Communicate With Credibility by Mastering These Words

I have been leading a lot of discussions and training courses lately where the focus has been GrammarSnobon making a solid first impression. Making a good impression through your how you act and speak enhances your credibility with colleagues, friends and acquaintances.

I admit to being a bit of a grammar snob, and to frequently basing my first impressions of people on the way they talk and the words they use. I am trying to be a little more open-minded and accepting of other’s grammar and vocabulary – wanting my teenagers to talk to me is forcing me to relax my guard here – but in professional setting and business writing I try to remain buttoned up on my grammar.

I have noticed certain sets of words that frequently get used incorrectly are those with similar usage or definitions. People mistake one word for another when they are in a hurry to say something or uncertain about what they want to say. Being confident in what you want to say, and in your grammar and usage to say it, will build your credibility as a communicator and leave your listeners with a better first impression. Below are some examples of these tricky word pairs and ways to use each word properly.

Affect / Effect: Affect is most often used as a verb that means to act upon or influence. Effect is a noun that is often the result. To borrow an example from my son’s homework: “Studying will affect my grade. The effect of not studying will be disastrous to my social life.” (OK, so I modified that second sentence a bit…)

Then / Than: Then is most often used* as an adverb to convey a sequence of events or the passage of time. Than is a conjunction used to join words or phrases or clauses (cue Schoolhouse Rock here). For example: “First we went to the store, then to the playground. I prefer playing on the monkey bars more than the swings.”

Who / That: This one comes down to personal style and avoiding awkward sounding text. Who and That are words often used interchangeably as pronouns to introduce a subjective clause describing a noun, without much loss to the sentence’s meaning. However, when used correctly, their proper use conveys a nuanced difference between human and non-human nouns. For example: “She is a teacher who I admire” or “She is a teacher that I admire.”  Both of these are understandable, yet the former sentence using who is proper and more accurate in describing the teacher (assuming the teacher is human, which my son tells me is not always the case).

Less / Fewer: This is where the grammar snob in me comes out. I would like to eliminate the word less from most people’s vocabulary in order to force them to use fewer instead. Less is an adverb that means to a smaller degree or amount, however less can also be used in some circumstances to mean fewer. For example: “I eat my noodles with less salt now, but they are still less nutritious than a spinach salad.” Fewer is an adjective that means of a smaller number; you will often see an implied comparison in sentences where fewer is used. For example: “I have fewer conference calls today [than yesterday].” I hear so many people use less in places when they should use fewer.

* One of the challenges of English grammar is the way a single word can be used in so many different ways. If there is one consistency in grammar, it is this ability to be inconsistent.

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. Heather and the team have advised major clients including PepsiCo, McKesson, Microsoft, Frito-Lay, Hitachi Consulting and many others on how to realize results through people. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @HeatherGNelson1.