Commonly Confused Words

I often come across word confusions when I'm beta-reading or reviewing books (including books from major publishers, by the way).

This page offers a list of easily confused words for authors, all of which I've seen in published books. If you want to be updated when I add new entries, please subscribe in the right-hand sidebar.

If you have additional suggestions, please leave a comment. Obviously, this isn't comprehensive, which is why your best plan is always to check all your vocabulary words before you publish.

adapt/adopt

adapt means to change in order to meet changing circumstances.
adopt means to take on (a practice, etc.).

A well-known couple who write about the business of writing consistently use the phrase "early adapters" when they mean "early adopters". As far as I know, they're not being deliberately clever; they just have the phrase wrong.


admission/admittance

admission is what you're charged to get into a place, or a confession.
admittance is being allowed to enter somewhere.


advance/advanced

If you mean "beforehand," use advance (as in the phrase "in advance"; also "advance notice," "Advance Reader Copy"). If you mean "sophisticated," use advanced.


adverse/averse

Effects are adverse (negative).
People are averse (disinclined) to do things.


affect/effect

This is an especially confusing pair.
affect is usually a verb: Raising interest rates will affect how many people borrow money.
effect is usually a noun: The effect of raising interest rates is that fewer people borrow money.

However, there is a noun "affect" (pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable instead of the first, AF-fect) which is used in psychology to mean "the ability to feel things": He suffered from flat affect.

And there is a verb "effect" meaning "to bring about", usually applied to change: The new government plans to effect an immediate change in interest rates.

The safest thing with this pair is to check every time.


allude/elude

allude means to refer: He alluded to the Noodle Incident.
elude means to escape: He eluded his pursuers.


allusive/elusive/illusive

allusive means making use of allusion (that is, references to things).
elusive means hard to catch.
illusive is an old-fashioned word meaning illusionary, not real.


any more/anymore

any more means "a further quantity": He didn't want any more beer. (He had already had enough beer.)
anymore always refers to time, when something has changed from how it used to be: He didn't like beer anymore. (He used to like beer, but now he didn't.)


ascribe/subscribe

You ascribe a quality to someone or something, meaning that you believe that it has that quality.
You subscribe to a belief or philosophy.


backward/backwards

A backward society is not advanced.
A backwards society would be one in which things were wrong way round.


base/bass

The base of something is the bottom of it.
bass (pronounced the same) is the lowest part of music.


bear/bare

To bear something means to carry it. Think of a bear carrying something, if it helps.
To bare something means to reveal it, to strip off its covering.


belie/betray

His open, honest face belied his devious nature. (It gave an impression that was the opposite of the truth.)
Her worried glance betrayed her concern. (It gave the truth away.)

As a general observation, add the "be-" prefix with care. It often changes the meaning of the root word. Don't use it simply to give an "old-timey" feel to language without understanding the meaning of the resulting word.


boarder/border

A boarder is someone who either pays you money to live in your house, or is trying to force their way onto your ship.
A border is a line between two areas, such as two countries.


born/borne

born refers to the process of birth: Macbeth could not be killed by one of woman born.
borne is the past tense of bear: The coffin was borne on their shoulders.

To add to the confusion, a bourn is a small stream.


brake/break

break means to smash: I'm going to break your face!
brake means to slow down: He braked the car.


breach/breech

A breech is the back end of something (like a gun): The cartridge jammed in the breech.
A breach is a break, usually one that lets something through: The enemy poured in through the breach in the wall.


breath/breathe

A breath is air you take into your lungs. It is a noun.
To breathe is to take air into your lungs. It is a verb.


broach/brooch

broach is a verb meaning to break open: He broached the cask.
A brooch is a decorative piece of jewellery.


canon/cannon

A canon is a group of creative works (or a functionary in a cathedral, or a kind of musical piece).
A cannon is a large artillery weapon.


canvas/canvass

canvas is a kind of cloth, used for sails and paintings.
To canvass is to conduct a poll or ask for votes.


capital/capitol

A capital is the main city of a country or state.
A capitol is, in the USA, the building in which the legislature meets.


censer/censor

A censer holds incense: The priest waved the censer over the couple before pronouncing them married.
A censor is a person who works for the government and decides what may or may not be published: The chief censor has rated this movie PG.
censure means disapproval specifically expressed, often officially: The committee moved to censure him for his actions.


chaffing/chafing

chaffing refers to friendly mockery: We were chaffing him about his new girlfriend.
chafing refers to friction against the skin: His shorts were chafing him.


chord/cord

A chord is a number of musical notes played simultaneously, with specific intervals between them.
A cord is between thick string and thin rope.


clamber/clamor

To clamber means to climb with difficulty.
To clamor means to make a loud, probably demanding noise.


complement/compliment

complement means to go well together: The curtains complemented the carpet.
compliment means to say something nice to someone: The visitors all complimented the choice of furnishings.


conscience/conscious

Your conscience is your sense of right and wrong (literally "the thing you know with").
If you are conscious, you are aware.


constraints/restraints

constraints fence you in.
restraints hold you back.


council/counsel

A council is a group of advisors or decision-makers.
Counsel is advice, or (in the phrase "legal counsel"), someone who gives advice.


crevasse/crevice

A crevasse is a large vertical gap in the landscape, often in ice.
A crevice is a small or narrow gap or crack.


cubical/cubicle

cubical is an adjective, meaning shaped like a cube.
A cubicle is what Dilbert works in.


cue/queue

A cue is a signal, often to an actor: "I have to go on, that's my cue."
A queue is a line: "He stood in the queue for hours."


dammed/damned

If something is dammed, it's prevented from flowing (like a river). If it's damned, it's destined for an eternity in hell (or, metaphorically, is annoying).


definitely/definitively

definitely means "for sure": He definitely used the wrong word there.
definitively means "in a way that involves formal definition": The province passed definitively into the control of the Teutonic Knights after the Battle of Kamerlin.


defuse/diffuse

defuse refers to preventing a bomb from going off.
diffuse means to spread small particles over a wide area, which is one possible consequence of not defusing a bomb.

You defuse a situation, you do not diffuse it.


detract/distract

If something detracts from something else, it makes it less appealing.
If it distracts, it takes attention away from it.


discreet/discrete

discreet means "not drawing unnecessary attention": I trust you to be discreet about the unicorns in the back yard.
discrete means "separate": The information was transmitted in discrete packets.

There's a simple test for this pair. "Indiscreet" is the opposite of "discreet", and will be in your spellcheck dictionary, but there's no such word as "indiscrete". Put an "in" on the front, and if spellcheck queries it, you have the one that means "separate".


don/wear

To don something means to put it on. It's short for "do on," and there's a less-commonly-used opposite, "doff," short for "do off". It's old-fashioned.
It does not mean "to wear".


douse/dowse

You dowse with a divining rod in order to locate water. Once you find the water, you can douse things with it (make them wet).


draw/drawer

The sliding thing in a piece of furniture that you keep things in is spelled drawer, even though the two words are pronounced the same. Also, the expression is "chest of drawers" (not Chester drawers, as someone I was at school with once insisted).


elicit/illicit

If you elicit something you draw it out. Compare escape and emerge. It is a verb.
If something is illicit you are not supposed to have it. Compare illegal. It is an adjective.


eminent/immanent/imminent

eminent means "prominent and respected in one's field".
immanent means "inherent".
imminent means "about to happen".


every day/everyday

every day is an adverb, and refers to repetition on a daily basis: He bought a coffee every day. (That's how he bought it: he bought it every day.)
everyday is an adjective: Drinking coffee was an everyday event. (That's what kind of event it was: it was an everyday event.)


exorbitant/extravagant

An excessively high price is exorbitant.
People who waste their money are extravagant.


fain/feign

fain is an old-fashioned word, mostly used in expressions like "I would fain depart," meaning "I would like to leave".
If you feign something, you're pretending or faking.


faze/phase

If something doesn't faze you it leaves you cool, calm and collected.
If it doesn't phase you, you are probably in a superhero novel, and have just avoided being made immaterial and pushed through a wall.


flair/flare

If you have a flair, you have a notable talent.
If you have a flare, you have a kind of firework used for signalling.


grisly/gristly/grizzly

A grisly death is a horrible and distressing one.
A gristly death involves a lot of gristle.
A grizzly death involves a bear (or complaining in a whiny manner).


hawk/hock

If you're hawking an item, you are offering it for sale, probably in an open-air market or in the street.
If you're hocking it, you are placing it with a pawnbroker.


heal/heel

heal means to restore someone's health: It took his wound a long time to heal.
heel is the back part of your foot: He was wounded in the heel.


hear, hear/here, here

If you say "hear, hear!" in response to someone's speech, you are expressing enthusiastic approval by encouraging those around you to listen to what he or she is saying.
If you say "here, here!" you are expressing mild disapproval, and you are probably British and rather old-fashioned.
(If you say "there, there!" you are trying to comfort the person. English is strange.)


hoard/horde

A hoard is a collection of precious objects.
A horde is a group of dangerous beings.


honorarium/honorific

An honorarium is a small sum of money paid to an otherwise unpaid officeholder, to compensate them for expenses incurred in holding the office.
An honorific is similar to a title, and is added to someone's name to indicate that they hold a particular honor.


hurdle/hurl/hurtle

You hurdle something if you jump over it. You hurl it if you throw it. You hurtle if you're moving rapidly.


imply/infer

If I imply that someone is an idiot, I'm giving other people that impression without saying so outright.
If I infer that they're an idiot, I'm reaching that conclusion based on indirect evidence.

Mnemonic: Inference happens in your head. Implication can be impish.


incredible/incredulous

An amazing thing is incredible. I am incredulous. (Unlike "incredible," which seldom means "unbelievable" now in a literal sense, "incredulous" keeps its original meaning of "not believing".)


into/in to

If you turn criminals in to the authorities, you're helping to keep society safe.

If you turn criminals into the authorities, you'll have a very different kind of society.

"Into" and "onto" are correct if you are talking about movement, but don't use them if you're writing a phrase that ends in "in" or "on" and happens to be followed by "to".


it's/its

No pair is confused more often than it's and its (and the similar pairs they're/their and who's/whose). This is probably because English usually uses an apostrophe to indicate possession (the boy's book), but in these pairs the rule is the other way around:
it's is an abbreviation for "it is".
its means "belonging to it".

The easiest way to remember this is that it forms a consistent pattern with other pronouns and abbreviations:

he's, she's, it's, they're, we're, who's are all abbreviations.
his, hers, its, their, our, whose are all possessives.

So, if in doubt, ask, "Can I substitute 'he's' or 'his' for this word?" Then use an apostrophe if the answer is "he's" and don't use one if the answer is "his".


journey/sojourn

A journey means moving from one place to another.
A sojourn means staying in one place for a while. It is not a fancy word for "journey". It means the exact opposite.


leach/leech

It's often difficult to know exactly when to use each of these two, since they work in similar contexts, especially when used metaphorically.
leach usually means that something is being washed out by water: The calcium was being leached from the rock.
leech means that something is being sucked out (by analogy to a leech, a blood-sucking creature): The party leeched the energy out of me.


led/lead

This is a confusing pair because of both meaning and pronunciation.
led (pronounced to rhyme with Ted) is the past tense form of lead (pronounced to rhyme with seed).
lead (pronounced to rhyme with Ted) is the soft grey metal that alchemists tried to turn into gold.


lever/leverage

lever is usually literal: He levered the rock off his friend.
leverage (as a verb) is usually figurative: He leveraged his advantage into a win.


loath/loathe

loath means reluctant or unwilling: I am loath to do anything that would strengthen her position.
loathe means dislike strongly, despise: I loathe her and her whole family.


marshal/martial

martial is an adjective, meaning "warlike".
A marshal is an officer.


may be/maybe

The phrase may be indicates that something is possible: "That may be the biggest dog I ever saw." You could substitute "could be", "might be" or "has to be" and the sentence would still make sense.
The single word maybe indicates neither "yes" nor "no": "Maybe I've seen a bigger one; maybe I haven't." You could substitute "perhaps" and the sentence would still make sense.


metal/mettle

If you show someone your metal, you are showing them iron, gold, silver, etc.
If you show them your mettle, you are demonstrating your ability.


might/mite

If you mean a small amount, that's a mite, not a might. Might means strength.


millennia/millennium

millennia is plural.
millennium is singular.


moral/morale

moral means concerned with doing the right thing.
morale is the spirit of a group of people, usually military.


mucous/mucus

mucous is the adjective: His mucous membranes were dried out.
mucus is the noun: Mucus dripped from his mouth.


palpate/palpitate

If you palpate something, you squeeze it.
A heart palpitates, meaning it beats so hard you can feel it.


passed/past

passed means gone by: Many years had passed.
past is the time before the present: In the past, we haven't allowed that.

Note also the expression "pastime", meaning a way of passing the time. It should not be written as "passed time".


peak/peek/pique

A peak is the top of something, usually a mountain: Sir Edmund struggled to the peak of Everest.
A peek is a quick look: He took a peek out of the tent.

There are also the phrases "to pique one's interest" and "a fit of pique", both of which are spelled with a Q.


peal/peel

A peal is a loud sound, usually made by a bell or thunder.
A peel is a rind around a fruit.

The expression "peel off" uses the "fruit" spelling. It's a dead metaphor.


pedal/peddle

If you pedal something, it is probably a bicycle or something very like one.
If you peddle it, you are selling it on the street. (It could still be a bicycle, I suppose.)


pendant/pendent

A pendant is a piece of jewellery you hang around your neck on a chain.
pendent is an adjective, meaning "hanging".


perpetrate/perpetuate

You perpetrate a crime.
You perpetuate an injustice (make it perpetual).


perquisite/prerequisite

A perquisite is a benefit, often obtained through one's position.
A prerequisite is something that you need in order to get something else.


plain/plane

A plain is a large natural area of flat ground.
A plane is an abstract flat area (among other definitions).


poo-poo/pooh-pooh

If you dismiss something contemptuously, you pooh-pooh it. Poo-pooing it is more drastic.


populace/populous

populace is a noun. It means the people who populate a place.
populous is an adjective. It means that a lot of people live there.


pore/pour

You don't pour over a book (unless you are dousing it in liquid). You pore over it.


precedence/precedent

precedence refers to the rules about who is considered more important than whom socially: a duke takes precedence over an earl.
precedent is usually a legal term, meaning that a similar case has been decided in the past.


predominant/prominent/dominant

Something is predominant if it is the most common type of whatever it is: The predominant religion in the Southern USA is Protestantism.
Something or someone is prominent if it is well-known or influential.
Something or someone is dominant if it dominates others.


premier/premiere

premier (with no e on the end) means first in the sense of pre-eminent; with a capital, it's also a title equivalent to Prime Minister.
A premiere (with an e on the end) is the first showing of a movie, performance of a play, etc.


prescribe/proscribe

If you prescribe something you require it.
If you proscribe something you forbid it.
The words are opposites.


principal/principle

principal means primary: The principal exports of Peru. It also means a person in charge of a school.
principle is an abstract idea used to guide actions: The principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.


prophecy/prophesy

A prophecy is a prediction of the future (in common usage, anyway; a Bible scholar will have a slightly different definition): I return, in accordance with the prophecy!
To prophesy is to speak a prophecy.


pus/puss

pus is the unpleasant matter that forms in an infected wound.
puss is something you call a cat.


recant/recount

You recant your testimony if you claim that you were mistaken or lying.
You recount a story (meaning you tell it).


reigns/reins

reigns are associated with kings and queens.
reins are associated with horses.


retch/wretch

To retch is to gag or vomit: He retched up his dinner.
A wretch is a low person: The poor wretch is starving.


right/rite

A right is a moral or legal entitlement, as in "right to free speech".
A rite is a ceremony, as in "rite of passage".


ring/wring

A telephone rings. It has a ringer. A near-twin is a dead ringer.
You wring out washing (possibly with a wringer, as in the expression "put through the wringer"). You also wring your hands.


secret/secrete

secret means hidden or not generally known: She hid in the secret passage.
secrete means to hide: He secreted the treasure under the floorboards.

Secrete also means to produce, usually some kind of fluid: The frogs secrete poison from their skins.


sew/sow

To sew means to join together with a needle and thread.
To sow means to plant seeds.


shear/sheer

sheer means you can see through it, usually applied to women's clothing: She wore a sheer silk nightgown. It also means "very steep": The sheer cliff loomed above them. And it's occasionally used as an intensifier: The sheer effrontery of his suggestion enraged her.
As a verb, "sheer" is used like this: He sheered away from the cliff; He sheered off down a little-used road.
shears are scissors: He cut the silk with his shears.
As a verb, "shear" is used in the sense of cutting: He sheared away (or sheared off) some of the excess.
There's "wind shear" as well, and other "shear forces", meaning forces that push at an angle.
Your best move if you want to use one or other of these words is to check the dictionary to make sure you've picked the right one.


sight/site

sight is the sense you use to see with.
A site is a place (including a web site).


sleight/slight

sleight means cleverness or quickness, usually in the phrase sleight of hand.
slight means an insult; small; or slender.


sole/soul

A sole is the bottom part of a shoe (or a kind of flatfish). It also means "alone".
A soul is the part of yourself that isn't your body.


some time/sometime

some time means "an amount of time": Some time had passed since he'd been there.
sometime means "at an indefinite time": He'd go there sometime, he was sure of it.

Compare: any more/anymore, far away/faraway.


staid/stayed

staid means steady, with an implication of old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy: The staid old man refused to get a cellphone.
stayed is the past tense of stay: He stayed in the same house for fifty years.


taunt/taut/taught

taunt is something you do when you mock someone.
taut means tight: The taut muscles of his stomach rippled.
taught is the past tense of teach.


tenants/tenets

tenants rent a building.
tenets are beliefs that you hold.


tic/tick

A tic is a twitch, usually repetitive, or, metaphorically, an unconscious habit.
A tick is a bloodsucking creature, the sound a clock makes, or, in British English, what Americans call a checkmark.


tousle/tussle

tousle means to mess up, usually someone's hair.
tussle means to wrestle.


troop/troupe

Soldiers form a troop. Acrobats form a troupe.


ululating/undulating

A cry can be described as ululating, meaning it goes up and down in pitch.
A landscape can be described as undulating, meaning that it goes up and down in height.


wail/wale/whale

wail means to make a loud, high-pitched noise.
wale (as a verb) means to make long thin marks.
whale (as a verb) means to hit hard and repeatedly. This is the one you want when someone is "whaling on" someone else.


waiver/waver

A waiver is something you sign to give up your right to sue.
If you waver, you are going back and forth, like a wave.


wangle/wrangle

To wangle is to use any influence or persuasiveness you possess to obtain something.
To wrangle is to round up cattle, or do something metaphorically similar to rounding up cattle (like directing employees).


wicker/whicker

wicker is what baskets are woven from.
A whicker is a noise a horse makes.


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