Problem Words

The words and phrases included in this section are those that the usage or spelling were questioned by the Communication and Marketing staff. This list was created to assist us in creating consistency within our writing.

19th Century / 19th-Century

  • When using a specific century as a noun, the number and century are not hyphenated. When used as an adjective, the number and century should be hyphenated. Note that it is not capitalized.

RIGHT: The Moors invaded Spain in the 6th century.

RIGHT: Becquer was an 18th-century poet.

WRONG: The 20th Century is over.

Advance / Advanced

  • Advance notice, not advanced notice

Advisor / Adviser

  • Use advisor when referring to Alma College “academic advisors.” All other uses of adviser should follow AP style.

Affect / Effect

  • Affect: Most often a verb meaning to influence, to bring about a change in.

Too much liquor affects your health.

  • Affect is a noun only in psychological terminology, meaning a feeling or emotion.
  • Effect is most commonly used as a noun.

The effects of alcohol have been researched.

  • Effect as a verb means to produce, to cause, to make happen.

The doctor effected a cure.


Alumnus: masculine singular
Alumni: masculine plural
Alumna: feminine singular
Alumnae: feminine plural
Alumni: the generic word for all former students, whether graduates or not.

  • Alma style is to use alumni for both all-embracing and masculine plural, alumnus for masculine singular, alumna for feminine singular, and alumnae for feminine plural. Alums is acceptable in informal spoken references, but it should not be used in publications.

Between / Among

  • Between is used to express the relationship of two things.
  • When the relationship refers to more than two entities or is collective and vague, the word is among. Among is not used for only two.

Burns Dinner

The Burns Dinner is named for Bobbie Burns and needs no apostrophe.


Use chair instead of chairperson, chairman or chairwoman.


  • The plural noun coaches is sometimes misused as a possessive.

coach’s award or coaches’ award, depending upon sport

Complement / Compliment

  • To complement is to fill, make whole, complete, supply a lack, bring to perfection.

A course in art history complements your liberal arts education.

  • To compliment is to praise, congratulate, approve.

The professor complimented the student on her performance on the exam.

Compose, Comprise

  • Compose means to create or put together.

She composed a song. The zoo is composed of many animals.

  • Comprise means to contain, to include all or embrace. It is best used only in the active voice, followed by a direct object. Never follow comprised by the preposition “of.”

RIGHT: The jury comprises five men and seven women. The zoo comprises many animals.

WRONG: The jury is comprised of five men and seven women.

Counselor /Counseler

  • Counselor, not counseler


  • Curriculum is the singular form meaning course or course of study. The plural is either curricula or curriculums, with curricula Alma’s preferred style.

Ensure / Insure

  • Ensure: To make sure or certain of.

Good nutrition ensures good health.

  • Insure: To cover with insurance.

I plan to insure my car.


  • Collective nouns are either singular or plural depending on the context of the sentence. Try to avoid using faculty as a noun or as the subject of the sentence. The difference in meaning between faculty meaning individuals and meaning a group is very subtle. Consequently, sentences seem awkward to the reader. Making faculty an adjective as in faculty members is one way to avoid this problem.

A faculty member must submit this form.

The newest political science professors joined Alma’s faculty in 2005.

The faculty are meeting with the provost.

Alma’s faculty is meeting with the president.

Faculty-Student Research

In body copy, use a hyphen rather than a slash. Faculty and student research is also acceptable.


  • Capitalize federal when it is part of a title. When federal is used as an adjective referring to institutions or activities of the federal government, use lowercase.

Federal Register [title of publication]
the federal courts
state and federal financial aid programs

Fewer / Less

  • Use fewer for individual items that are quantifiable or countable. Use less for bulk or quantity.

Fewer pies than cakes were brought to the bake sale.

Because you took such a large piece, there is less pie for the rest of us.

First-year Student / Freshman / Freshmen

  • In college publications, use the non-gender-specific first-year student, not freshman, to refer to a first-year college student who does not have enough credits to be considered a sophomore. First-year student is the appropriate term for most admissions literature. Use capital letters when referring to the First-year Class.
  • Institutions of higher education seem to be divided in their use of the term freshman or first-year student. We have elected to use first-year student in our publications. First-year Class may be used to differentiate between the Sophomore, Junior and Senior Classes.

Fundraising / Fundraiser

  • One word in all cases.

Fundraising is hard work.

The director used a new fundraising technique to raise money for the project.


  • An informal reference to graduates, grads should be avoided in most publications. Its use, however, can be appropriate, depending upon audience and purpose.


  • A rather than an is the appropriate article to use with the adjective historic.

Its / It’s

  • Its is a possessive adjective. It’s is a contraction. The apostrophe is only used for the contraction for it is or it has.

The committee will announce its decision this week.

It’s going to be a very busy week during the beginning of the term.

Lay / Lie

  • Lie is an intransitive verb that does not require a direct object to complete its meaning. To lie is to recline (or to tell a falsehood*).

Yesterday I lay down to take a nap.

Lie down.

Simple Present: lie
Simple Past: lay (lied*)
Simple Future: will lie
Present Progressive: am/is/are lying
Past Progressive: was/were lying
Future Progressive: will be lying
Present Perfect: has/have lain (or lied*)
Past Perfect: had lain (lied*)
Future Perfect: will have lain (lied*)
Present Perfect Progressive: has/have been lying
Past Perfect Progressive: had been lying
Future Perfect Progressive: will have been lying

  • Lay is a transitive verb and requires an object. To lay is to place.

Lay the book down.

Simple Present: lay
Simple Past: laid
Simple Future: will lay
Present Progressive: am/is/are laying
Past Progressive: was/were laying
Future Progressive: will be laying
Present Perfect: has/have laid
Past Perfect: had laid
Future Perfect: will have laid
Present Perfect Progressive: has/have been laying
Past Perfect Progressive: had been laying
Future Perfect Progressive: will have been laying

Myself / Me

  • Myself is a reflexive pronoun that requires the personal antecedent “I” to be used earlier in the sentence. Avoid using myself as a substitute for me. Per Words on Words by John B. Bremner, myself is “…overused, especially in speech, by the timid who need a case study of the difference between I and me.”
  • Me is a respectable word which is often exchanged for the incorrect I. Me is an objective pronoun; it receives the action of the verb. I is a subjective pronoun; it performs the action of the verb.

RIGHT: They gave a lovely hostess gift to Cynthia and me.

WRONG: They gave a lovely hostess gift to Cynthia and I.


  • Placement of only is an important consideration. Differences in meaning can result:

He ate only bananas for breakfast.

Only he ate bananas for breakfast.

He ate bananas only for breakfast.


  • In formal reports, proposals and releases write out as percent. Advertising, promotional or list copy may use % sign for visual impact.


  • Avoid practicum in writing meant to persuade; use internship instead.

Pre-Med / Pre-Medicine / Pre-Medical

  • Pre-Med, although not technically a major at Alma, may be used as a major listing in hometown releases.

EXCEPTION: Pre-Med should not be used in releases on degree candidates when the official major will have been established.

  • The same applies to Pre-Law, Pre-Occupational Therapy, etc.

Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Presently / Currently

Avoid using presently and currently. Use “now” or no time designation.

Principal / Principle

  • Principle (noun only) means fundamental or general truth or rules. Principal can be used as an adjective or a noun. As an adjective, it means “main” or “primary.” As a noun, it refers to the head of a school or the original amount of a debt on which interest is calculated.

Edward’s principal ambition was to become a United States senator. [adjective]

Mr. Smith, a former botany teacher, was made principal of Upper Darby High School. [noun]

You owe the bank $1,070 principal plus three year’s interest at six percent. [noun]

The principles of geometry never change. [noun]

Their principal objection concerned money.

Stationary / Stationery

  • Stationary: Not moving; fixed in a position. (Remember a for always)
  • Stationery: Writing paper and envelopes. (Remember e for envelope.)

Lighting must be artistically adjusted when photographing stationary objects.

College stationery bearing the two-color logo should not be printed for off-campus distribution.

That / Which

  • That introduces information essential to understanding the sentence. That defines and limits the subject. Commas are usually not needed when that introduces a clause.
  • A comma precedes which when it begins information that could easily be omitted from the sentence without causing confusion or harm to the sentence. Such information simply provides extra knowledge and needs to be set apart by commas.

Wasn’t it the Eisenhower that sailed to the Gulf last month?

I like parties that start early and end late.

These disks, which hold up to 800 gigabytes, were purchased at Information Technology yesterday.

The science center, which opened in the fall of 1990, is dedicated to a past provost.

  • See AP entry on these and essential/non-essential clauses/phrases for more information about discerning between the two.

Theatre / Theater

  • In Alma publications theatre is preferred.

Works as / Serves as

  • Avoid using the phrases works as and serves as when describing a person’s employment.

RIGHT: She is an editor for the daily newspaper.

WRONG: She works as an editor for the daily newspaper.