Ambrose Bierce,
Write It Right:

Archives: October 2004

Less for Fewer. “The regiment had less than five hundred men.” Less relates to quantity, fewer, to number.

Limited for Small, Inadequate, etc. “The army’s operations were confined to a limited area.” “We had a limited supply of food.” A large area and an adequate supply would also be limited. Everything that we know about is limited.

Liable for Likely. “Man is liable to err.” Man is not liable to err, but to error. Liable should be followed, not by an infinitive, but by a preposition.

Like for As, or As if. “The matter is now like it was.” “The house looked like it would fall.”

Likely for Probably. “He will likely be elected.” If likely is thought the better word (and in most cases it is) put it this way: “It is likely that he will be elected,” or, “He is likely to be elected.”

Line for Kind, or Class. “This line of goods.” Leave the word to “salesladies” and “salesgentlemen.” “That line of business.” Say, that business.

Literally for Figuratively. “The stream was literally alive with fish.” “His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.” It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.

There is an even worse misuse of “literally” in Nabokov, a line I know only because Kingsley Amis once made cruel fun of it:

And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell.

I suppose the poor prisoner removed them first.

Loan for Lend. “I loaned him ten dollars.” We lend, but the act of lending, or, less literally, the thing lent, is a loan.

Locate. “After many removals the family located at Smithville.” Some dictionaries give locate as an intransitive verb having that meaning, but—well, dictionaries are funny.

Lots, or a Lot, for Much, or Many. “Lots of things.” “A lot of talk.”

Love for Like. “I love to travel.” “I love apples.” Keep the stronger word for a stronger feeling.

Lunch for Luncheon. But do not use luncheon as a verb.


Mad for Angry. An Americanism of lessening prevalence. It is probable that anger is a kind of madness (insanity), but that is not what the misusers of the word mad mean to affirm.

Maintain for Contend. “The senator maintained that the tariff was iniquitous.” He maintained it only if he proved it.

Majority for Plurality. Concerning votes cast in an election, a majority is more than half the total; a plurality is the excess of one candidate’s votes over another’s. Commonly the votes compared are those for the successful candidate and those for his most nearly successful competitor.

Make for Earn. “He makes fifty dollars a month by manual labor.”

Mansion for Dwelling, or House. Usually mere hyperbole, a lamentable fault of our national literature. Even our presidents, before Roosevelt, called their dwelling the Executive Mansion.

Masculine for Male. See Feminine.

Mend for Repair. “They mended the road.” To mend is to repair, but to repair is not always to mend. A stocking is mended, a road repaired.

Meet for Meeting. This belongs to the language of sport, which person of sense do not write—nor read.

Militate. “Negligence militates against success.” If “militate” meant anything it would mean fight, but there is no such word.

Mind for Obey. This is a reasonless extension of one legitimate meaning of mind, namely, to heed, to give attention.

Minus for Lacking, or Without. “After the battle he was minus an ear.” It is better in serious composition to avoid such alien words as have vernacular equivalents.

Mistaken for Mistake. “You are mistaken.” For whom? Say, You mistake.

Moneyed for Wealthy. “The moneyed men of New York.” One might as sensibly say, “The cattled men of Texas,” or, “The lobstered men of the fish market.”

Most for Almost. “The apples are most all gone.” “The returning travelers were most home.”

Moved for Removed. “The family has moved to another house.” “The Joneses were moving.”

Mutual. By this word we express a reciprocal relation. It implies exchange, a giving and taking, not a mere possessing in common. There can be a mutual affection, or a mutual hatred, but not a mutual friend, nor a mutual horse.


Name for Title and Name. “His name was Mr. Smith.” Surely no babe was ever christened Mister.

Necessaries for Means. “Bread and meat are necessaries of life.” Not so; they are the mere means, for one can, and many do, live comfortably without them. Food and drink are necessaries of life, but particular kinds of food and drink are not.