More commonly misused words

I once stated to a colleague that I didn’t want to become typecast as an editing teacher, yet here I am talking about it again. I plan to cover many other writing themes as well. Yet wordcraft comprises the bulk of writing errors, also these are the easiest to fix. Here I will discuss three common ones.


“It’s not clear if any of the individuals have been taken into custody.” CNN, 6 January 2021.

If is a logical operator. It’s half of the if … then condition. “If you are good children, [then] you may have cookies.” Then is usually implied and omitted in practice, but it’s still there in spirit.

Many people confuse this with whether. Whether introduces options. Since this is the case in the above example, whether replaces if. “It’s not clear whether any of the individuals have been taken into custody.” [Incidentally, taken into custody is wordy. We could say apprehended instead.]

Some sources claim that whether and if are interchangeable, and that the difference is only degree of formality. I do not agree. They are different.

To understand the difference, you should look for the hidden then. “If you speak to me like that again, [then] you will regret it.” “If these dishes are not done when I get home, [then] forget about going out.” This structure expresses conditional consequences.

Otherwise, if you’re sure then isn’t implied, then you may be introducing a set of options. Most often it’s a binary option, yes or no. “We don’t know whether they’re still alive.” In that case you’re looking for a hidden “or not”. “We can’t say whether [or not] they’ll react.” We rarely need the or not, as it’s redundant and wordy, but its virtual presence indicates the logical structure.

If the structure is conditional, with then implied, we can use if. If we’re giving one binary option or multiple options, or not or or are implied, therefore we use whether.


“We’re done.”
“Keeping going until you’re done.”

A lot of people have started using this as a synonym for finished or ready. Some sources have started claiming these are interchangeable too. They’re not. Using done as an adjective like this is horrendously illiterate.

Done is the past participle of the verb to do. It is appropriate for that.

“Have you done your homework?”
They have done their best.

The simple-past tense form of do is did.

Otherwise, done has no other valid usage. It certainly does not mean finished.

Worst of all is the usage creeping into recipes: “check for doneness.” This makes done into a noun. It’s not a noun and can’t be used as a noun. It’s a verb.


“We will revenge the attack.” I saw this on Vikings recently. This is becoming increasingly common too.

Avenge is the verb.
We will avenge the attack.
Avenge my death.

Revenge is the noun.
We will take revenge upon our attackers.
This was done out of revenge.

It’s very important to know the verb/adjective/noun forms of various words. They are not interchangeable.

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