The Right Word

Part 2

  by Joseph C. White

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”          —Mark Twain

The dictionary says, “Awhile, an adverb, is never preceded by a preposition, but the two-word form ‘a while’ may be preceded by a preposition. In writing, each of the following forms is acceptable: stay awhile (awhile is an adverb modifying the verb stay;) or stay for a while, (in this example, while is a noun—a period of time—as in “for a day” or “for a week.”

“Awhile (one word) means ‘for a while,'(three words.) A while (two words) means ‘a while’ (two words.) So saying ‘for awhile’ is the same as saying ‘for for a while.'” The Elephants of Style, Bill Walsh, page 55.

While can also be a verb: “While away the evening hours.”

Which or that—they are not interchangeable. Use which to introduce a non-restrictive subordinate clause that follows the noun, and use that to introduce a restrictive subordinate clause. 


“The Porter Paint Store is located at 966 West Main Street, which is one block from the University.” [The additional information is non restrictive because it is not needed to fully identify the location. Therefore, use which preceded by a comma. It is not the word itself that requires the comma. The non-restrictive clause that follows the noun requires the comma and requires the use of the pronoun which rather than that. The comma is needed even if the wrong pronoun is used by mistake.

Now consider another example: “It is the main Street that is in said town and not the Main Street that is in another said town.” [The two subordinate clauses are restrictive. You need the additional information to identify the Main Street you are talking about. Therefore, use that and no comma.]

Of course if you are talking about a person, you would normally use who as the pronoun (or whom if the objective case is indicated.) But regardless of whether you use which, that, who, or whom, the same rule would apply as to whether a comma would precede the pronoun. The comma depends entirely on whether the following subordinate clause is restrictive or non-restrictive. Using the wrong pronoun does not change the punctuation.

A few additional misuses that come to mind:

Gall/Gaul: Gall means Brazen boldness coupled with impudent assurance and insolence. Gaul is the ancient name for what is now France and Belgium.

Imply/Infer: Imply means “to suggest.” Infer means “To draw a conclusion.”

Liable/Likely: Liable means “responsible,” Likely means “probable.”

Precede/Proceed: Precede means “to come before.” Proceed means “to go forward.”

Prophecy/Prophesy: a prophecy is a noun meaning “a prediction of something to come.” Prophesy is a verb meaning “to make predictions.”

Sensual/Sensuous: Sensual means “Gratifying to the physical senses (usually associated with sexual pleasure). Sensuous means “pleasing to the senses,” (usually associated with art, music, and nature).

The English language evolves over time. Some new words, coined to fill a perceived need, become standard after many years. Some words and phrases now out of favor may be accepted eventually. The usage of the word comes first and the listing in the dictionary comes later. More on this topic next time.

Joseph C. White joins us for an ongoing look at commonly misused words. Joe has self-published five books and will be ninety years old in a few months. He joined the National Guard in 1938, transferred to the Army Air Corps in 1942, leaving in 1943 after earning a commission and a pilot’s wings. Later, Joe joined the U.S. Immigration Border Patrol, retiring after 21 years, holding various titles from Chief Intelligence officer to Assistant Regional Commissioner. His work may be purchased from his website,, and he may be reached by email at josephcwhite(at)comporium(dot)net.



  1. I hear the liable/likely word misuse all the time. Of course in some cases, those who are “likely” to do something crazy could end up being criminally “liable” for their actions. Think about it!

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