affect as a verb means "to influence."

Effect as a verb means "to bring to pass."

Affect as a noun is a specialized term in psychology.

Effect as a noun means "result."

Impact as a verb is jargon, not usually your best choice in formal writing.

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They're, their, or there

More about they're, their, or there

They're, their, there

Their means belongs to them.

There means a place (notice the word here inside it?).

They're means they are (because it's a contraction of they are, of course).

Confuse them and you embarrass yourself.

Put them together and you get the the name of an indie punk band.

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Everyday or every day

More about everyday or every day

Everyday/ Every day

Every day means each day, or day by day.

Everday means normal, average.

You will see these confused all around you. Don't go along with the crowd.


John went to the gym every day. It was an everyday thing to see him there in spinning class.

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All right, already, altogether, or all together

More about all right, already, altogether, and all together

All right, already, altogether, and all together are all different.

Alright is NOT a word. It is never correct, even though the spelling dictionary in Word accepts it.

All right means OK.

Already means in time.

All ready means prepared.

All together means gathered.

Altogether means entirely.

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Two, to, or too

More about two, to, or too

Two/ To / Too

Two means the number 2.

Too means more than enough or in addition.

To is a preposition (as in to a shoe store) or part of infinitive (as in to wear).

More than two to's is too many—especially if they are wearing tutu's.

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Then or than

More about then or than

Then/ Than

Then is about time.

Than is about comparisons.

One way to remember this is to remember that the word time has and E in it, while the word comparison does not—and does have an A.


Amy was taller than Ethan until they reached junior high; then Ethan had a growth spurt and towered over her.

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