July 26, 2021

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Learn 10 Commonly Confused Words With TikTok and The Times

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1.

Many of us, whether at school or in the workplace, puzzle over how to use commonly confused words like affect and effect, farther and further, and capitol and capital.

We were excited to discover that Claudine James, an English teacher who is a member of the first-ever class of The New York Times Teaching Project, has helped students tackle many of these tricky words through an engaging, accessible platform: TikTok.

Ms. James wanted to find a creative way to reach her students remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I started posting grammar lessons on TikTok because my students who were virtual learners weren’t watching my YouTube videos,” she said. “I asked my students what would they like for me to do to get them to watch the videos, and their answer was TikTok. I started the account that day.”

Using the handle @iamthatenglishteacher, she brings the topics she covers with her eighth-grade English classes in Malvern, Ark., to a much wider audience. Her account now has more than one million followers.

We have paired five of Ms. James’s videos with examples of how commonly confused words have been used in The Times. We hope that this piece serves not only as a learning tool, but as a reminder to students that their English lessons can be relevant everywhere — from social media to The New York Times.

Use farther for describing physical distance and further for non-measurable or metaphorical distance or advancement.

You can see these words in action in the Upshot article “The Typical American Lives Only 18 Miles From Mom.” The writers Quoctrung Bui and Claire Cain Miller use further to describe points on the socioeconomic scale and farther to describe physical distance:

“It speaks to a class divide in the population,” Mr. Pollak said. “Particularly as you go further down the socioeconomic scale, people are living pretty close to their parents, and this means they’re able to provide help.”

Families live closest in the Northeast and the South, and farthest apart on the West Coast and in the Mountain States. Part of the reason is probably cultural — Western families have historically been the least rooted — but a large part is geographical: People live farther apart in rural areas.

Most of the time, affect is a verb and effect is a noun. Vocabulary.com explains the few exceptions.

In “Color Has a Powerful Effect on Behavior, Researchers Assert,” Lindsey Gruson uses effect as a noun to describe the impact of color on psychology, and affect as a verb to describe how mood influences health:

Color therapists themselves disagree about why and how color acts as they believe it does. Mr. Birren, who has concentrated on the psychological effects of color, said he does not believe those effects are directly physiological. As designers and interior decorators have discovered, color sets a mood; this in turn, Mr. Birren said, affects health because as many as half of modern man’s diseases may have a psychosomatic component.

The U.S. Capitol is the building where Congress meets, but a capital is the city that’s the seat, or location, of government. Capital also has a few other meanings, such as an uppercase letter.

In the article “By the People, for the People, but Not Necessarily Open to the People,” Emily Badger uses capital when talking about a city and capitol when talking about a building:

The seven-foot-tall metal fencing that has sealed the perimeter of the U.S. Capitol grounds and fortified the Supreme Court across the street is temporary. But it portends lasting change likely to come: In the capital city, there will be more hardening, more barriers, less openness, less access.

Use accept when something is being received. Use except when something is being left out.

In the Real Estate article “A Bed-Stuy Apartment: Well-Known Terrain,” Joyce Cohen uses accept to say that an apartment hunter received a new job, but uses except to exclude a period of time.

Except for her years in college and graduate school, Patrice Fenton always lived in Brooklyn.

… Last December, the family, which now included a daughter, Haile Masani, came home for the holidays. Ms. Fenton, her coursework done, accepted another job at the school where she had worked, Fort Greene Preparatory Academy. While they apartment-hunted, they stayed with Ms. Fenton’s parents in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

Use access when talking about the ability to enter or use something. Use excess to say there is too much or more than is necessary.

In “From Example to Excess in Silicon Valley,” Jenna Wortham uses access when talking about the ability to use the internet and excess to describe an over-the-top wedding:

Then there is Facebook. Over the last few years, the company has been accused of valuing profits over privacy and the public good. So last month, when its chief, Mark Zuckerberg, announced an effort called Internet.org to expand Web access in the developing world, some contended that the plan was motivated mainly by self-interest.

… If there was a single event this summer that symbolized the perceived excess of Silicon Valley, it was the wedding of Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster. He threw a multimillion-dollar “Lord of the Rings”-themed wedding in the redwoods of Big Sur, complete with a nine-foot-high cake and custom-made costumes for the attendees.

  • Which of these words do you already use correctly? Which are the most difficult? What strategies did you learn for remembering definitions for the most challenging words?

  • Do you think that TikTok is an effective way to teach short lessons about spelling and grammar? Do you plan to delve further into “GrammarTok?”

  • What other words do you frequently confuse? What topics do you hope Ms. James covers next?


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