I have a confession:

A child of the South, I lived several years on the planet before someone pointed out that may as well was not maze well. Of course, we all said (and I continue to say) y’all instead of all of you!

Dialects and colloquial expressions can confuse young, untrained ears and produce wrong assumptions. Even though observation and formal education correct most of those miscommunications over time, some language mistakes stick in the brain. Accordingly, we’ve all had an aha moment upon realizing that a spelling, meaning or pronunciation has been wrong all along!

The examples to follow show common mistakes and give explanations regarding each A and B option. To test your knowledge, don't scroll below B until you choose your answer. 

Meaning: For every practical reason, the school will maintain separate recess times for children in kindergarten and first grade.

A. For all intents and purposes

B. For all intensive purposes

Answer: For all intents and purposes

Aha moment: An intensive purpose should seemingly refer to a concentrated effort or focused goal, but the odd wording should cause one to pause.

Meaning: The teacher is incredibly funny.

A. hysterical

B. hilarious

Answer: hilarious

Aha moment: Calling someone hysterical would convey that individual was exhibiting manic or frantic behavior.

Meaning: How odd that the two events occurred simultaneously!

A. ironic

B. coincidental

Answer: coincidental

Aha moment: Deeming an event ironic indicates that it was unlikely to happen under the circumstances. A teacher, for instance, might deem it ironic that one student who lives five miles away and rides an old bike to school always arrives on time, while a muscular kid who lives only one block away and rides a new bike is always late. It might be a coincidence that they both decided to walk to school on the same day.

Meaning: After discussing his goals for the semester, Bob continued by talking about retiring.

A. proceeded

B. preceded

Answer: proceeded

Aha moment: Preceded says that the person or thing came before someone or something else.

Meaning: You have permission to dress comfortably for school on Friday.

A. can

B. may

Answer: may

Aha moment: Can refers to the ability, not the privilege. The student can prefer wearing jeans to the school uniform. She may wear the jeans on the day her class plants seedlings in the community park.

Meaning: Before you choose the small sandwich for lunch, consider that the large salad has not as many calories.

A. less

B. fewer

Answer: fewer

Aha moment: The comparison is less if the amounts do not reference specified, measurable/countable units. For example, a sandwich takes up less room (a general amount of space) on a plate than a large salad. The comparison is fewer when units like calories, which can be counted, are compared. The large salad has five hundred fewer calories than the small sandwich. The small sandwich, in turn, takes up fewer inches (measureable units) on the plate than the large salad!

Meaning: You have complete freedom regarding how to approach the topic in your essay.

A. free rein

B. free reign

Answer: free rein

Aha moment: To reign is to rule—i.e., reign over a country. Likewise, the reign could refer to an amount of time or an era of rule, such as a reign of tranquility. Rein, originating from the use of reins to guide a horse, refers to a degree of freedom or control. For instance, a principal might tell the department heads that they must rein in—or control—spending to adhere to the budget.

Meaning: Learning about the ocean in science class helps me recall my summer at the beach.

A. invokes

B. evokes

Answer: evokes

Aha moment: To invoke is to call upon someone or an entity, usually for assistance. One would invoke a higher power in prayer. Evoke is to call something to mind.

Meaning: Every person except Jenny made a C or below on the quiz.

A. besides

B. beside

Answer: besides

Aha moment: Beside means next to.


Meaning: Considering everything, the new kid’s presentation was the most impressive.

A. Altogether

B. All together

Answer: Altogether

Aha moment: All together implies that all people or all things are in the same place. The books that Mary must read this year are all together on the shelf. Altogether is synonymous with utterly, as a whole, and in general.

Meaning: The students built an impressive sacred platform on stage for the play’s wedding scene.

A. alter

B. altar

Answer: altar

Aha moment: To alter is to change something.

Meaning: Mr. Carson, who teaches a woodworking class at the vocational school, has a hobby of building dollhouses.

A. (a) vocation

B. (an) avocation

Aha moment: (an) avocation

Aha moment: A vocation is a calling, occupation, or trade. An avocation is a hobby or side interest.

Meaning: The math teacher did not agree to using the new method of solving word problems.

A. assent

B. ascent

Answer: assent

Aha moment: An ascent is an incline or climb.

Meaning: The parents didn’t want the teacher’s advice regarding how to discipline their child.

A. counsel

B. council

Answer: counsel

Aha moment: Council refers to a governing body, such as a county council or a student council. Counsel is either a synonym for advice or a verb meaning to advise.

Meaning: The collection of subjects taught at Wilson High enticed the family to move to the neighborhood.

A. curricula

B. curriculum

Answer: curriculum

Aha moment: Curricula is the plural form of curriculum. The advanced math and science curricula for juniors at Wilson High are college-level courses. Curriculum is a collective, single noun.

Would you have earned an A on my test? If not, keep my notes for a handy reference!

Even better, regularly consult a dictionary. (A thesaurus is useful for synonym suggestions, but nothing beats a dictionary to verify the meaning and clarify the origins of a word.) Persnickety writers and publishers have their go-to favorites, but rather than recommending one name over another, I suggest finding an online dictionary that suits you. Many people use the first source that pops up. You might prefer another dictionary's format, so take a little time to search.

My best to you,

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at www.writelady.com.