Basics of writingConfusing words

More errors and confusing words

From Rick:

Following up some on Scott’s post from last week, I’ve found a few errors that I keep seeing in beginner writing and in a number of self-published novels, so let’s take a look at them.


LIE/LAY– This is one of the most frequently confused pair of words, and it’s partly understandable since the English language seems to have gone out of its way to make them difficult. When you add in the other verb “lie” meaning “to not tell the truth” the problem is compounded.

Let’s start with the verb forms of the two “lie” verbs (present tense, past tense, past perfect, present participle):

LIE LIED LIED LYING (in the sense of not telling the truth)

Don’t lie to me.
He lied about where he was last night.
I found out he had lied about everything.
He is lying about where he was last night

Make sure you spelling “LYING” properly. It’s not “lieing.”
And don’t confuse these with the active component in Draino, which is “lye” and pronounced the same way.

LIE LAY LAIN LYING (in the sense of resting or reclining)

Every day I lie on the couch for a nap after lunch.
I lay on the bed for a long time, thinking about what had happened.
I had lain awake all night after the accident.

Despite their having two verb forms in common (present and present participle), most people don’t confuse these. However, I have seen “He lied on the couch” when the writer did NOT mean to say that “He lay on the couch and lied to me.” Or, if you want to have some fun, you can say, “He was lying on the couch lying to me.”

All right (not “alright,” which is incorrect), let’s get serious.

When talking about things resting on beds or floors or tables, or being put in those locations, how do we keep LIE and LAY straight?

The first question you must ask yourself is whether the person or object is resting in its location or being put in its location. If it’s hanging around, or lounging, you want to use a form of LIE. If it is being put or was already put or placed somewhere, use a form of LAY.

NOTE: For the grammatically inclined among you, LIE is an intransitive verb, meaning it does not take an object. You can’t “lie” something. LAY is a transitive verb, meaning it acts on something. You “lay” a spoon on the table.

Let’s go through some examples.

(1) You walk into a room and find a dead body on the floor. Is it LAYING or LYING there? [Ask the question: resting or being put there? Well, since the body is already there, it’s resting (LYING) on the floor.]

(2) You ask your wife where your car keys are, and she tells you they’re (LYING/LAYING) on the table behind you. [It’s the same as above, already there, so LYING.]

(3) You ask your wife where your car keys are, and she says, “Right were you LAID (put) them when you came home from work last night.”

(4) You’re a lazy bum, and all you ever do (says your wife) is LIE/LAY around all day watching TV. [Since you’re resting and reclining, it’s LIE.]

Not too bad? The trouble begins when you use the past tense of LIE (which is LAY). That’s where is gets confusing. Part of the reason is that our minds like to tell us that LAID sounds better than LAY.

(5) Yesterday you were sick so stayed in bed all day–you LAY in bed all day. And the day before you HAD LAIN in bed all day with the flu.

(6) After killing the woman, the murderer LAID (past tense of LAY) the body on the bed where it still LAY (past tense of LIE) when the police found it.

(7) I found this tidbit on the Internet: “You look at your dog, command, ‘Lay down!’ and your dog does nothing. Great! The dog knows grammar and he knows you’re wrong.” (It should be LIE DOWN.)

Now, here’s an even more confusing one.

(8) Now I lay me down to sleep. [Why, if you’re going to rest on the bed, do we say LAY and not LIE? Well, because you’re not there yet. You’re putting (LAYING) yourself onto the bed where you will be resting (LYING) once you get there.]



These two words are distinguished the same way as LIE/LAY.


Think of SIT as a parallel to LIE (to rest (as to go into a chair or onto a couch–an intransitive verb), and SET means to put or place something. To check the correct usage, substitute the word “put.” If it makes sense, then you want “SET.” Otherwise, it’s “SIT.”

Please sit down.
I sat in the chair.
Johnny had sat in the corner all day.
He was still sitting there when Mary came home.

Set (put) the glass down.
I set (put) the book on the table yesterday.
John had set (put) his keys somewhere and couldn’t find them.
He was in the habit of setting his keys down and forgetting where he’d put them.



AMONGST, TOWARDS, WHILST– are not considered acceptable in U.S. English, but they’re common in the UK. Americans should use AMONG, TOWARD, WHILE.


FARTHER/FURTHER– While often confused, these are easy to distinguish. When referring to a physical distance, use FARTHER. Otherwise, use FURTHER.

(1) How much farther is it to the border?

(2) He ran farther today than yesterday.

(3) How much further along on the project book did you get yesterday? (not referring to a distance)

When used in the sense of continuing on, either is correct:

(4) Before we go any further, let’s take a break. (or you could say) Before we go any farther, let’s take break. [This might be used either in the sense of walking or of continuing a discussion. When the meaning is ambiguous, either one is acceptable, but don’t use “further” when referring to a distance.


PAST/PASSED– I’ve seen these abused a lot lately, and those who abuse them aren’t even consistent in their abuse.

First, let’s clarify the meanings of the two.

PASSED is the past tense of the verb “pass.”

–The car passed me on the highway.
–He passed the course.

PAST is never a verb. It can be a noun meaning “the time before the present.”

–It happened in the past.

It can be an adjective describing something before the present.

–That’s past history.
–“Lay” is the past tense of the verb “lie.”

But it’s the adverb form that’s most often confused with “passed.” As an adverb, “past” refers to a location in the sense of to go by or beyond.

–He drove past me.
–He drove past the turnoff.

Saying “He drove on passed me and stopped” is wrong. It’s wrong because you’re putting two main verbs next to each other, which is kind of like saying, “He walked ran and stopped.” The correct sentence is: “He drove on past me and stopped.”

Now the astute among you might realize that the first sentence could make sense by adding commas: “He drove on, passed me, and stopped.” Now we have three actions taking place (driving, passing, stopping) instead of two. (I bet you thought we’d left those pesky commas two blogs ago.) Of course, we know that’s not what the writer intended.


THEN/THAN– Some writers do confuse them, so let’s review them.

THEN means several things, but generally it refers to time or something happening in sequence:

(at that time) I was still in school then.

(next in time, space, or sequence) I watched the movie, then I went to bed.

(in that case) If traffic is heavy, then allow extra driving time.

It has a few other meanings as well, which you should look up in a dictionary. But it is NEVER used for comparisons.

It is incorrect to say: He is taller then me.

THAN is the correct comparison word in this case:

He is taller than me. (used a preposition here)
He is taller than I am. (used as a comparison, not a preposition)

I hope that helps clear those two up.


So far, what we’ve covered is fairly straightforward stuff (notice I didn’t say “easy”). It’s straightforward because once you understand the meanings of the words you’re dealing with, they should no longer confuse, but English can be more confusing.

In my next installment, which might not be for 2-3 weeks, I’m going to go “advanced” and discuss trickier word usages:

into vs. in to
onto vs. on to
anytime vs. any time
everyone vs. every one
anymore vs. any more
everybody vs. every body

and maybe a couple more.

See you soon.

And if there’s a topic you’d like us to tackle, please let us know.


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