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Some Important Contrasts

As you study English and become more and more proficient, you will become aware that there are native speakers who say things that break the rules of good grammar. The more you know about English, the more you’ll discover that this is true. Natives in all languages speak at different levels of competency. Some speak with great grammatical accuracy. Others are more casual or just careless and disregard the rules for good language.

The following eight pairs of words demonstrate where natives frequently make errors. By being aware of these words, you can make a choice for yourself about how you wish to speak English: speaking and writing accurately, or conforming to casual or careless habits.

Bad and Badly

It is obvious that bad is an adjective and badly is an adverb. However, some native English speakers use bad exclusively as both an adjective and an adverb. The problem probably derives from the fact that bad seems like an adverb when it follows a linking verb (to beto becometo seemto appear, etc.):

  • That’s too bad.
  • She looks bad this morning.

You can review linking verbs in Unit = on verbs.

You might hear someone say, “That little boy reads and writes bad.” However, in this usage an adverb is required. The sentence should be, “That little boy reads and writes badly.” Let’s look at some examples of how bad and badly should be used correctly:

You’re a bad dog.(adjective modifying dog)
In bad weather we stay at home.(adjective modifying weather)
Your cut isn’t so bad.(adjective following linking verb is)
His reply sounded bad.(adjective following linking verb sounded)
You have a badly broken wrist.(adverb modifying participle broken)
They played badly today.(adverb modifying verb played)

Good and Well

This pair of words is misused in much the same way as bad and badly and for some of the same reasons. But there is extra confusion involved with good and well because the word well can be either an adjective or an adverb, depending upon its usage. Well is the adverbial form of good, and it is also a word that means not ill when used as an adjective.

Good is the opposite of bad and is an adjective. Notice how the adjectival and adverbial meanings of this word are used:

Miguel is a good soccer player.Miguel plays soccer well.

If good means “kind,” you can use kindly as its adverbial part:

David is a good man.He always speaks so kindly of them.

But when well is used with a linking verb, it is an adjective. You might hear someone say, “I don’t feel good.” That usage is incorrect, for the meaning here is “not ill.” The correct usage is “I don’t feel well.”

But that is not the end of the story of good and well. They both can follow linking verbs, and they both are in that instance considered adjectives. However, their meanings are different:

Sentence with Linking VerbMeaning
She looks good.She doesn’t look bad.
She looks well.She doesn’t look ill.
They are good.They aren’t bad. OR They aren’t unkind.
They are well.They aren’t ill.

Few and A Few

The difference between the words in this pair is not great. It is correct to say, “Few men are strong enough.” You can also say, “A few men are strong enough.” But there is a slight difference in implication between the sentences. Let’s look at some examples that will demonstrate this difference:

The SentenceThe Implication
Few people saw this movie.Not many people went to see this movie.
(There is a negative implication here.)
A few people saw this movie.Some people saw this movie but not a lot.
(The implication is more positive.)
Few students understood him.He was hard to understand.
(There is a negative implication here.)
A few students understood him.Some of the students did understand him.
(This implication is more positive.)
She has few friends.She has almost no friends.
(There is a negative implication here.)
She has a few friends.She has some friends but not a lot.
(This implication is more positive.)

Use few to imply a negative point of view about something. Use a few to show a more positive point of view.

Fewer and Less

Many people misuse these two words. But their usage is quite simple: Use fewer to modify plural nouns and use less to modify singular (and often collective) nouns. Fewer is the comparative of few, and less is the comparative of little. Some examples:

Plural NounsSingular Nouns
I have fewer books.I have less money.
We need fewer jobs to do.She has less time than usual.
Fewer and fewer friends came to visit.Mom has less and less patience with him.

Now let’s compare the positive and comparative forms of these words:

He has few ideas.He has fewer ideas than you.
February has few days.February has fewer days than March.
I have little time.I have less time now than a year ago.
She has little pain.She has less pain today than yesterday.

Lay and Lie

Many English speakers confuse these two verbs. Lay is a transitive verb and takes a direct object. Lie is intransitive and does not take a direct object but is often followed by a prepositional phrase showing a location.

He lays the baby on the bed.(transitive/direct object = baby)
Where did you lay my book?(transitive/direct object = book)
Hamburg lies on the Elbe River.(intransitive/prepositional phrase with on)
Your coat is lying over the railing.(intransitive/prepositional phrase with over)

Confusion arises between these two verbs because of their conjugations. Compare them in all the tenses and take particular note of the past tense of to lie:

to layto lie
Presenthe layshe lies
Pasthe laidhe lay
Present Perfecthe has laidhe has lain
Past Perfecthe had laidhe had lain
Futurehe will layhe will lie
Future Perfecthe will have laidhe will have lain

If there is any difficulty deciding whether to use lay or lie, substitute put for the verb. If it makes sense, use lay. If it doesn’t, use lie.

  • He puts the baby on the bed. (makes sense) → He lays the baby on the bed.
  • She puts on the bed and sleeps. (makes no sense) → She lies on the bed and sleeps.

Little and A Little

This pair of words is similar to few and a fewLittle has a negative implication. A little shows a more positive point of view. Some examples:

The SentenceThe Implication
Little is known about him.Not much is known about him.
(There is a negative implication here.)
A little is known about him.Something is known about him but not a lot.
(This implication is more positive.)
She does little work.She doesn’t work much.
(There is a negative implication here.)
She does a little work.She does some work but not much.
(This implication is more positive.)
He says little.He doesn’t say much.
(There is a negative implication here.)
He says a little.He says something but not much.
(This implication is more positive.)

Than and Then

In rapid conversation these words are rarely confused, even though they sound so much alike. But in writing they must be distinguished. Than can be used as a preposition or a conjunction and stands between two elements that are being compared: Marisa is taller than Anthony. She runs faster than you do.

The word then has two major functions: (1) it can be used as an adverb and answers the question when, or (2) it can be a conjunction and combines two clauses with the meaning “and as a consequence or thereafter.” Let’s compare these two functions:

We were in Mexico then, too.I found the book then returned to my room.
Then I decided to go to college.She slapped his face, then she ran down the street.

Who and Whom

These two words are used frequently, and often misused. Who is the form used as the subject of a question:

  • Who sent you?
  • Who knows the man over there?

Whom is used as a direct object, indirect object, or the object of a preposition:

  • direct object → Whom did you meet at the party?
  • indirect object → (ToWhom will you give an invitation?
  • object of preposition → With whom was he sitting?

It is important to remember that many native speakers of English avoid whom and use who exclusively. Compare these sentences:

Standard EnglishCasual English
Whom did they arrest?Who did they arrest?
From whom did you get the gift?From who did you get the gift? OR Who did you get the gift from?

When speaking or writing formally, you should use the standard forms of who and whom. In casual letters or conversation you can be the judge and avoid whom.

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