begs the question Often misused or confused. Use this cliche only when you're questioning the logic of another statement--that it assumes as true the very point someone is trying to prove. This statement, for example, begs the question: We had to attack first to prevent him from attacking us. Don't use begs the question to suggest that someone is evading an issue or raising another question. But reduce confusion by avoiding the phrase. Instead, explain why you question the logic. [Yagoda suggests using raises the question, instead.]
criteria, criterion Often confused. As the plural form of criterion, criteria is a plural noun that takes plural verbs and pronouns: The criteria are listed on the board; we will use them to test the product. Don't use the criteria is. Criterion is a singular noun that takes singular verbs and pronouns: One criterion is ease of maintenance; it is first priority for mechanics.
phenomena, phenomenon You might notice a single phenomenon while waiting at a bus stop, but if you use that stop often enough, you could see two or more or many phenomena. Correct usage: this phenomenon (singular form), these phenomena (plural form). Phenomenons (plural) is used informally when describing two or more people with extraordinary talents and qualities, each a phenomenon.
cliche [Yagoda advises against using cliche as an adjective; use cliched instead. My manual provides other advice.] William Safire, Fumblerules, 1990: "Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague." And if you must use a cliche, don't put quotation marks around it.
compose, comprise, include Compose is not synonymous with comprise. Compose means to create or put together: The division is composed of six sections. Compose takes of, but comprise never does. [Yagoda focuses on the misuse of comprised of and suggests composed of and made up of as correct alternatives.]
Comprise means to contain, consist of or embrace. The whole comprises the parts. Use it in the active voice and name all the parts that make up the whole after the verb: The division comprises six sections. The zoo comprises mammals, reptiles and birds. Don't use comprised of. Think about using simpler consist(s) of or contain(s).
Use include when what follows is only part of the whole: city government includes the Parks and Human Services departments.
fewer, less Fewer (or few) stresses number, and less stresses degree or quantity. Use fewer for plural nouns and individual items that can be counted, less for singular nouns and a bulk, amount, sum, period of time or idea that is measured in other ways: Fewer than 10 applicants called. I had less than $50 in my pocket. Fewer dollars, less money. Less food, fewer calories.
penultimate A useful word for confusing your readers, if not yourself. It means "next to last," but if you mean "next to last," simplify and use next to last. It does not mean "the best, the last, the ultimate," or "the quintessential." If you mean one of those words, use one of those words or a simple phrase like the very last or the perfect example. [Yagoda suggests ultimate as the correct alternative, if that's what you mean.]
ultimate, ultimately Overstated. Simplify. Try most, final, last, best, crowning, perfect, supreme or eventual for ultimate and at last, in the end, finally, lastly or eventually for ultimately.
lead, led Often confused and misspelled. Pronounced as "led" (like "head"), lead is a noun for the marking substance in a pencil and the metal a pipe may be made of. But pronounced as "leed" (like "heed"), lead is both a noun and a verb with the broad meaning of "being in front or in charge": She will lead the investigation. His favorite horse has taken the lead in the race. The reporter quickly wrote a lead for the article.
Led, pronounced as it's spelled (like "head"), is the past tense of the verb lead: She led the investigation. Don't confuse spelling and pronunciation of lead with verb forms of read. It follows different rules. [Yagoda notes led is the correct past tense of to lead.]
its, it's Often confused or misspelled. Its is the possessive form of the pronoun it, meaning "belonging to it." The possessive its never takes an apostrophe: Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow. It's is a contraction that means "it is" and sometimes "it has."
The contraction always takes an apostrophe: It's a beautiful day. It's gotten out of hand. If you often mix up these words, consider using only it is or it has and its; drop it's. Finally, use its' only when you're trying to show poor spelling skills or confuse your readers. It's not a word, and no one will know its meaning.
your, you're Often confused or misspelled. And computer spellcheckers won't catch the mistaken substitution of one of these homonyms for the other. Your is the possessive form of the pronoun you, meaning "belonging to you," while you're is a contraction of "you are."
who's, whose Who's is a contraction for who is or who has, not a possessive: Who's using the cellular phone? Who's been eating my radishes? For the possessive, use whose: I do not know whose galoshes these are. Whose may refer to things as well as people: The shopping mall, whose customers come from miles around, began charging for parking.______
Yagoda's article was featured March 15, in Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.