Whether you’re a professional wordsmith or are simply hoping to make your daily correspondence a bit more polished, these simple tips should help. Also, if you’re the former, I’d love to grab a coffee and pick your brain about career stuff.
Every Day vs. Everyday
Every day means “each day”; everyday is an adjective meaning commonplace or ordinary. Let’s look at some examples:
Every day, you wake up.
You wake up consumed by the never-ending to-do list of everyday tasks that get in the way of you finishing your poetry chapbook.
Their vs. They’re vs. There
Though homonyms, each of these words has its own definition. Let’s take a look at how to use them properly:
All parents want their children to be successful.
But they’re unable to see that, for my generation, getting a college degree isn’t a guarantee of long-term success.
There is no way I can just “go to medical school” at this point—I’m already knee-deep in debt and I know nothing about biology. It’s too late to start over.
The Serial Comma
Also known as the Oxford comma, this hotly debated punctuation mark can be used to clarify the logic of sentences that include a list of three or more things. Let’s take a look at an example:
My career as a freelance editor is being threatened by A.I.-powered browser plug-ins, a growing cultural preference for visual media over the written word and my diminishing sense of get-up-and-go.
Without the clarifying use of a serial comma, this sentence could be read to connote that the second and third items in the list are examples of the first, when, really, they are separate, powerful forces, each of which threatens my livelihood.
Em Dash vs. En Dash
The em dash is a versatile punctuation mark, often used in place of a colon or comma. The en dash is most commonly used to indicate a range of time or numbers. Let’s look at some examples:
Here I am—dangerously close to forty—staring down the barrel of a grand return to retail sales.
My initial stint in retail (2005–2014) was intentionally undertaken to give me a stress-free means of income while I focussed on my first novel, a manuscript that more than a dozen publishers would call “exhausting” and “Jonathan Safran Foer-esque, in the worst possible way.”
Nauseous vs. Nauseated
Despite often being used interchangeably, nauseous means causing nausea, wheras nauseated means to feel sick. Let’s look at some examples:
According to friends, my “whole vibe”—the complaining, the middle-distance stares, the “sad-sack routine”—has become nauseous.
I, too, am nauseated by my general outlook on life, often wishing I could go through a metamorphosis and become more like my personal-trainer buddy Graham (he’s just so happy, all the time).
Farther vs. Further
Farther describes literal distance; further describes abstract distance. Let’s look at some examples:
I’ve tried the whole “new city” thing, each time moving farther away from my home town, but I can’t move away from . . . myself (if that makes sense?).
How is it possible that I’m further from accomplishing my goals now than I was five years ago? Maybe it’s time to change goals?
Insure vs. Ensure
Insure means to cover something with an insurance policy; ensure means to guarantee. Let’s look at some examples:
Without an employer health plan, I won’t be insured.
Not having health insurance ensures that I’m one medical emergency away from bankruptcy. Maybe I should go into advertising. I don’t know. I’d love to learn more about employment opportunities at your company. Please pass my résumé on to anyone you know in a hiring position.
Vaccum vs. Vacuum
Best to count on good ol’ spell-check for this one.