A Little Letter Makes A Big Mistake

There are a couple of issues with the signage at my apartment complex’s gym.

One sign says children are not “allowed in the ‘fitness center’” without adult supervision. As I discussed in my previous column, unnecessary quotation marks around a word or phrase indicate it’s being used ironically, so the quotes around “fitness center” seem to imply the room is not, in fact, a legitimate fitness center. Now, this is a small gym that probably does not deserve the designation of fitness center, so maybe the property managers were just having a laugh.

Another sign, however, contains a more egregious error. After a particularly messy winter, the property managers put up a notice asking gym users not to track snow and salt all over the machines, instructing us to leave our winter boots on the “matt provided.” I have a friend named Matt, and surely so do you, and I don’t think my friend, or yours, would appreciate it if I left my winter boots on him.

The word the property managers were looking for, of course, is “mat.” By adding that one letter, they ended up with the wrong word for their sign. While this example is obvious and flagrant, there are more common misuses of the English language in which the placement of an incorrect letter makes one word take on a different meaning. Since not all of them are as obvious as mat and Matt, the problem can be relatively startling as the confusing error grinds our reading to a halt. Or worse still, the new, unintended meaning of the sentence may still be logical to the reader, forcing the sentence or statement to accomplish the opposite of its writer’s intention.

Several pairs of words that differ by a single letter are often confused with each other, and they often cause consistency and structure problems. Here are some of the most prominent examples:

I’d rather write than than then
Then is used to indicate what happens or happened next, while than is used in comparisons: “She explained why Harry Potter is better than Twilight, and then, a fight broke out between the Potterphiles and Twihards.”

If you’re not sure which word to use, remember that the word comparison includes an “A” but not an “E,” so you need to use than with an “A” when making a comparison. (Don’t use the word compare, or this helpful hint won’t work. The helpful hints get better from here.)

Affecting the sentence by misusing effect
Affect is usually used as a verb meaning to influence: “The loss affected the team’s morale.” The only time it’s used as a noun is to describe an emotion in the context of psychology: “He had a flat affect.”

Effect can be used as a noun meaning result or as a verb meaning to cause. For example: “I effected some changes in my diet, and the effect was weight loss.”
If you’re not sure which word to use, think “A” for action. Affect will usually be correct when you need a verb (unless you’re effecting change); you’ll virtually always use effect when you need a noun.

We’ll discuss further your decision to travel farther.
Farther is used to used to describe physical distance, while further is used to describe more abstract concepts: “Mom, should I go to college in Chicago or somewhere farther away?” “Let’s discuss it further when your father gets home.”

If you’re not sure which word to use, think Point A to Point B. When you’re describing distance from one place to another, use farther with an “A.”

A complement to a nice compliment
Compliment is used for praise or courtesy, while complement refers to completing something or making it better. Both can be used as a noun or a verb, and both have the same meaning in either form: “That dress complemented Amanda’s eyes, so I paid her a compliment. I also complimented her singing voice, which provided a nice complement to the Josh Groban song she made me listen to in the car.”

The words maintain similar respective meanings when you add “-ary” to the end: “They received complimentary tickets to the Bears game, where they enjoyed the complementary colors on the home team’s uniforms.”

If you’re not sure which word to use, think, “I like that.” If you notice something you like, you may want to offer a compliment with an “I,” and we all like getting free stuff, which is complimentary also with an “I.”

It was the premier movie premiere
Premier is an adjective that means most important or best; it’s also a synonym for prime minister: “The premier dines at only the country’s premier restaurants.”

A premiere is the first time something is shown or performed: “The world premiere of the new musical was delayed after several cast members came down with laryngitis.”
If you’re not sure which word to use, think “E” for event. If you’re referring to an event, you should use premiere ending in “E”; otherwise, you should use premier ending in “R.”

Until next time, choose your words carefully. And please, don’t wipe your boots on Matt.

About the author

Amanda Jacobs is a grammar expert who worked at 22nd Century Media as chief copy editor and editor for three years. She is currently a public relations specialist at the American Academy of Dermatology.

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