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Words and First Impressions

There’s nothing more permanent than a first impression, and there’s no more effective way to look ignorant — particularly in written communication — than to choose words poorly. Here are some tips on making the right choice in words:

Awhile – a while. One word as an adverb; two words as a noun.

  • You may demo our software awhile.
  • You may demo our printer for a while. (Noun; object of the preposition for.)
  • I made a sale a while back.

Complement – compliment. Complement as a noun means “something that completes” or “one of two mutually completing parts”; as a verb it means “to complete, to be complementary to.” Compliment as a noun means “an admiring or flattering remark”; as a verb it means “to praise, to pay a compliment to.”

  • Our market analysis report is a useful complement to the daily summaries you receive.
  • The analysts at Index Systems are full of compliments for our recent Super Bowl ad project.

Comprise – compose. Comprise means “to include, contain, consist of”; compose means “to make up.” The parts compose (make up) the whole; the whole comprises (includes) the parts; the whole is composed of (not is comprised of) the parts.

  • The parent corporation comprises (consists of) three major divisions.
  • Three major divisions compose (make up) the parent corporation.
  • The parent corporation is composed of (is made up of) three major divisions.

First – firstly, etc. In enumerations, use the forms first, second, third (not firstly, secondly, thirdly).

Lay – lie. Lay (principal parts: lay, laid, laid, laying) means “to put” or “to place.” This verb requires an object to complete its meaning.

  • In phase one, we will lay down the rules for the contest.
  • I laid the message right on your desk.
  • I had laid two other notes there yesterday.
  • I’ve never been one for laying the blame on my subordinates. (Putting the blame.)
  • The material was laid in the box. (A passive construction implying that someone laid the material in the box.)

Lie (principal parts: lie, lay, lain, laying) means “to recline, rest, or stay” or “to take a position of rest.” It refers to a person or thing as either assuming or being in a reclining position. This verb cannot take an object.

  • Now he lies in bed most of the day.
  • The job lay before us as we negotiated terms.
  • Our proposal has lain unanswered for two weeks.
  • Your customer records are lying on the salesman’s desk.

TEST: In deciding whether to use lie or lay in a sentence, substitute the word place, placed, or placing (as appropriate) for the word in question. If the substitute fits, the corresponding form of lay is correct. If it doesn’t, use the appropriate form of lie.

  • I will (lie or lay?) down now. (You could not say, “I will place down now.” Therefore, write “I will lie down now.”)
  • I (laid or lay?) the pad on his desk. (“I placed the pad on his desk” works. Therefore, write “I laid the pad.”)
  • I (laid or lay?) awake many nights. (“I placed awake” doesn’t work. Write “I lay awake.”)
  • These files have (laid or lain?) untouched for some time. (“These files have placed untouched” doesn’t work. Write “These files have lain untouched.”)
  • He has been (laying or lying?) down on the job. (“He has been placing down on the job” doesn’t work. Write “He has been lying down.”)

Source: The Gregg Reference Manual

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