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How To Write A Reference Letter

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At some point in life, many of us are asked by someone we know to write a general character reference letter on their behalf. If you haven’t been asked yet, it is likely you will be at some point. In fact, keyword searches and direct requests for information and samples on “how to write reference letters” are among the most common online writing queries.

LETTERS OF REFERENCE DEFINED

As opposed to a “letter of recommendation,” which is normally very specific in subject and purpose, a “letter of reference” or “reference letter” is typically more general in nature and IS NOT addressed to a specific requester. Usually, “letters of reference” are addressed as; “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam.”

The most common letters of reference are:

  • Employment-related — general reference letter
  • College-related — general reference letter
  • Character reference letter — general-purpose personal reference
  • General reference letter — various subjects

In addition to standard letter-writing dos and don’ts, there are a number of basic guidelines that apply specifically to most situations related to the writing of letters of reference. These are usually more “situational” than “how-to” in nature. These reference letter guidelines are important to both note and apply, since writing letters of reference is always a somewhat tricky and delicate matter. That’s because they almost always affect the reputation and future of the writer or that of another person.

REFERENCE LETTERS — TIPS & STRATEGIES

The following tips and strategies apply primarily to the writing of letters of reference in their various forms (i.e. reference letters, character reference letters, employment reference letters, college reference letters, and general reference letters).

Write It Only If You Want To
If you are asked by someone to write a reference letter about them, you don’t have to say yes automatically. If it’s someone you respect for their work, and you have mostly positive things to say, by all means write the letter. There is no point saying yes and then writing a letter that says nothing good about the person, or worse still, concocting a misleading positive assessment of someone. So, whatever you do, don’t get sucked into writing a reference inappropriately out of feelings of guilt or obligation.

If You Must Refuse, Do It Right Up Front
On the other hand, if someone asks you to write a reference letter for them, and you know you’ll be hard-pressed to keep it positive, say no right away. There is no point in hesitating and leading the person on to believe that the answer might eventually be yes. A gentle but firm no will usually get the message across to the person. Explain that you don’t think that you are the best (or most qualified) person to do it.

Suggest Someone Else
If you feel you should refuse, for whatever reason, it may be helpful for you to suggest someone else who you think might have a more positive and/or accurate assessment of the person. That other person may be in a better position to do the assessment. Usually there are a number of possible candidates, and you may not actually be the best one. In fact, I have seen a number of cases over the years in which people requesting reference letters have not requested the letter from the obvious or logical choice. This usually happens when the requestor doesn’t like the person who is the obvious choice, and/or they are worried about what that person will have to say about them.

Write It As You See It
Writing a less than honest letter of reference does no one a favor in the end. It is likely to backfire on all involved: you the recommender, the person being recommended, and the new employer. Also, most employers and head-hunting agencies check references these days. How would you like to be called up and have to mislead people due to questionable things you may have written in a less that forthright reference letter?

Be Honest and Fair
Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to writing reference letters. At the same time, try to be fair and balanced in your approach. If, in your estimation a person has five strengths and one glaring weakness, but that weakness really bothers you, make sure you don’t over-emphasize the weak point in the letter based on your personal bias. Just mention it in passing as a weakness and then move on.

Balanced Is Best
An overall balanced approach is the best one for a letter of reference. Even if your letter generally raves about how excellent the person is, some balance on the other side of the ledger will make it more credible. After all, nobody’s perfect. There must be some area where the person being recommended needs to improve. A bit of constructive criticism never hurts and it will make your letter appear to be more objective in nature.

Bottom Line:
The most important point to take away from the above tips and strategies is that it is your choice as to whether, and how, you will write a letter of reference.

It’s an important type of letter that will have a definite impact on the future of the person about whom it is being written, so don’t agree to write one unless you are willing to be totally objective and give it your utmost attention and effort.

Reference Letter Definition and Samples:
For more on the differences between reference letters and recommendation letters and links to a few reference letter samples, click on the following link:
http://writinghelp-central.com/reference-letter-definition.html

Posted on 22 Comments

Words Commonly Confused and/or Misused (2)

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This current post is the second in my latest series of articles about commonly confused and/or misused words. The previous article covered words/terms beginning with the letters “a” to “c”; this one covers the letters “d” through “f”.

decision (make or take)
“make a decision” is the traditional phrase that was (and still is) used.
“take a decision” has become common in popular usage and is generally accepted.
They both mean “to decide about something”.
Examples:
I believe that he has made a wise career decision.
The review committee is expected to take a decision later today.
But…
Use “decision making” NOT “decision taking”

defective, deficient
“defective” refers to something lacking in quality.
“deficient” refers to something lacking in quantity.
Examples:
The transformer was found to be defective and had to be replaced.
The study showed that 70% of subjects tested had deficient iron levels.

dependant, dependent
In British English, dependent means reliant on. A dependant is a person that relies upon another person. In American English, you can use dependent for both.

different, various
“different” implies uniqueness and/or separateness.
“various” implies number and diversity.
Examples:
Each of the three proposals offered a different approach to the project.
After the meeting, various attendees signed the petition.

disinterested, uninterested
“disinterested” means unbiased or impartial.
“uninterested” means not interested, or unconcerned, or indifferent.
Examples:
The panel of judges was asked to provide a disinterested opinion on the matter.
My boss seems to be uninterested in any of the plans proposed so far.

each
“each” should be treated as singular and used with a singular verb.
Examples:
Each of them is now free to choose sides on his/her own.
Each municipality administers its own road maintenance program.

economic, economical
“economic” relates to the economy or economic system.
“economical” refers to a person who is thrifty and tends to avoid waste.
Examples:
Things have improved since the economic crisis eight years ago.
He is economical about all things, including his choice of a small hybrid car.

effective, efficient
“effective” refers to producing a good or desired result.
“effective” can also be used to indicate that something is “in effect” or “in force”.
“efficient” refers to the skillful use of time, effort, energy, and/or money to produce desired results.
Examples:
Despite her inexperience, the new president proved to be highly effective in her job.
That new law will become effective on January 1st of next year.
Pressure to reduce carbon emissions has forced manufacturers to produce more efficient engines.

emigrate, immigrate, migrate
“emigrate” means to leave one country or region and move to another.
“immigrate” means to enter and settle in a new country or region.
“migrate” means to move from one place to another. (people or animals)
Examples:
A large number of Irish people emigrated to Canada during the potato famine.
Last year, this country accepted more than 150,000 immigrants from African countries.
Hunters tend to migrate from one forest area to another in search of migrating herds.

fewer, lesser, less
“fewer” always refers to a number of things that can be counted.
“lesser” or “less” usually refer to quantity, amount or size.
“Less” can also refer to number, when it can be thought of as an amount.
Examples:
They sold fewer cars this year than last.
He chose that option because it was the lesser of two evils.
Your workload is expected to be less from now on.
When searched, she had less than $200 in her purse.

figuratively, literally, virtually
“figuratively” means “not really” or “not literally”; in an abstract sense.
“literally” means “really” or “actually”; in actual fact.
“virtually” means “almost entirely” or “for all practical purposes”.
Examples:
Figuratively speaking, he was over the moon about it.
It was determined that they were literally minutes away from death when found.
As far as we could tell, it was virtually a dead heat as they crossed the line.

financial, fiscal
“financial” refers to money matters or transactions in general.
“fiscal” refers to public finances derived from tax revenues.
Examples:
The company’s financial performance was better this year than last.
The central bank has recommended the adoption of a policy of fiscal restraint.

flaunt, flout
“flaunt” means to “display boastfully”.
“flout” means to “treat with contempt and disregard”.
Examples:
She made a point to flaunt her new engagement ring to everyone she encountered.
He has a tendency to flout the highway traffic laws.

flounder, founder
“flounder” means to struggle awkwardly, without making progress.
“founder” as a noun refers to a person who founded an institution.
“founder” as a verb; refers to: a ship filling with water, or a building collapse, or a horse falling down lame.
Examples:
After six months, the business was already seriously floundering.
His father was the founder of that college.
After the collision, the ship quickly foundered.
As soon as they depressed the plunger the building foundered.
Right after crossing the finish line the horse foundered and then buckled to the ground.

forego, forgo
“forego” means to “go before” or “precede”.
“forgo” is an accepted variant spelling of “forego”.
Examples:
By the last week of the campaign her election was a foregone conclusion.
Members were not willing to forego/forgo their dining room privileges that evening.

former, latter
“former” refers to the first mentioned in a series.
“latter” refers to the last mentioned in a series.
Examples:
Of the two on the list, I tend to favor the former. (For more than two, use “first-mentioned”).
Of the two mentioned, I prefer the latter. (For more than two use “last-named”).

 

 

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Don’t Neglect Your Resume Cover Letter

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Recently, I was helping out both my daughter and a friend with the job application process. During this period, I was reminded of how the focus among most job applicants is almost entirely on the resume or CV. Most often, the cover letter gets lost in the rush to apply, treated as an annoying last minute must-have afterthought. I think this is a fundamental mistake that a lot of job applicants make.

After all, the cover letter is normally placed on top of the resume or CV; it’s the first thing the recipient sees. So, if yours is poorly written, shoddily formatted, or obviously deficient in any other way, you have already sabotaged yourself before the reader even glances at your resume. By submitting a weak cover letter, you’ve already told them something about yourself that is less than complimentary.

Remember: resume cover letters are used for one purpose only — to introduce yourself to a prospective employer. The most common mistake I see in cover letters that are sent to me for editing is that many tend to repeat verbatim almost exactly what the attached resume or CV already contains.

A resume cover letter should be a concise one-page summary that introduces you, explains why you are writing, summarizes your key skills, abilities and experience (as they relate to the specific job at hand), and asks the recipient to get back to you. Its main purpose is to capture the attention of the recipient enough to get that person to look at the attached resume with interest. Let’s look at some important tips:

1. Address It To A Specific Person
Even when sending an unsolicited resume to a company you should take the time to find out the name of the appropriate person and write the letter to that person. At least it will reach their office. Resumes sent to “Dear Human Resources Manager” or “To Whom It May Concern” are almost always a waste of time. Name someone specifically and it will at least make it into an in-basket. Sometimes you will be given a specific name or title to which you should address your letter. Use it — and make sure you spell it correctly! If you’re not sure about gender, avoid guessing, and leave off the Mr. or Ms.

2. Keep It Short and Focused
Remember, your resume already says it all. Keep the letter short and focused and don’t repeat verbatim what is already in the attached resume or CV. NEVER exceed one page in a cover letter.

3. Be Enthusiastic
Express your interest in the job and the new company with enthusiasm. Show that you really want the job, and that you would really like to work for that particular company.

4. Focus On Needs Of the Employer
Throughout your cover letter make it clear that you are interested in the needs of the employer. You are there to help them. You are part of the solution. Try to make this the message of your entire letter.

5. Show That You’ve Done Your Homework
Demonstrate a good knowledge of the company and industry for which you are applying. A one-liner, or a phrase or two in the appropriate place in your letter that shows you are interested in that company, and you understand the problems it faces, will give you instant credibility (i.e. do some simple Internet research).

6. Use the Appropriate Buzzwords
Every organization has its own ways of doing things and its own lingo. Look through key documents such as annual reports, corporate websites, etc. Try to spot key words, terms, and phrases that are often repeated. Every company has them. Use as many of these hot buttons as you can in your cover letter – where appropriate, of course. For example, if the “Message From the CEO” in the annual report mentions the phrase “action plan for the future” three times, make sure you work that term into your cover letter in an appropriate place. Don’t overdo it, of course. Just demonstrate that you’ve done your homework.

7. Summarize Your Skills and Abilities

If possible, without making the letter too long, summarize your overall skills and abilities as strengths as they relate to the company you’re applying to. Try to relate them directly to the requirements listed in the job ad or poster. This can make them stand out in a way that they wouldn’t, if they were buried in the resume or CV.

8. Get It Right
Make sure that your cover letter is free of spelling and grammatical errors. Allowing those types of mistakes to creep into your one page cover letter is a major credibility destroyer. Sloppy and unprofessional are NOT the first impressions you want to give to the reader before they even look at your resume.

The challenge of course, is to try to address all of these points in a four or five paragraph letter. It can be done!

To see a fully-formatted “real-life template” of a resume cover letter, click on the following link:
http://www.writinghelp-central.com/cover-letter.html

 

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Make Sure Your Words and Phrases Flow…

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A common weakness we see almost everywhere in day-to-day writing is poor logical flow from one idea or point to the next. This usually takes the form of a bunch of seemingly unrelated phrases thrown together with little or no sense of sequence, continuity, logic, or relativity. Not only can you see this problem in articles and blogs all over the Web, reporters for your local newspaper and TV outlets are often guilty of this same transgression.

We see letters, articles and reports in which each phrase seems to be independent of the one before and the one after; when in reality there is an actual sequential and/or logical flow. When we read these, we often find ourselves asking obvious questions that don’t get answered, such as: “So why did they do that?”, or “What happened next…?”, or “How does that relate to…?”

Consider the following three sentence example:

1. The entire building had to be searched.

2. They started the search on the third floor.

3. It took three hours to complete the search.

Notice that the three separate statements are all valid sentences. They convey the bare essential facts of a situation or event, but nothing more. In fact, they raise almost more questions than they answer. For example:

– Why was the building being searched?
– What building was it?
– Was it a serious incident?
– Had it ever happened before?
– Why did they start on the third floor?
– What about the first two floors?
– Is three hours a long time for that?
– How long does it usually take?

Now, let’s transform these three statements, using transition or bridge words and phrases, as follows:

“UNLIKE a minor incident at the Customs Headquarters last October, this time the entire building had to be searched for trapped occupants. BECAUSE the fire was still smoking on the first two floors, they started on the third, working upwards to the tenth, covering the first two floors last. CONSEQUENTLY, it took them a full three hours before they finally completed the typical one-hour job.”

Notice the use of the transition words: UNLIKE, BECAUSE, and CONSEQUENTLY. Using these three words has allowed us to easily connect the three independent sentences and give them a sense of chronological order and logical flow. They also allow us to answer ALL of the obvious questions, either with the transition word itself, or by adding a couple more words.

In short, transition words/phrases have turned three dry independent phrases into a little story that makes sense to the reader.

These types of words/phrases are ideal for allowing one to easily connect thoughts, and create logical sequences between sentences and paragraphs. They are usually inserted at the beginning of a sentence and normally refer directly back to the previous sentence and/or paragraph without repeating the specific subject.

The following paragraphs list some of the more common transition words and phrases that will help make your text more understandable and interesting to the reader. For each one, I have included a typical example of how the word/phrase might be used in a typical sentence. (Note that we have capitalized the transition words/phrases for emphasis and easy identification).

CAUSE AND EFFECT…
THEN, he moved on to the next work station.
AS A RESULT, the team lost the game.
FOR THIS REASON, she always went home for the weekend.
THE RESULT WAS always predictable.
WHAT FOLLOWED was as painful as it was inevitable.
IN RESPONSE, he quickly upped the ante.
THEREFORE, the aircraft overshot the runway.
THUS, it was just a matter of time.
BECAUSE OF THIS, the results were always the same.
CONSEQUENTLY, he was no longer friends with Frank.
THE REACTION to this event was swift and decisive.

IN CONTRAST TO…
UNLIKE last year, this one was highly profitable.
DIFFERENT from this, was our approach to manufacturing.
IN SPITE OF the dot com bust, the company prospered.
ON THE OTHER HAND, earnings per share have increased.
ON THE CONTRARY, the impact was less than expected.
OPPOSING that idea was the move to new technologies.
HOWEVER, that approach may actually prove better.
CONTRARY to his findings, the revenue picture is good.
NEVERTHELESS, something still appears to be missing.

SEQUENCE AND RELATIVITY…
THEN, each one followed in numerical sequence.
IN ADDITION, a fourth material was added to the mix.
TO ENUMERATE, first was the car, second was the boat, third…
NEXT in line for cuts was the marketing division.
NEXT IN THE SERIES was the “outrigger” brand line.
BESIDES THAT, there were two other possible sources.
SUBSEQUENTLY they moved on to the next polling station.
FOLLOWING the concert, there was a reception in the atrium.

SIMILARITY AND COMPARISON…
LIKE always, he took the company on a risky course.
SAME as before, he managed to meet all of the requirements.
SIMILAR things were known to happen at certain times.
CLOSE to that was the result of the second round of voting.
LIKEWISE, they made similar changes in the factory.
ALSO, there were the worker’s families to consider.
NEAR that one, was where we found the faulty component.

EXPLANATION AND EXAMPLE…
FOR EXAMPLE, last year’s model was under-powered.
ONE SUCH occurrence was last week’s power outage.
FOR INSTANCE, earnings this year are higher than last.
TO ILLUSTRATE, he went to Chicago just to make his point.
ALSO, there is a new approach to sheet-metal molding.
THAT TOO, just goes to make my point even stronger.
TO DEMONSTRATE, I will use the new model throughout.

Bottom line: Smooth, orderly and logical transitions from one thought to the other, one sentence to the next, and one paragraph to another, are key to creating clear meaning and flow in any document. Appropriate use of transition words and phrases will achieve this for you.

 

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Why You Should Develop Your Practical Writing Skills

Did you know that the ability to write for practical purposes can be a very important and powerful ability? Really! Becoming proficient at letter writing, for both business and personal purposes, can help you advance in many different aspects of your life.

As evidence of this, the following paragraphs describe a real-life example from my recent past.

I own (and live) in a unit in a multi-unit condominium building. As with most condo buildings, mine is managed by an elected committee of co-owners. About two and one-half years ago, I was asked by members of our condo board if I would be interested in running for election to the committee at the annual general meeting. Having never done that before, I thought I would give it a try, so I agreed to run and I was elected. I ended up staying in that position for two years before I decided to resign and move on to other things; about six months ago.

What does this have to do with writing, you might be asking right about now? Everything actually! Early into my two-year term as a member of the condo management board, I realized that writing letters and support documents was one of the most important activities for the efficient day-to-day functioning of our building. These documents include such things as numerous letters and notices to residents, instruction lists and checklists for janitorial staff, as well as letters to contractors and government bodies.

So, after I resigned from the board I compiled a group of the most common types of condo-management letters and notices and turned them into generic examples so that I could post them online. I believe that such “real-life examples will help a lot of people who are involved in the management and administration of their building; whether it’s a condo building, a co-operative, or a rental building.

Even if you aren’t directly involved in such activities, I suggest you take a look at some of the examples I have posted so that you can get a clear idea as to how important practical writing skills can be, and why you should continue to develop yours.

Remember, this is just one example of how strong practical writing skills can be important in your day-to-day life.

Here’s the link to the condo management letters article and samples:
http://www.writinghelp-central.com/condo-letter-samples.html

 

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Proper Preposition Phrases

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On a daily basis, we see improper preposition usage. In fact, it drives us crazy when we hear supposedly well-educated people on national radio and TV misuse common prepositions in their reporting of the news and current events.

Just to be clear as to what we’re talking about here: a “preposition” is a word that is placed before a noun or pronoun to form a phrase by modifying another word in the sentence. The dictionary defines a preposition as: “…a word governing a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element…” In less technical terms, prepositions are those little connector words that join words and/or phrases to other words and/or phrases.

Examples of common prepositions are: about, above, after, as, at, before, behind, between, beyond, but, by, down, during, in, into, of, off, on, under, until, up, upon, with, within, to name a few. These words almost always function as an adjective or adverb.

Below are about a dozen typical preposition phrases misused in the news media and on popular TV shows.

agree (on), agree (to), agree (with)
We now agree on the terms of the contract.
I intend to agree to his proposal after the modifications.
His observations agree with my findings.

answer (for), answer (to)
He will have to answer for what he did last night.
She will have to answer to her boss on that matter.

begin (by), begin (from), begin (with)
I will begin by taking the oath of allegiance.
The race will begin from the parking lot behind the car dealership.
The project will begin with an environmental assessment.

bored (by), bored (with); NOT “bored of”
She was really bored by last night’s concert.
Over time, I became bored with the whole thing.

capable (of); NOT “capable to”
I knew that they were capable of much more.
The coach told me I was capable of playing at a much higher level.

correspond (to), correspond (with)

Once it is repainted it will correspond to mine.
While away on course I made it a habit to correspond with my parents by e-mail.

impressed (by), impressed (with); NOT “impressed of”
Jason was impressed by their new approach to the issue.
Julia was quite impressed with Susan’s behavior.

graduate (from), graduate (to); NOT “graduated college”
When do you expect to graduate from college?
After the initial phase you will graduate to the next level.

invest (in), invest (with)
Once I receive the funds I will invest in a mix of stocks and bonds.
He decided to invest his savings with the bank.

live (off), live (on)
Once they move to the farm they plan to live off the land.
When I turn 65 I will start to live on a pension.

proceed (to), proceed (with)
After that is done, I will proceed to the next step.
Please proceed with what you were doing when we arrived.

report (on), report (to)
After his assessment he will report on the situation.
He will report to the recruitment center next Monday.

suited (to), suited (for)
They seem very suited to each other.
Brad is well suited for that accounting position.

The above are just a few examples of proper preposition usage in some of the more common preposition phrases.  So, here’s a word of warning: if you are trying to improve your English by watching television or listening to the radio, don’t assume that everything you hear is correct. Often it isn’t. Really! So, if you read or hear something that doesn’t seem quite right, look it up.

Posted on 13 Comments

Get That Application Letter Right

Application Letter

There are two main types of application letters; job application letters and college admission application letters. These letters are very important because they are the first thing about you that the addressee of the letter will see. That’s right; they will see your application cover letter before they have had a chance to review the detailed application support material that is normally attached or enclosed. So, if you mess up the covering application letter you already have one strike against you even before they look at your support material.

Also known as letters of application, or application cover letters, these letters should normally be short one-pagers that do three key things:

  1. Introduce the applicant by name and title.
  2. State clearly and specifically, the position or program for which the applicant is applying.
  3. Briefly summarize the primary reason(s) why the applicant should be accepted for the job or program for which they are applying.

Although one page is ideal, in some situations a second page may be needed to cover all of the relevant information. For example, some college and university programs may dictate a number of specific points they want covered in the application letter, making a slightly longer letter unavoidable. Nevertheless, except whenever impossible, an application cover letter should not exceed two pages.

Job-related application letters are usually accompanied by a resume or CV. In college admission situations, the application letter normally covers an overall application package, as per the requirements of the institution.

Important:
Over the years we have been asked to review/revise many different application letters for both employment and college program admission. The single biggest strategic mistake that we see in many of the letters  is that the writer has not made a point to find out the specific individual (and/or position) to whom the letter should be addressed. If it is a serious application letter, you need to take the time and trouble and find out exactly to whom you should be writing. Generally speaking, an application letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern” just won’t cut it. If you do that, you will be shooting yourself in the foot.

Image credit: Pixabay.

 

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Words Commonly Confused and/or Misused (1)

Confused?

A couple of years ago we posted a series of articles about words that are often used incorrectly. This is the beginning of another multi-part series on a similar subject but with even more confused and/or misused words than before. We’ll start the list of words in alphabetical order and expect to cover three or four letters per post.

So, here are some more frequently confused and/or misused words to add to your list.

accuracy, precision
“accuracy” is how close something is to the true value and to what degree it is free of error.
“precision” is the measure of the “fineness” of a value; usually measured in numeric terms.
Examples:
His shooting was very accurate in tonight’s game.
The laser-cut the diamond to a precision of .005.

affect, effect
“affect” is usually used as a verb, to mean “influence”.
“effect” as a verb means to “cause” or “bring about” something. As a noun it means “impact” or “result”.
Examples:
The cost of prescription drugs has seriously affected the cost of public healthcare.
His new strategy will certainly have an effect on the company’s bottom line.

allusion, illusion, delusion
“allusion” is an indirect reference to something.
“illusion” is when something appears to be real but isn’t.
“delusion” is a persistent belief in something that is contrary to fact or reality.
Examples:
Her allusion to the manager’s wife was completely unfounded.
The mist hanging over the river created an optical illusion.
The delusion that all doctors are infallible still persists in some quarters.

alternate(ly), alternative(ly)
To “alternate”, means to do something in turns, one after another.
“alternative” refers to one or more choices or options.
Examples:
When training, every two minutes we alternate between wind sprints and jogging.
Our only alternative at this point is to go back the way we came.
(“alternate” can sometimes be used as a noun; e.g. we took the alternate route).

amount, number
“amount” refers to a quantity of something.
“number” is when something can be counted.
Examples:
A significant amount of snow fell last night.
A large number of snow plows are out on the road today.

anyone, any one
“anyone”, as one word, can only refer to people.
“any one”, as two words, is used when referring to things.
Examples:
Anyone here is eligible for the draw.
He couldn’t blame her illness on any one factor.

appraise, apprise
“appraise” means to “assign a value” to something.
“apprise” means to “make aware of” something.
Examples:
The mortgage broker appraised my house at well over $300,000.
You should apprise him of what happened last night at the embassy.

approve, approve of
“approve” means “to ratify” or “sanction” something.
“approve of” means “to accept something” or “to think well of” something.
Examples:
Once they add the paragraph I requested, I intend to approve the agreement.
The Mayor enthusiastically approved of the two new appointees.

assume, presume
“assume” means to believe something based on a theory or hypothesis, without actual evidence.
“presume” means to believe that something is true unless it is proven to the contrary.
Examples:
Let’s assume that he will do the right thing and appear at the preliminary hearing.
I presume this cutback will result in significant reductions to plant output.

assure, ensure, insure
“assure” means “to guarantee” or “be convinced” that something will happen.
“ensure” means “to make sure” that something will happen.
“insure” is used to describe covering something with insurance.
Examples:
I can assure you that the increase will be more than the rate of inflation.
Fill your tank now to ensure that you can make the trip without having to stop.
I plan to insure my new car for both collision and public liability.

attentiveness, attention
“attentiveness” refers to the state of being attentive or considerate.
“attention” refers to the act of focusing or concentrating the mind on something.
Examples:
The nurse’s exceptional attentiveness to her patients was noticed by her superiors.
We appreciate your attention to this pressing matter.

beside, besides
“beside” is a preposition that means “immediately adjacent” or “by the side of” something.
“besides” can mean “moreover” or “in addition to” something.
Examples:
The man sat beside his daughter while they waited.
He’s not eligible for coverage. Besides he’ll be changing jobs next month in any case.

biannual, biennial, semi-annual
“biannual” means for something to occur “twice a year”.
“biennial” means for something to occur “every two years”; or to last for two years.
“semi-annual” means for something to occur “twice a year” or once “every six months”.
Examples:
We conduct a mini-audit of the business on a biannual basis.
I believe that environmental conference is a biennial event.
We review our hardware inventory levels semi-annually.

characteristic, distinctive, typical
“characteristic” is a quality that distinguishes and identifies.
“distinctive” is a feature that sets a person or thing apart from others in its group.
“typical” is a characteristic specific to a group, type or species to which a person or thing belongs.
Examples:
Novak always made his characteristic fist pump and bow after winning a match.
That designer has a distinctive style when working with recycled wood.
That long-winded letter was typical of a government bureaucratic.

cite, quote
To “cite” something is to refer to it or repeat it as proof of what was said.
To “quote” something is to repeat it, verbatim. (enclosed in quotation marks).
Examples:
He cited numerous legal precedents while making his argument.
To quote John Lennon on that, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

common, mutual
“common” means belonging to many or to all.
“mutual” means “reciprocal”; feelings or actions felt or done by two or more parties with reference to the other parties in the group.
Examples:
Miscommunication is a common problem among online users.
Their feelings for each other were mutual.

compare, contrast
“compare” should be used when referring to likenesses or similarities.
“contrast” is correctly used when pointing out differences.
Examples:
Those numbers compare favorably with those of last quarter.
In contrast to my measured approach, his is to rush forward, full steam ahead.

compliment, complement
“compliment” is an expression of praise, admiration or flattery.
“complement” is when one person or thing is combined with another, they form a complete unit.
Examples:
Frank complimented Sharon on her new hair style.
The addition of the new pergola really complements the patio.

comprise, constitute, compose
“comprise” means “to consist of” or “to be made up of” something.
“constitute” and “compose” are equivalent; and mean “to make up” or “account for” something.
Examples:
A baseball game comprises nine innings.
The land mass of Canada constitutes more than 60% of North America.
Those ten provinces and three territories constitute the country of Canada.

continual, continuous
“continual” implies a close recurrence in time; a rapid succession of events or constant repetition.
“continuous” uninterrupted in time or sequence.
Examples:
His partner’s continual complaining eventually drove him away from the business.
The continuous barrage of heavy metal music eventually broke him down.

council, counsel
“council” is a decision-making governing body, advisory board, or board of directors.
“counsel” refers to the provision of advice or guidance.
Examples:
Last night, City Council rendered its decision on garbage pick-up days during the summer.
I sought him out in order to seek his counsel on these latest developments.

Okay, that’s enough for the first installment. As I mentioned above, I’ll be making additional posts like this one — three or four letters of the alphabet at a time — every few months over the next year or so.