Commonly confused words

English is widely regarded as having become the global language and is the dominant international language in communications, science, and business. You would think that with English being so prominent in arenas of logic and commerce, that it would be concise, precise, and devoid of ambiguity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Doug Larson stated: “If the English language made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur.”

Here is a list of English words that are often confused and a description of their correct usage.

accept/except (to receive vs. to take or leave out)
He accepts defeat well.
Please take all the books off the shelf except for the red one.
adapt/adept (make fit for, or change to suit a new purpose vs. having or showing knowledge and skill and aptitude)
Adapt our native cuisine to the available food resources of the new country.
She is adept in handicrafts.
adverse/averse (acting to oppose or harmful vs. averse that is having a feeling of opposition or aversion to)
We are not averse to the idea.
The chemical had adverse effects on her system.
affect/effect (v., to influence vs. n., result, or v., to accomplish)
Lack of sleep affects the quality of your work.
The subtle effect of the lighting made the room look ominous.
allot/a lot (to give or apportion something to vs. a large amount)
We will allot seats to the press.
I feel a lot better
altar/alter (a table at the front of a church vs. cause to change)
He sacrificed his family life on the altar of career advancement.
The advent of the automobile may have altered the growth pattern of the city
among/between (many vs. two)
I found it among the trees.
The broken pipeline sites are between two major cities.
allusion/illusion (an indirect reference vs. a false perception of reality)
The professor made an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s work.
They saw a mirage: that is a type of illusion one sees in the desert.
all ready/already (prepared vs. by this time)
Dinner was all ready when the guests arrived.
The turkey was already burned when the guests arrived.
altogether/all together (entirely vs. gathered, with everything in one place)
Altogether, I thought that the student’s presentation was well planned.
We were all together at the family reunion last spring.
apart/a part (to be separated vs. to be joined with)
The chain-link fence kept the angry dogs apart. OR My old car fell apart before we reached California.
The new course was a part of the new field of study at the university. OR A part of this plan involves getting started at dawn.
ascent/assent (climb vs. agreement)
The plane’s ascent made my ears pop.
The martian assented to undergo experiments.
Each of these words share the meaning of to make secure or certain. Common usage however dictates that each of these are used only in the following ways:
Assure is used with reference to causing someone to feel secure or confident. For example:
I assured the customer of our refund policy.
Insure is used with reference to guaranteeing a persons property against risk.
Ensure is used with reference to making certain. For example:
Our precautions ensured our safety.
auger/augur (a tool for boring vs. an act or sign that things will go well)
Auger analysis can be used to identify all elements.
A double fault on the opening point did not augur well.
baited/bated (Lure, entice, or entrap with bait vs. Moderate or restrain)
He baited the hook.
He bated his breath when talking about this affair
biannual/biennial (occurring two times each year vs. occurring once every two years)
We make a biannual visit to the in-laws: once at Christmas and again in the summer.
Parsnips and carrots are biennial plants
breath/breathe (n., air inhaled or exhaled vs. v., to inhale or exhale)
You could see his breath in the cold air.
If you don’t breathe, then you are dead.
breach/breech/breeches (breaking of laws, rules, contracts, or promises vs. part of a gun vs. short trousers)
He is in breach of our contract.
The bullet is stuck in the breech.
Originally, riding breeches were quite snug to the leg, but in 1900, a fuller leg was authorized.
capital/capitol (seat of government. Also financial resources. vs. the actual building in which the legislative body meets)
The capital of Virginia is Richmond.
The firm had enough capital to build the new plant.
The governor announced his resignation in a speech given at the capitol today.
carat/caret (unit of measurement for the proportion of gold in an alloy vs. A mark used by an author or editor to indicate where something is to be inserted into a text)
Pure gold (‘fine gold’) is 24 carats (karats) and so 24 carats is theoretically 100% gold.
The caret symbol (^) is written below the line of text for a line-level punctuation mark such as a comma.
cite/sight/site (to quote or document vs. vision vs. position or place)
I cited ten quotes from the same author in my paper.
The sight of the American flag arouses different emotions in different parts of the world.
The new office building was built on the site of a cemetery.
complement/compliment (n., something that completes; verb, to complete vs. n., praise; v., to praise)
A nice dry white wine complements a seafood entree.
The professor complimented Betty on her proper use of a comma.
comprised/composed (embrace, include vs. made up of [transitive verb])
This pair is often confused by both readers and writers. It is often best to avoid these in favour of either words like includes, to indicate that not all components are listed; or consists of, to indicate that all components are listed.
conscience/conscious (sense of right and wrong vs. awake)
The student’s conscience kept him from cheating on the exam.
I was conscious when the burglar entered the house.
continual/continuous (“repeatedly” vs. “non-stop”)
For two weeks the sperm whales continually dived to great depths in search of food.
The spectrum of light is continuous.
council/counsel (a group that consults or advises vs. to advise)
The men and women on the council voted in favor of an outdoor concert in their town.
The parole officer counseled the convict before he was released.
These words mean the same thing, but dissociate is the older word, whereas disassociate is a newcomer that has a less distinguished pedigree. Basically, disassociate came into common usage because people misunderstood dissociate, thinking it needed the extra syllable, which it does not. Disassociate is not actually wrong, but dissociate is preferred, simply because it is older and because that added syllable adds nothing of value.
discreet/discrete (prudent, circumspect, or modest vs. separate or individually distinct)
Their discreet comments about the business led the brokers to expect an early sale of the company.
Each company in the conglomerate operates as a discrete entity.
elicit/illicit (to draw or bring out vs. illegal)
The teacher elicited the correct response from the student.
The Columbian drug lord was arrested for his illicit activities.
e.g. / i.e. (for example vs. that is)
The distinction between these two is often missed by readers. E.g. is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase exempli gratia meaning for the sake of example. I.e. is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase id est meaning that is (to say) or sometimes in this case.
eminent/immanent/imminent (famous, respected vs. inherent or intrinsic vs. ready to take place)
The eminent podiatrist won the Physician of the Year award.
The meaning of the poem was immanent, and not easily recognized.
A fight between my sister and me is imminent from the moment I enter my house.
These are two spellings of the same word, which means to seek information about something or to conduct a formal investigation. Either spelling can be used, but many people prefer enquire andenquiry for the general sense of “ask”, and inquire and inquiry for a formal investigation.
enquired his name
The first enquiry in my inbox today was about lost property.
We are going to inquire into the incident.
The lawyers asked when the inquiry will be completed.
In practice, enquire and enquiry are more common in British English, and inquire and inquiry are more common in US English, for both informal questions and formal investigations. Note also that the Canadian Press recommends the use of inquire and inquiry.
farther/further (distance vs. quantity)
We need to move farther down the corridor.
The application of the law was extended further.
its/it’s (of or belonging to it vs. contraction for it is)
The baby will scream as soon as its mother walks out of the room.
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
lead/led (n., a type of metal vs. v., past tense of the verb “to lead”)
Is that pipe made of lead?
She led the campers on an over-night hike.
lets/let’s (3rd person singular of “to let” (allow) vs. contraction “let us”)
My mother lets me eat candy.
Let’s eat candy
lie/lay (to lie down [a person or animal. hint: people can tell lies] vs. to lay an object down)
I have a headache, so I’m going to lie down for a while.
(also lying, lay, has/have lain–The dog has lain in the shade all day; yesterday, the dog lay there for twelve hours).
“Lay down that gun, Bubba!” The sheriff demanded.
The town lay at the foot of the mountain.
(also laying, laid, has/have laid–At that point, Bubba laid the gun on the ground).
lose/loose (v., to misplace or not win vs. noun, to not be tight; v., [rarely used]–to release)
Mom glared at Mikey. “If you lose that new lunchbox, don’t even think of coming home!”
The burglar’s pants were so loose that he was sure to lose the race with the cop chasing him.
While awaiting trial, he was never set loose from jail because no one would post his bail.
passed/past (v., past tense of “to pass,” to have moved vs. belonging to a former time or place)
The tornado passed through the city quickly, but it caused great damage.
Who was the past president of Microsquish Computers?
Go past the fire station and turn right.
precede/proceed (to come before vs. to go forward)
Pre-writing precedes the rough draft of good papers.
He proceeded to pass back the failing grades on the exam.
preventive/preventative (preventive is the adjective, preventative the noun)
The two are actually interchangeable as both can be nouns and adjective. Many prefer preventive as being shorter and simpler and this is the recommendation of the Canadian Press.
principal/principle (adj., most important; n., a person who has authority vs. a general or fundamental truth)
The principal ingredient in chocolate chip cookies is chocolate chips.
The principal of the school does the announcements each morning.
The study was based on the principle of gravity.
quote/quotation (v., to cite vs. n., the act of citing)
I would like to quote Dickens in my next paper.
The book of famous quotations inspired us all.
stationary/stationery (standing still vs. writing paper)
The accident was my fault because I ran into a stationary object.
My mother bought me stationery that was on recycled paper.
supposed to/suppose (correct form for “to be obligated to” or “presumed to” NOT “suppose to” vs. to guess or make a conjecture)
Do you suppose we will get to the airport on time? When is our plane supposed to arrive? We are supposed to check our bags before we board, but I suppose we could do that at the curb and save time.
than/then (use with comparisons vs. at that time, or next)
I would rather go out to eat than eat at the dining hall.
I studied for my exam for seven hours, and then I went to bed.
their/there/they’re (possessive form of they vs. indicates location [hint: think of “here and there”] vs. contraction for “they are”)
Their house is at the end of the block.
There goes my chance of winning the lottery!
They’re in Europe for the summer–again!
through/threw/thorough/though/thru (by means of; finished; into or out of vs. past tense of throw vs. careful or complete vs. however; nevertheless vs. abbreviated slang for through; not appropriate in standard writing)
He plowed right through the other team’s defensive line.
She threw away his love love letters.
John thoroughly cleaned his room; there was not even a speck of dust when he finished.
He’s really a sweetheart though he looks tough on the outside.
We’re thru for the day!
to/too/two (toward vs. also, or excessively vs. a number)
I went to the University of Richmond.
He drank too many screwdrivers and was unable to drive home.
Only two students did not turn in the assignment.
who/which/that (pronoun, referring to a person or persons vs. pronoun, replacing a singular or plural thing(s);not used to refer to persons vs. used to refer to things or a group or class of people)
Jane wondered how Jack, who is so smart, could be having difficulties in Calculus.
Which section of history did you get into?
I lost the book that I bought last week.
who/whom (used as a subject or as a subject complement [see above] vs. used as an object)
John is the man who can get the job done.
Whom did Sarah choose as her replacement?

I’m sure there are more, many more. But rather than think of these as just confusing, perhaps we should take Henry Miller’s words to heart when he said: “Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood” and accept that we just don’t yet understand.

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Last updated: October 16, 2008
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