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Commonly Confused Words: Part 2

In the previous article, we discussed the differences between and correct usages of who or whom, can or may, who’s or whose, and affect or effect. This article introduces another set of commonly confused words and their meanings.

Commonly Confused Words: Part 1

Fewer, Less or Lesser?

Let’s look at fewer versus less first. Fewer should be used when dealing with countable nouns, while less should be used when dealing with uncountable (plural) nouns. For instance, you may say, “I would like fewer sausages and less gravy” because sausages can be counted but gravy cannot.

Now, when should we use less and lesser? Remember that less refers to quantity while lesser refers to quality. Additionally, less can be used as a pronoun (“there was less than I thought”) while lesser is usually an adjective (“the lesser item”). If I have ten necklaces and you have five, you have less jewelry than I do. However, if my ten necklaces are made of cheap paste but your five necklaces are made of pure gold, then the quality of my jewelry is lesser than yours.

Consider these statements:

- The criminal was given twenty lashes instead of forty – less/lesser of a punishment.

Here, the quantity of the punishment was reduced, so the correct word should be less.

- The criminal was given fewer/less years in jail.

Can years in jail be counted? Yes, they can, so the correct word should be fewer.

- The criminal was let off with a fine instead of jail time – a less/lesser punishment.

This statement is not talking about the quantity of the punishment but rather a less severe punishment, so the correct word should be lesser.

Set Up or Setup?

Set up is a verb while setup is a noun or an adjective. Some people also write set-up (with a hyphen) instead of the one-word setup. American English usually spells the word as setup while British English usually spells the word as set-up. In any case, the single word setup or set-up should never be used as a verb.

Setup or set-up (one word or hyphenated) means the way in which something is planned, constituted or arranged. It can also mean a scheme or a trick intended to deceive or incriminate someone.

Set up (two words) is used to describe the action of putting something in order, building, forming or starting something.

For example:

- The whole thing was just an elaborate set up/setup.

The word in question here should be a noun, so we can immediately tell that it should be setup.

- We decided to set up/setup a small business.

We are looking for a verb here to describe the action of starting a small business, so set up should be used.

Avenge or Revenge?

Avenge and revenge may seem to be interchangeable (and they once were), but over time they have been differentiated until they have distinguishable meanings now. Avenge is used as a verb to mean punishing something or someone for a wrongdoing with the intent of seeing justice done. Revenge can be used as a noun or a verb and is less about justice and more about retaliation on a personal basis.

Both avenge and revenge imply inflicting pain or harm in return for pain or harm done to oneself or someone or something one feels loyalty to. The difference is that avenge means to inflict punishment as a retribution to see justice done, while revenge means to inflict pain or harm as a retaliation because one feels that they have been wronged.

For example:

- The woman wanted to avenge her son’s murder by making sure the killer served a lifetime in jail. Her husband wanted to take revenge by making sure the killer suffered just as his son did.

For the woman, seeing her son’s killer incarcerated was sufficient to make her feel that justice had been done. However, her husband sought to pay back the wrong by getting back at the killer and inflicting pain on him – not necessarily in a just way, but rather to satisfy a personal feeling that his son had been wronged.

Their, They’re or There?

Their is the possessive form of the pronoun “they” and it means “belonging to them”. Although their is generally plural, it is increasingly accepted as a singular form in place of “his/her”. You can remember this by noting that the spelling of their contains the word “heir” in it, which is often used to indicate possession of something.

There is an adverb that refers to a place. One way to remember this is to note that the spelling of there contains the word “here”, so if you are talking about places, you should use there.

They’re is a contraction of the phrase “they are”. Remember that they’re has an apostrophe, which means that it is the product of two words. If you can substitute they’re in a statement with “they are” and the statement still means the same thing, then it should be alright to use they’re. However, the use of contractions tends to be informal, so if you are writing a corporate document or something else that is usually formal, it is normally better to spell out “they are” instead of contracting it to “they’re”.

For example:

- They’re working hard at their table over there.

They’re can be substituted with “they are” and the sentence still retains its original meaning. The table belongs to them so their should be used because it is possessive, and there refers to a location.


Test your understanding of the commonly confused words on this list by selecting the correct word that should be used in each statement.

- There are less/lesser people at the club on weekdays than there are on weekends.

- Just between you and me, I think they’re/their all crazy.

- My father mistreated me as a child and I still long for avenge/revenge.

- Do you really expect me to believe that this isn’t just a set up/setup?

- I’m on a diet so I have been eating fewer/less snacks and drinking fewer/less alcohol.

- Before she died, she made me promise to avenge/revenge her.

- In the past, wealthy people often viewed slaves as less/lesser beings.

- Their/there is a secret hideout where they devise they’re/their schemes.

- The band can set up/setup on that stage there.

Answers to Practice

- There are less people at the club on weekdays than there are on weekends.

- Just between you and me, I think they’re all crazy.

- My father mistreated me as a child and I still long for revenge.

- Do you really expect me to believe that this isn’t just a setup?

- I’m on a diet so I have been eating fewer snacks and drinking less alcohol.

- Before she died, she made me promise to avenge her.

- In the pastCommonly Confused Words: Part 2, wealthy people often viewed slaves as lesser beings.

- There is a secret hideout where they devise their schemes.

- The band can set up on that stage there. 


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