There are a lot of confusing grammar and spelling rules out there. When you’re writing papers for hours and hours, it’s easy to confuse affect and effect, i.e., and e.g. This article is here to help set the record straight on a few commonly confused words that will slip past your typical spell checker.

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Affect vs. Effect

The bane of every paper-writer’s existence: to use affect or effect? That one little letter can make the difference between an A and a B if your professor is a stickler. It’s important to know the difference between the two words so you can always make your point effectively!

  • Affect is commonly used as a verb, and is used when something has an impact on something else. Growing up with three sisters affected my treatment of women. (The three sisters had an impact on the speaker.)
  • Effect is normally used as a noun that means the result of a cause. The effect of growing up with three sisters is my positive treatment of women. (The treatment of women is the result of growing up with three sisters.)

Both affect and effect can be used as a noun or as a verb, so follow Grammar Girl’s great tip to remember this one: “The arrow affected the Aardvark; the effects were eye-popping.”

I.e. vs. E.g.

This is another confusing one because they’re abbreviations of latin phrases, so knowing that they stand for “id est” and “exempli gratia” probably won’t help you much.

  • I.e. means “that is” or “in essence.” I spent the day with my best friend (i.e. my dog). (You’re probably not going to use that one so much.)
  • E.g. on the other hand, translates to “for example,” and is used pretty frequently. Use any hard surface, e.g., the table, the floor, a wall.

Just remember that e.g. is like “egsample” and i.e. is like, “in other words.”

Awhile vs. A While

  • “Awhile” means “for a time” and is an adverb. We’ve been running awhile. (Frequency)
  • “A while” is a period of time, combining an article (a) and a noun (while). We’ve been running for a while. (For a time)

If you can replace it with another adverb — quickly, quietly, etc. — then you use “awhile.” If you have “for” in front of it, then you use “a while.”

Ensure vs. Insure

These two words actually have completely different meanings, so they’re a little easier to remember. Ensure is done to guarantee a certain outcome, or to make sure of something. To ensure arrival by Christmas, he paid for overnight delivery.

Insure is done to protect against certain outcomes, and it relates to financial security, such as car insurance or travel insurance. He insured the package for $100, just in case something happened in transit.

Lay vs. Lie

I hate to say it, but this one is hard for most of us, and I haven’t found a trick that works other than memorization (and double-checking with Google or Grammar Girl every so often). First, in the present tense, they are separated by the presence or absence of a direct object.

  • Lay requires a direct object. You lay your head (D.O.) on the pillow.
  • Lie has no direct object. You lie on the couch.

Past tense is a little bit more difficult.

  • The past tense of lie is lay. I lay on the couch all day yesterday.
  • The past tense of lay is laid. I laid my head on the pillow around 10:00pm.

When you get into more tenses, such as past participle, it gets even more confusing.

  • I have lain on the same couch for 10 years.
  • I have laid my head on the same pillow for 10 years.

See what I’m saying? Confusing. I prefer to just consult Grammar Girl’s nifty chart for this one, because I haven’t found a failsafe way to remember this rule.

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Image: Dave King