It's hard to believe how quickly the years go by.

Just yesterday I got married, I submitted my Ph.D. dissertation on the history of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and my first child was born. Today it's going on 35 years since I made Minneapolis my home, I'm writing my 964th column on effective writing and I've been teaching for 42 years (actually 50 years if you count the accordion lessons I gave as a teenager).

Numbers. What do they mean? You could ask the same question about words.

As I get older I find myself thinking more carefully about words. Nine years ago I wrote a column about word choice errors that use to be obvious, errors such as suppose to for supposed to and use to for used to (an error I slipped into this sentence to see if you were paying attention). Today I'm thinking about errors such as alot for a lot, alright for all right, complementary for complimentary, principle for principal, lead for led and setup for set up.

For example, if I type the following sentence — "What is your principle concern about lack of civility and it's affect on public discourse?" — Microsoft Word highlights it's and affect as incorrect word choices but not principle, a word that may be used only as a noun, meaning basic truth, not as an adjective. Its homonym, principal, on the other hand, may be used either as a noun meaning chief or head, or as an adjective meaning foremost in importance. So it should be, "Do you know the first principle of customer service?" and "Who is the principal partner?" (And, yes, if you were taught "The principal is your pal," hang on to that handy mnemonic; just remember that your pal can be either a noun or an adjective. Conversely, if you use principle as an adjective, you're wrong. Principle can only be a noun.)

Of course, it's not your fault if you make some of these word choice errors. It's our confusing language's fault.

Well, I've enjoyed my thyme with you this morning, but I better get ready for my next presentation. I've red and commented on the writing samples, so I'm already to go. My only concern is weather my client has setup the room according to my set up instructions. That and the fact that Microsoft Word failed to mark six word choice errors in this paragraph.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is