Common Vocabulary Errors

When editing students’ papers, I often notice a number of common vocabulary errors. (To be completely honest, I see these mistakes in a variety of different places…apart from student papers.)  For example, when do you use “approximately” rather than “about?”  And what is the difference between “which” and “where?”

Perhaps you have seen these mistakes as well.  Now, though, when someone asks you about the difference between “affect” and “effect,” you’ll be more than ready to offer a fantastic answer!

about, approximately

Merriam-Webster defines “about” as one of three things: an adverb, a preposition, and an adjective.  Synonyms include almost, around, and near.  “About” is used in more casual communication.  When writing a technical document, however, you want to give a professional, more specific tone to your writing.  The typical standard is to use the term “approximately” rather than “about” when describing estimations.

as to whether, whether

Many writers often struggle with “wordiness:” using far more words than necessary in a discussion.  “Whether” will often work just as well as, and be preferred over, “as to whether,” helping an author reduce wordiness.

assure, ensure, insure

Assure means ‘to encourage’; ensure means ‘to make certain.’ Insure should be used when referring to underwriting a loss” (“Society of Petroleum Engineers,” 2011, p. 5).

compare to, compare with

When “compare to,” the writer is implying a resemblance/relationship between two different ideas/things.  When using “compare with,” however, the writer implies a contrast between similar ideas/things.

currently, presently

If something is happening right now, it is “currently” happening.  If it will happen in the near future, it will happen “presently.”


“Data” is the plural of datum.

differs from, different from

One thing differs from, or is different from, another.  One thing is not different than another.

due to the fact that

This wordy phrase can simply be replaced with “because.”

effect, affect

“Effect” is a result.  “Affect” is an influence.

farther, further

“Use farther when distance is implied, further when referring to time or quantity” (“Society of Petroleum Engineering, 2011, p. 7).


This is not a word.  Use “regardless” instead.

that, which

That is the defining or restrictive pronoun; which is the nondefining or nonrestrictive pronoun. ‘The automobile that is out of gas is in the driveway,’ tells which automobile. ‘The automobile, which is out of gas, is in the driveway,’ adds a fact about the only automobile in question” (Society of Petroleum Engineering, 2011, p. 7).

where, which

“Where” references a physical location.  “Which” references a circumstance.



Merriam-Webster. (2012). Retrieved from

Society of Petroleum Engineers: Style Guide. (2011, 31 August). Retrieved from