Commonly Confused Words (and How to Conquer Them)

It happens all the time. You're writing a paper or texting a friend and have to ask yourself, "Is it affect or effect? A while or awhile?" Sometimes, even the most seasoned writers have to stop and do a quick Google search to double-check themselves. If you take a moment to study commonly confused words, you might be able to compose your next paper or text without having to stop and chat with Google!

Pensive Man Looking Commonly Confused Words Pensive Man Looking Commonly Confused Words
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Accept vs. Except

The words accept and except have different spellings and meanings. Avoid misusing these words by focusing on the prefix ex-, which means “out of” or “not.” If you’re describing something that’s not included, choose except.

Word

Definition

Example

accept (v.)

to receive

I accepted all my birthday gifts with gratitude.

except (conj.)

apart from

Susan packed everything except the kitchen sink.

Affect vs. Effect

These words are tricky because both affect and effect can act as either nouns or verbs. Try to master their pronunciations to choose the correct one. Affect starts with a short /a/ sound, while effect begins with a short /e/.

Word

Definition

Example

affect (v.)

to impact

The dog's death affected his owners.

affect (n.)

a psychological condition

Mike's negative affect made us all feel unhappy.

effect (v.)

to create

You can effect change in your community by organizing volunteers.

effect (n.)

the result of an event

The effects of the earthquake were devastating.

A Lot vs. Allot

When writers want to describe a lot of something, they sometimes use the verb allot instead. Even worse, they confuse a lot and alot — which isn’t a word at all. The easiest way to choose the correct word is to replace the word lot with the word little. If it works, you’re using a lot correctly. If you end up with “alittle,” you’ve made an error.

Word

Definition

Example

a lot (n.)

many

A lot of people were there.

allot (v.)

to give or assign

I've allotted five minutes to finish this project.

Allusion vs. Illusion

Both English teachers and professional magicians care about allusion vs. illusion. A quick trick to remember the difference is that the word allusion includes the word all — you reference all the other sources in your writing. Illusion contains the word ill, and too much magic might make you feel a bit ill!

Word

Definition

Example

allusion (n.)

an indirect reference

The Austin Powers movies make allusions to the James Bond movies.

illusion (n.)

a false image or representation

The magician created the illusion that he was levitating.

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Awhile vs. A While

The key to telling awhile and a while apart is to determine how they function. The adverb awhile modifies a verb, telling the reader how long I can stay. But the noun a while doesn’t modify anything; it acts as the object of the preposition in this example.

Word

Definition

Example

awhile (adv,)

for a short time

I can stay awhile.

a while (n.)

for a short time

We've been waiting for a while.

Bad vs. Badly

Many people choose the adverb badly because they’re trying to be grammatically correct. However, when used with transitive verbs such as feel, they should actually use the adjective bad. If you mix up the words and say “I feel badly,” you’re saying that you perform the action of feeling in a poor way.

Word

Definition

Example

bad (adj.)

not good

I feel bad about lying.

badly (adv.)

not done well

We performed badly yesterday.

Breath vs. Breathe

Remember the difference between breath and breathe by focusing on the last letters. If the word ends in an “e,” it uses the long /e/ sound (“bree-th”). But if it ends in “th,” it uses the short /e/ sound (“breh-th.”)

Word

Definition

Example

breath (n.)

an inhalation into the lungs

Take a deep breath.

breathe (v.)

to inhale

Just calm down and breathe.

Complement vs. Compliment

Quickly tell the difference between complement and compliment by finding the middle vowel. The word complement has an “e” in the middle, just like the word complete — and items that complement often make something complete. That’s a good way to determine whether you’re looking for a complement or a compliment.

Word

Definition

Example

complement (v.)

to go well with

The blue dress complements your eyes.

complement (n.)

something that goes well with something else

My scarf is a good complement to my outfit.

compliment (v.)

to flatter or praise

The teacher complimented my hard work.

compliment (n.)

an expression meant to flatter or praise

My friend gave me a nice compliment today.

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Comprise vs. Compose

It seems like the words comprise and compose are synonyms. After all, they’re both verbs that discuss how something is made up. But you should never use “comprised of” — it’s only “composed of.” Use comprise to stand in for its synonym contain.

Word

Definition

Example

comprise (v.)

to contain

North Carolina comprises 100 counties.

compose (v.)

to make up

North Carolina is composed of 100 counties.

Desert vs. Dessert

A helpful way to remember the difference between desert and dessert is to remember the name of a popular dessert: strawberry shortcake. Just like strawberry shortcake, dessert has two s’s!

Word

Definition

Example

desert (n.)

a dry, arid region

The Sahara Desert is enormous.

desert (v.)

to abandon

Soldiers may not desert their posts.

dessert (n.)

a sweet course served after a meal

May I have cake for dessert?

Elicit vs. Illicit

Are crimes elicit or illicit? There’s an easy way to clear up the confusion between these words. Like the word illegal, illicit begins with the ill- prefix.

Word

Definition

Example

elicit (v.)

to draw forth

The bad news elicited boos from the crowd.

illicit (adj.)

illegal

James was under arrest for illicit activities.

Hone vs. Home

Hone your vocabulary skills by learning the difference between home and hone. The biggest mistake writers make is saying “honing in” when they mean “homing in.” If the preposition “in” follows the word, you use the verb home. Think of an object trying to return to its home!

Word

Definition

Example

hone (v.)

to sharpen

I'm honing my cooking skills.

home (n.)

a place to live

Let's go home.

home (v.)

to get closer

We're homing in on a result.

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Leery vs. Wary vs. Weary

Because leery and wary are synonyms, you can use one in place of the other. However, weary only sounds like the others — it doesn’t have the same meaning. If you’re using weary in a sentence, be sure that you’re describing a person’s exhaustion or level of tiredness.

Word

Definition

Example

leery (adj.)

cautious or suspicious

I'm leery of strangers.

wary (adj.)

cautious or suspicious

I'm wary of strangers.

weary (adj.)

tired

I'm weary after a long day.

Lose vs. Loose

The word pair lose and loose aren’t quite homophones, but they’re confused so often that it can be hard to tell the difference. Both words use the same double “o” sound, or short /u/ sound, making them easy to mix up. Think of a goose that’s gotten out of its pen at the farm — now that’s a “loose goose!”

Word

Definition

Example

lose (v.)

to misplace an object, or not win

If we don't score another goal, we'll lose the game.

loose (adj.)

not tight

My pants are too loose.

Passed vs. Past

Has the milk passed its expiration date, or is it past its expiration date? Both words are correct, depending on their function in a sentence. The easiest way to tell past and passed apart is to determine if you’re using a verb. If you are, use passed. If you’re not, use past.

Word

Definition

Example

passed (v.)

to go by something

We just passed the store.

passed (v.)

to hand an object to someone

Bob passed me a pencil.

past (n.)

a time before today

That's all in the past.

past (adv.)

a direction (passing something)

We drove past the store.

past (adj.)

relating to a time that's gone by

Please write in the past tense.

past (prep.)

beyond something else

She looked right past me.

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Precede vs. Proceed

The verbs precede and proceed don’t look very similar, but they sound quite alike. Remember your roots when choosing between these words. The prefix pre- means “before,” which should help you remember that something that precedes has come before.

Word

Definition

Example

precede (v.)

to come before

The wind preceded the storm.

proceed (v.)

to continue or go forward

Please proceed toward the exit.

proceeds (n.)

the results of an action; money earned

We donated the proceeds of the yard sale.

Principal vs. Principle

Students and parents alike mix up principal and principle. Try the age-old trick for these words: the school principal is your pal! That should help you remember the adjective spelling as well since the principal is the principal administrator in a school.

Word

Definition

Example

principal (n.)

the head administrator of a school

Mr. Thomas is our school's new principal.

principal (adj.)

main or primary

Our principal concern is the crack in the wall.

principle (n.)

a fundamental truth or belief

My guiding principle is to treat others kindly.

Site vs. Sight vs. Cite

If you’ve ever wondered whether you should use site, sight or cite, you’re not alone. The best way to double-check these words is by using compound words that include them. “Campsight” and “campcite” look wrong, so a piece of land must be a campsite. The same goes for eyesight — you’d never write “eyesite” or “eyecite.”

Word

Definition

Example

site (n.)

a piece of land

The crew worked on the construction site.

sight (n.)

the ability to see

These eyedrops might affect your sight.

cite (v.)

to give credit

Did you cite the author of this article?

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Stationary vs. Stationery

Adding suffixes onto words can result in spelling errors as well as comprehension problems. The words stationary and stationery are a good example — changing one letter in the suffix makes them completely different words. Think of the word stay when remembering the difference between these words. Stationary has an “a,” just like stay — and it stays in place.

Word

Definition

Example

stationary (adj.)

not moving, still

I exercise on a stationary bike.

stationery (n.)

paper and envelopes for writing letters

Betty used fancy stationery to write to her mother.

Than vs. Then

Some dialects pronounce than and then quite differently, while others make them sound the same. Either way, you need to choose the correct spelling! The word compare can help you because when you compare, you use than (they both use the letter “a”).

Word

Definition

Example

than (conj.)

compares two clauses or phrases

He's stronger than he used to be.

than (prep.)

connects a noun to a comparison

He's stronger than you.

then (adv.)

a point in time

I was younger back then.

then (adj.)

existing at a point in time

My then-girlfriend moved in with me.

Uncommonly Confused Words

Believe it or not, this isn't a comprehensive list of all the commonly confused words in the English language. But it's a healthy start. If you commit some of these pairs (and triplets) to memory, you'll be ahead of the crowd.