Word usage errors in research papers written by non-native speakers of English are more common than other mistakes and are only topped by errors in style. Since the main purpose of academic writing is to clearly convey information, knowing how to use words correctly and effectively is absolutely crucial.
Some problems with word choice stem from the fact that the English language contains pairs or sets of words that sound alike (homophones) and/or look alike (homonyms) but have different meanings. Additionally, there are words that sound and look different but have similar meanings. Other mistakes occur when ESL authors think in their mother language while writing and try to translate entire expressions into English. And sometimes, the wrong word is actually the right word spelled incorrectly. Here, we list examples of typical errors in word usage that we frequently come across in academic texts written by ESL authors and provide tips on how to avoid them.
Table of Contents:
- Words with Similar Sounds but Different Meanings
- Words with Similar Meanings but Different Connotations
- Using the Correct Word Stem with the Wrong Prefix or Suffix
- Translation Errors and Collocations
- Spelling Mistakes That Can Change Your Meaning
Words with Similar Sounds but Different Meanings
Confusing similar words that have different meanings is one of the most common errors in word choice, and one that happens to native speakers as well. In spoken English, many of these might not be very obvious or just sound like a slip of the tongue. However, when writing any kind of academic text, you should check for such mistakes to make sure the reader clearly understands what you are trying to convey.
1. Affect vs effect / affective versus effective
Affect as a noun describes the strong experience of feelings or emotions, while the verb to affect means to impact. The noun effect, in contrast, is the result of something, and the verb to effect means to cause something to happen or to bring about a certain result. In brief, if something affects something else, it leads to a certain effect.
NO Sleep deprivation clearly effected the patients’ overall well-being.
YES Sleep deprivation clearly affected the patients’ overall well-being.
NO The affect of exercise on depression is not clearly understood.
YES The effect of exercise on depression is not clearly understood.
2. Then vs than
Than is a conjunction/preposition that is used for comparison, while then is an adverb that means at that time or subsequently.
YES The effect of exercise on depression is less obvious than that of medication.
YES Patients were debriefed, and then asked to fill in a questionnaire.
NO The effect of exercise on depression is less obvious then that of medication
3. Principal vs principle
Principal as an adjective means the main or the most important, while as a noun, it means head of a school. A principle, on the other hand, is a general theorem or law or a system’s underlying foundation.
NO Our approach is based on the scientific principals of behavioral analysis.
YES Our approach is based on the scientific principles of behavioral analysis.
YES The principal idea of our approach is that early socialization affects behavior.
4. Advice vs advise
Since to advise means to give advice, the main difference between the two is that one is a noun and one is a verb. You therefore don’t have to worry about meaning when using these two, but only about correct grammar.
NO Patients should be adviced against smoking after cancer treatment
YES Patients should be advised against smoking after cancer treatment.
YES Our advice to patients after cancer treatment is to stop smoking.
5. Accept vs except
Accept and except sound almost identical but mean very different things – accept means to consent or to receive, while the verb and the preposition (to) except both mean to not include.
NO Subjects were called back after 2 weeks, accept for those who had dropped out.
YES Subjects were called back after 2 weeks, except for those who had dropped out.
YES Smoking is widely accepted as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease
6. Alternate vs alternative
An alternative is an additional or different option or choice, while alternating refers to the action of switching between choices, states or actions
NO TMS has emerged as an alternate treatment option for anxiety.
YES TMS has emerged as an alternative treatment option for anxiety.
YES We explored the role of alternate care sites in responsiveness to COVID-19
8. Adapt vs adopt
To adopt is to take something and make it your own, while to adapt means changing an existing idea or approach so that it suits your needs. These words often seem to be used interchangeably, but because they sound so similar, you have to make sure you are using the correct one that conveys your intended meaning.
YES Many recent studies have adopted a similar cross-sectional design.
YES We adapted the usual clinical design to better reflect patient characteristics.
9. Access vs assess
To access means to enter or approach or take hold of something, while to assess means to evaluate, determine, or judge.
NO The aim of this study was to access the clinical outcomes of the seton procedure.
YES The aim of this study was to assess the clinical outcomes of the seton procedure.
YES Author KA was granted access to patient data by the hospital ethics committee.
Words with Similar Meanings but Different Connotations
1. Infer vs Imply
Implying means to suggest something while not directly showing or saying it. Inferring, on the other hand, means that you come to a conclusion, based on clear evidence, on your own assumptions, or on what your data or someone else imply.
YES These findings imply that neuropeptides play a role in feeding behavior.
YES Intuitive responders infer that everybody responds as they do
2. Among vs Between
Many authors, native as well as non-native speakers of English, seem to be confused about how to use among and between correctly. The problem is that there are essentially two rules on how to use these two, one that is well-known but in essence an oversimplification and one that is lesser known but explains the difference more precisely. Rule 1 says that you use between for comparisons between two things and among when you refer to groups or sets of more than two elements.
While you will very often choose the correct word when you follow this rule, this approach can lead to “overcorrections” that sound awkward. That’s where Rule 2 comes into play, which states that you can use between for any number of elements, as long as all the elements are separate and distinct. You can choose between eggs and cereals or between eggs, cereals, and toast for breakfast. Among is used for people or things that are not distinct and viewed as a group rather than as individual elements. Negotiations between Italy and Denmark (a comparison of two distinct countries) or among the EU member states (seen as a group) can fail. You share secrets between friends (from person to person) but you feel comfortable with or among your friends.
YES MoO3 showed the best performance among the investigated HDO catalysts.
YES There was no behavioral difference between the test and the control group.
3. Amount vs Number
These words might seem similar in meaning, but their correct usage is related to the concept of countable and uncountable nouns in English. Number can only be used with countable nouns, while amount is used with uncountable nouns.
NO The number of literatures included in this meta-analysis is enormous.
YES The amount of literature included in this meta-analysis is enormous.
YES The number of earlier studies on this topic is low.
Using the Correct Word Stem with the Wrong Prefix or Suffix
Additions to the beginning (prefixes) or end (suffixes) of root words can change a word from an adjective (e.g., happy) into a noun (happiness), or an adverb (happily), into its opposite (unhappy), or affect the tense of a verb. The problem with prefixes and suffixes is that they cannot be used with every word and that they do not always have the same effect. You therefore need to make sure you don’t create words that do not exist or change your intended meaning by adding the wrong prefix or suffix.
NO Changes were determinated using a computer-controlled spectrophotometer.
YES Changes were determined using a computer-controlled spectrophotometer.
NO Protein instableness is a common issue in protein pharmaceuticals.
YES Protein instability is a common issue in protein pharmaceuticals.
NO We assessed sources of diagnostic inaccurateness of cardiac markers.
YES We assessed sources of diagnostic inaccuracy of cardiac markers.
Translation Errors and Collocations
Thinking in your native language and translating phrases literally into English because they sound “natural” is one of the most common reasons for incorrect or awkward expressions in English texts written by non-native authors. While understanding and correcting such mistakes might seem more difficult than grasping the difference between two similar verbs, there are ways for you to avoid such errors.
For example, you can check your wording with Google Scholar or the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, and self-editing your text with the help of our lists of common expressions in research papers or the most useful verbs for the different parts of a paper will make your writing much stronger. And while you are at it, you are also well-advised (not “adviced”) to check your use of prepositions, another common source of mistakes in English writing. If you are not even sure what kind of expressions you might need to check, the following list of commonly mistranslated/misused expressions can give you an idea.
NO Patients underwent dizziness and worsening symptoms.
YES Patients experienced dizziness and reported worsening symptoms.
YES Patients presented with dizziness and showed worsening symptoms over time.
NO Patients underwent a questionnaire after the experiment.
YES Patients filled in a questionnaire after the experiment.
NO Patients succeeded complete remission.
YES Patients achieved complete remission.
NO The difference between groups was obtained with one-way ANOVA.
YES The difference between groups was assessed with one-way ANOVA.
Make sure who does or shows or undergoes something and that the subjects and verbs of your sentences always correspond to each other.
NO Patients performed liver biopsy.
YES Patients underwent liver biopsy.
YES Two experienced surgeons performed liver biopsy.
You also need to pay attention to the difference between people and things, because some verbs only go with one or the other.
NO The study was not able to analyze age differences, due to its design.
YES We were not able to analyze age differences, due to the design of our study.
NO PET alone was not able to diagnose our patients.
YES We were not able to diagnose our patients using PET alone.
Spelling Mistakes That Change Your Meaning
Some mistakes simply stem from phonemic differences between English and other languages. For example, native speakers of languages that do not clearly distinguish between “r” and “l” might misspell words in English without noticing. This is no problem when you make a real spelling mistake and your spellchecker catches it. But sometimes, the incorrect spelling results in a correct word that a spell checker will not flag. Such mistakes can only be avoided by careful proofreading.
NO Collect doses were determined by a series of tests.
YES Correct doses were determined by a series of tests.
NO We did not arrow participants to leave the room between sessions.
YES We did not allow participants to leave the room between sessions.
Before submitting your academic document to journals, be sure to receive professional editing services, including paper editing services, to fix any remaining language and style issues. And to correct your writing errors in real-time, try our AI online essay editor, Wordvice AI.