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Better English

Better use of English through better understanding (L–Z)

The attempt to help with some of the more common errors and areas of difficulty continues below with L to Z. (See A to K)

Lie and Lay

The chart shows how the forms of the two verbs differ. Just note that lay must always have an object (as in, to lay something down) whereas lie does not have an object as it is talking of someone or something reclining on a surface.


“She lays down her book.”
“He is laying several books on the table.”
“They laid their books on the table yesterday.”
“The books have laid there a long time.”

“Let's lie by the pool.”
“She is still lying there.”
“Yesterday, I lay by the stream.”
“He has lain there all day. ”

The common expression lay the table refers to laying ojects (plates, cutlery, glasses, etc) on the table. Similarly, a term such as laying down memories points figuratively to laying down objects.

Lighted or Lit

Both words are verbs, but only lighted can act as an adjective.

“Have you lighted the fire yet?”
“Have you lit the fire yet?”

Both of the above sentences are correct usage. However, Americans favour lighted, but the British favour lit.

“Her lighted torch shone the way.” Here, lighted is used as an adjective (using lit would be incorrect).

Like and Such as

The word like is often used when such as is needed. To be like is to be similar to and is drawing a comparison, whereas such or such as implies a condition or state and not a similarity of appearance or a similarity of action. The other meaning of like (to do with attraction, preference and attachment) is not being considered here.

The use of like in the following example begs the question How like? erroneously implying a comparison when what is actually being described is a condition or state.

“Experiences like 'I am hungry, I am thirsty' are due to…”

Here, such as is the correct usage: “Experiences such as 'I am hungry, I am thirsty' are due to…”

Listen and hear

Listening is an action, hearing is its result. Both words are verbs, but the first is a voluntary action and the latter involuntary. Listening involves a focused effort of attention. Hearing, in contrast, does not; it is entirely passive.

Some, therefore, say that listening is the vital thing, that hearing is merely what happens when sound hits the eardrum.

Since we control only our actions, not their results, hearing is certainly not under our control. Nevertheless, it is what we aim for through listening. We listen in order to fulfil our hope of hearing.

Hearing, not listening, is what touches and perhaps transforms lives.

Listening is essential, without it we do not properly hear, but hearing is the reason we listen. We do not listen for listening's sake, we listen for what it gives, which is the hearing of what is to be heard.

We benefit only from what fully reaches us, from what we hear properly (without distortion or addition), not from what we attempt to listen to. Therefore, the pertinent question is not, “Did you listen?” but “Did you hear?”

May and Might

May is used to express a possibility or opportunity; might is used to express a conditional, restrictive or qualified situation.

“You may come in now.”
“She might have been there earlier.”

1. To express uncertainty about a past situation, use might.
“That might have annoyed him.”

2. To refer to a past event that didn't actually happen, use might.
“If he hadn't been quick, the dog might have died.”

3. To show a future event is likely, use may.
“I may find it.”

4. To show a future event is unlikely, use might.
“I might find it.”

5. To speak of a hypothetical situation, use might.
“If we tighten this, it might work.”

6. To report speech, change may to might.
“I may go out.” She said she might go out.

7. To show annoyance, use might.
“You'd think they might have told me!!”

8. To make a polite or formal request or suggestion, use might.
“Do you think you might try again?”
“Might I have a word with you?”

9. To express a wish or hope, use may.
“May you live happily ever after.”

10. To ask for permission, use may.
“May I go now?”

Maybe and May be

The adverb maybe is a casual usage meaning perhaps or conceivably. May be is simply a modal form of the verb to be meaning either it may occur (may happen), or it may be how it is (may be the way things are), or it may be allowed (may be permissible) depending on context.

Metaphor and Simile

Expresses an attribute by re-casting someone or something anew—often impossibly.

“She is pure gold.”
“His fists are gold.”
“He has a heart of gold.”

Expresses an attribute by likening two dissimilar things. Use of comparatives such as 'like' or 'as ... as' is typical.

“His heart is like gold.”
“He was as good as gold.”
“Her beauty is as lustrous as gold.”

Method and Methodology

A method is a specific procedure for attaining a goal.

A methodology is a body of methods used in a particular area of study or activity. The word chiefly refers to a study of methods and the way they are/were used in, for example, a research project, asking “What was your methodology—what were the procedures you used and why?” Methodology is therefore both a collective term and an area of study.

The two words are not synonyms.

Neither Nor

Neither must always be used with nor, never with or. Why? Because neither is a negative (not either) and so always takes a similarly negative comparative.

“Neither you nor Anna saw it.”

Nor can, however, be used with not.
“You didn't see it, nor did Anna.”

On, On to and Onto

The adverb on followed by the preposition to is a kind of shorthand implying either intention or continuation, whereas the preposition onto simply refers to a receiving object or surface.

“The athlete went on to achieve success, climbing onto the winner’s podium later that afternoon.”

“He went on [continuing in that way] to meet his death/receive his award.”

“He prattled on [in order] to distract her from the danger.”

But notice that an image is projected onto a screen (for the screen is a receiving surface for this activity) and not on a screen. The resultant projected image is (exists) on the screen, for it is sitting there; but it is actively projected onto the screen (is actually put or placed there) by the projector.

However, one may also say: “A projected image [the end result of a projection] is nothing but the appearance of that image on the screen,” or “Waves and foam are mere appearances of name and form on water.” Both of these are describing a finished state, an end result—not the actual process that produced it—and so the word on is used.

In other words, the activity of putting or projecting takes the preposition onto, whereas the result, the state of something sitting there on something else (such as a finished projected image sitting on a screen) takes the preposition on. This does not conflict with our athlete who went on to achieve success. There, on refers to a state of continual (successful) activity, a state he remained in until its culmination at the winner's podium.

Own up

To own up is to confess an error, to admit that a mistake has been made and that one is blameworthy. It has nothing to do with living up to (living in accord with) or fulfilling a certain standard of behaviour or understanding.

Plural misuse

In the sentence: “There are several types of actions”, the use of the plural 'actions' is incorrect and is due to confusing the plurality of the types of action with action itself. The word 'action' does have a plural form, of course, but here the sentence speaks of types of a single entity, types of action. (This is like saying 'types of food' or 'types of tooth' or 'types of chair'.) It is action itself that is being referred to, not the various forms it can take.

Similarly, to speak of six-fold qualifications is wrong. The adjective 'six-fold' is saying that a particular qualification has six parts or aspects or 'folds'. It is not saying that six separate qualifications are required but that this single qualification has six (related) aspects or parts. Therefore, here one should say 'six-fold qualification'.

Practice and Practise

Outside North America, practice is the noun and practise is the verb. (The Americans make no such distinction, use practice for both noun and verb, and never use practise.)

Remember which is which by recalling that, alphabetically, c (practice) comes before s (practise) and n (noun) before v (verb). The following are all correct usage:

“His practice of talking too much is due to long practice.”

“He has long practised talking too much.”

“He used to practise sketching every day; sketching was his everyday practice.”

Regards and Regard

In the example “…discrimination with regards to gender, race, colour… ” the word regards is misused.

Regards, as a noun, are good wishes given by one person to another, as in 'I send you my best regards'.

However, the verb regard is to do with a form of attention: an observing, a considering. Since we are considering gender, etc, we should say, “…with regard to gender… ”

Confusingly, the third person singular of the verb regard is regards. This means it is perfectly correct to say, for example, “…as regards my work…” Here, the verb regards relates to the action of directing attention towards a topic (work). The phrase is saying, “…as [it] regards my work…” What is regarding or looking at 'my work' is attention. This is the same as saying: 'with reference to my work', or 'in the context of my work', for both imply attention being given to that topic.

Shall and Will

The grammatical person is the key factor:

Simple future
First Person: I/we shall
Second Person: you will
Third Person: he/she/it/they will

The reverse obtains when a firm resolve or command is being expressed:
First Person: I/we will
Second Person: you shall
Third Person: he/she/it/they shall

The famous joke about someone in difficulties in water illustrates the misuse of the second form of shall and will (expressing resolve): "I will drown and no-one shall save me!" The English people hearing this obediently let him slip beneath the waves.

Tell or Say

Say is used in a variety of ways: to state, communicate, repeat or indicate something. All have in common the expression of a thought. Crucially, however, the accent, the focus, is chiefly on the words themselves, the very words being spoken, rather than on the recipient. Phrases such as, “What I want to say is…” confirm this focus on the words themselves.

In contrast, when telling someone something, the focus has shifted to the action of delivering words to a person or persons. That action of delivering needs to be shown appropriately, typically by a pronoun such as me, you, us or them. For example, “Please tell him your name.” There, the pronoun him is the focus of the action of telling and needs to be stated for it to be clear upon whom the action is focused.

The expression, “Tell me…” is no exception: you are inviting someone to make you the recipient of that focused delivery of words. Similarly, “We were told to leave” is no exception: the focus (we) of told merely appears before the verb rather than after.

Tell has the additional meaning of delivering (issuing) an instruction, for example: “Tell him to come here.” There, too, the focus of the action of telling (him, the recipient) needs to be stated. However, in an instruction such as: “Never tell a lie” the focus of tell may be unstated if it is obvious who is being addressed (here 'anyone' is the implied focus).

Examples of incorrect usage:
“He is going to tell what to do.”
“He tells you are next in the queue.”
“The author told why her book is needed.”
“Yes, that's what she told.”
“Never say a lie.”

Examples of correct usage:
“He is going to tell us what to do.”
“He says you are next in the queue.”
“The author told us why her book is needed.”
“Yes, that's what she said.”
“Never tell a lie.”

Tell also has the meaning of 'measure or assess' (and especially 'count'). This may be the source of the misusage shown above. For example, in the sentence “How do we tell if he is wrong?” tell is being used to ask how we may measure (assess) the degree of truth or accuracy in his words. It is not being used to ask how we may communicate the truth or inaccuracy of his words to others.

That and Which

The pronoun that is used to define. Which is used to describe, comment upon or illustrate.

“This is the house that Jack built.” A particular house is being identified. The clause beginning with that is essential (gives essential information) and is restrictive as it identifies a specific house.

“The house, which is nicely painted, was built by Jack.” The house was built by Jack. The fact that it is nicely painted is incidental.

The (the Definite Article)

The word the is sometimes unnecessarily inserted before a noun.

The is used only to refer to a specific object or entity in order to differentiate it from others (and thus we define or mark out or point to the object we mean). When no such differentiation is needed, its use is unnecessary.

“We sat in a café watching food being served.”
“We sat in a café watching the food being served.”

Both sentences are valid and both are good English. However, in the first, no distinction is being made in relation to food, for the word 'food' refers to 'food per se' (food itself, food in general) but, in the second sentence, use of the definite article the makes it clear (definite) that the food was being seen (defined) in relation to that particular café: we were no longer regarding the food there as 'food in general' but as that café’s own food being served on its premises to its clientele.

To habitually place the before almost every noun, as some do, is to miss this important but subtle distinction. Such distinctions can make the difference between one's use of language being accurate or misleading, putting at risk its primary purpose: clear communication.

In the following sentence, use of the definite article the ignores that distinction and is therefore misleading. Being misleading, it is incorrect:

“When the thoughts are resolute and decisive, change occurs.”

Use of the begs the question: “Which thoughts?” It should, therefore, be omitted as the writer's intention is not to refer to specific thoughts but to thought in general. He is stating a principle, not giving an example.

Hence, the sentence should simply say: “When thoughts are resolute and decisive, change occurs.”

Similarly, in the famous sentence, “Among all letters I am the letter a,” some would have it say, “Among all the letters I am the letter a.” This second version is making an unwarranted distinction, one that is not present in the first sentence. The first sentence refers to the entire alphabet, whereas the second refers only to an unspecified selection or group of letters. This latter meaning is clearly not what is intended, but is nevertheless there, so the first use of the in the second sentence is a misuse.

Compare these two sentences:

“Edison’s gramophone will record the human voice for posterity.”
“Edison’s gramophone will record a human voice for posterity.”

In the first sentence, the definite article the is being used to make it clear (definite) that a human voice, not an animal or computer-generated one, will be recorded. In the second sentence the indefinite article a would be used either to suggest that Edison's machine will record any example of any human voice, or one example of a particular human voice (and perhaps one only, never a second) or to refer to a particular future recording session in which the person whose voice will be used is as yet unspecified. It is not definite or clear which of the four is the intended meaning of the second sentence, hence the term 'indefinite article' for a. (See A and An). Notice, too, the significant change in meaning from the preceding sentence, just through changing one word!

Was or Were

Were is used when the clause is hypothetical, which calls for the subjunctive mood. Was is simply the past tense.

“Yes, I was naive, but I'm not now.”
“If I were old enough, I would go.”

What to do?

This is an over-simplification of the question, “What am I to do?” or “What is one to do?” or “What should we do?” (or similar) and sounds incomplete and hence odd to an English ear.

Whatever and Whatsoever

Whatever has two meanings: no matter what and what. For example: “Whatever happens [no matter what happens] I will do it!” and “Whatever [what] is wrong?” But this second meaning (what) is merely colloquial.

Whatsoever means all, ever, unrestrictedly. For example: “Whatever he brings, we will keep” meaning: nothing at all shall be rejected or thrown away. Similarly, “He has no intention whatsoever of doing it” meaning: he intends never, ever to do it!

When and Whenever

When refers to a specific time (and, by extension, to a specific event in time).

“I'll speak to him when I get back to the office.”
“Come and see me when your meeting is over.”
“Let me know when you will arrive.”
“When I grow up, I'm going to be a fireman!”

Whenever refers to an unspecified or indefinite time, so unspecified that it can even be used to refer to a repeating event.

“I use a seat belt whenever I get into a car.”
“Whenever I think of my baby, I smile.”
“In winter, I catch a chill whenever it snows.”
“He's fun. He makes me laugh whenever we meet.”

“Whenever you're ready, we'll go.”
“When you're ready, we'll go.”

Both sentences are saying that, at the moment you're ready, we'll leave.

Both may appear to be saying there is no time pressure, that our departure time can be indefinite, so take as much time as you wish—only when you're finally ready will we leave, not before. However, the first sentence, due to its use of whenever (meaning: at an unspecified time) is saying that far more clearly and less ambiguously.

When, which should be used to refer to a specific time, changes the meaning of the sentence considerably. When used colloquially, it can even make 'When you're ready, we'll go.' mean 'if you can be ready earlier than our agreed time, that's even better!'

Since a distinction is often not carefully made between these two words, it may be sensible to ask: “Do you mean when, or whenever?”

Note: whenever is never two words, always one.

Where to find?

This error is similar to What to do. The question should begin, for example, with “Where is one to find…?” or “Where am I to find…?” or “Where may we find…?”


Whether does not need or not when its clause is functioning as a noun. However, or not is needed when the whether clause functions as an adverb. This means that when two named options/states are present or implied, or not is not needed, but it is needed when two possible actions are present or implied.

For example: “I'm not sure whether it's ripe, so I don't know whether I should buy it or not.” In the first instance, the whether clause is a noun clause, in the second it's an adverbial clause.

Here, the whether clauses are all noun clauses:
“She will swim based on whether he does.” (the object of 'on')
“I'll see whether she's there.” (the object of 'see')
“Whether he was early is immaterial.” (the subject of 'is')

However, when the whether clause is adverbial…
“He's going whether it snows or not.”
“This is how it shall be whether you like it or not.”
The inclusion of or not is required here because action is involved in He's going or This is how it shall be. Put another way, when whether or not means regardless of whether it means that something will happen, or will be so, regardless of the stated alternative.

As an aside, note that, because it expresses an implied alternative, 'let me know whether you are coming' requires a reply whatever your decision; whereas 'if you are coming' only needs a reply if you do decide to come.

While and Whilst

While carries the sense of concurrent events in time, whereas whilst may be used to make a contra-distinction between ideas or events.

“You cook the vegetables while I grate the cheese and lay the table.” And so the events happen concurrently.

“Reading the newspaper whilst I cook lunch is unfair and unkind of you! You could help me!” Here a contrasting distinction is being drawn between relaxing and working, and time is not a factor.

The above distinction between while and whilst is increasingly ignored or considered archaic, although it is not yet dead. Many people use while for both. It's a similar situation for among and amongst. Nowadays, amongst is increasingly regarded as rather archaic.

Who, Whoever, Whom, Whomever

The pronouns who and whoever refer to the subject of the sentence or clause and whom and whomever to the object. To test which is appropriate, paraphrase the sentence or clause and substitute he for who and him for whom.

“He is a man who I know is clever,” or “He is a man whom I know is clever.”
Paraphrasing and substituting we get: “He is clever” and “Him is clever.”
Clearly, the correct choice is who in this instance because it refers to the subject.

“Whoever wishes to do so may come and have lunch now” is correct as whoever refers to the subject of the sentence.

“Whomever he spoke to loved him” is correct as whomever refers to the object, to those to whom he (the subject) spoke.

“I enjoy classes with teachers who are supportive.” In this case, even though I is the subject of the sentence, who is correct usage, not whom, as teachers is the subject of the clause teachers who are supportive, and who refers to that subject (teachers) not to the subject of the sentence.


Wilful means 'full of one’s own selfish will'. It is not a virtue but a vice. Therefore, to say “Self-discipline is wilful control of the mind” is incorrect. Wilful connotes a negative: “He wilfully disregarded her wishes by…” The word wilful does carry the sense of full of will, but it is a stubbornly selfish will that is always meant by wilful.

Perhaps it would have been better to have used the word determined in this context as it is closer to the sense intended: “Self-discipline is the determined control of the mind.” However, self-discipline is not achieved by control, but, instead, by seeing thought for what it is: an observable movement in the mind. Being observable, it is an object of my perception and hence cannot be me. The observer is not the observed, the subject is not the object.


Speaking or reading to an audience

Few speak well; even fewer read aloud well. If you wish to learn something of both, study (free) How to Read Aloud.

Word order

Word order affects meaning

Much could be said about word order. These examples (featuring the word only) highlight its importance:

“He only went into the garden to see his daughter.” He had no other aim in entering the garden.

“He went only into the garden to see his daughter.” He did not go elsewhere to see her, just the garden.

“He went into the garden only to see his daughter.” He wished just to look, perhaps to see what she was doing.

“He went into the garden to see only his daughter.” He was not interested in seeing anyone or anything else.

“He went into the garden to see his only daughter.” He had no other daughter and went there to see her.

Changes in position can change meaning. Be careful where you place words.