Confounding Confusables, Part III

by Michael Bedford

Published at 2018-08-14



For centuries, questions of proper usage have provided editorial professionals fodder for debate. Although publishers’ styles are often defined by usage rules, such as never ending a sentence with a preposition, when exposed to a bit of research these rules are often revealed as illogical modern constraints placed on the historically flexible English language. That said, there are some usage rules that even staunch descriptivists must respect when subjecting their writing to public scrutiny.


These rules include a category of easily confused words, several of them being homophones that many editorial professionals refer to, unsurprisingly, as “confusables.” One confusable that I take particular care with is affect/effect, so let’s start this post off with an examination of that particular confusion.



Affect vs. Effect

Many people never learn the distinction between these two words, instead improperly using the word “impact” to play double duty for both. For those who have a difficult time remembering the difference, though, a good rule to follow is that if you’re using a verb then you’re probably using “affect,” as in “It affected him.” If you’re using a noun, then you’re probably looking for “effect,” as in “It had no effect on her.”


If, though, you’re “effecting change” or “effecting an exit,” this rule doesn’t apply. The issue here is that “effect” is being used in its verb form, which means “to bring about.”


To make the affect/effect distinction more confusing still, there’s also a noun form for “affect.” If you’re in a clinical setting discussing a client’s mood then you may refer to their “affect,” as in “She has a flat affect.”


Because this is a particularly tricky confusable, I recommend keeping an entry on this one on your style sheet or whatever reference guide you happen to keep for such linguistic oddities.



Compliment vs. Complement

One of the more creative mnemonic devices I’ve heard for this confusable is “I like compliments, and we are a complement.”


A “compliment” is a kind word of encouragement whereas a “complement” is the sum of its parts, that is, a ship’s complement, or a thing that serves to complete or augment something — “The wine was a great complement to the food.”


Unlike the affect/effect distinction, both “compliment” and “complement” are used in a variety of contexts in both their noun and verb forms.



Further vs. Farther

The first non-homophonic confusable in this list, the further/farther distinction is slightly more forgiving than others. Many sources on this confusable, including Fowler’s Modern English Usage and the Oxford English Dictionary, say that “further” and “farther” are interchangeable. British usage tends towards this trend as well, allowing writers to use either “further” or “farther” as they see fit.


In some circles, though, and for many publishers, “further” and “furthest” are the more versatile words, used to describe physical distance and abstract distance, as in “She was further along in her understanding of usage.” Still others require that “further” only be used to describe abstract distance while “farther” only be used to describe physical distance.


Since there’s no hard-and-fast rule on this contentious usage debate, the best thing to do is ask your publisher what the house preference is and stick with that. Depending on who your publisher is, you may find that the answer you get shocks your sensibilities.


(For more on confusables, see Confounding Confusables, Part I and Part II.)



Brought vs. “Brung” and “Brang”

Although running afoul of any confusable is a regrettable but understandable mistake, the practice of using “brung” or “brang” in any context is quite a blunder, indeed. Using “brung” or “brang” is particularly offensive because unlike the compliment/complement, affect/effect, and further/farther distinctions that all involve confusions between real words, “brung” and “brang” are invented words that mutated out of a confusion about how to modify the word “bring” when putting it in the past tense.


Possibly because “bring” rhymes with “spring” and “sing,” unfamiliar English users often modify “bring” according to the same framework:

sing (present)

sang (past)

sung (past participle)

spring (present)

sprang (past)

sprung (past participle)

bring (present)

brang (past)

brung (past participle)

The above constructions of the two tenses of “bring” follow a logical pattern, but, avoiding logic and making it easy on English users, “bring” simply uses “brought,” for both past tense and the past participle. “Brung” and “brang” are as wrong as they sound, so reserve their use for dialectical writing or you’re likely to get a very odd look from both your editor and publisher.




Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Mount Hope, Ontario. He can be reached at 




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