The Write Stuff – Blog

Mar 21 2011 Commonly Confused Words
Commonly confused words

I have to admit, I’ve always had a pretty low tolerance when reading professionally written articles in which the wrong words have been used. I figure if you’re a professional writer, you should know better.

However, given the complexity of the English language, with all its homonyms and homophones and ‘exceptions to the rule’, it’s not at all surprising that many people get some words confused.

The following is a list of some of the most commonly confused words – about half of which I have seen misused in the last week alone.  

ADVICE vs ADVISE

Advice is a noun – it is what you give:

Let me give you a word of advice.

Advise is a verb – it is what you do when you give advice:

I will advise you of my decision tomorrow.

AFFECT vs EFFECT

Affect – to cause a change, provoke an emotion, or take on a change:

He affected a limp to gain sympathy from his friends.

Effect – the result of a change:

His limp did not produce the desired effect on his friends.

Take a more in depth look at Affect vs Effect and how to tell you have it right.

COMPLEMENT vs COMPLIMENT

Complement – is something that either completes a whole, or refers to additional features that will enhance something:

A new pair of shoes may complement your favourite dress.

Compliment – an expression of flattery. It can also mean any item free of charge:

Your friend may compliment you on what a lovely outfit you are wearing.

Buy a new pair of shoes and receive a complimentary pair of stockings.

ENSURE vs INSURE

Ensure – is to make sure of something:

You must ensure you insure your car against theft.

Insure – is to protect against accident or loss:

You must ensure you insure your car against theft.

ITS vs IT’S

Its – this is the possessive form of ‘it’. While most possessive nouns require the use of an apostrophe to denote possession, ‘its’ is an exception to the rule:

I’m afraid of its great big teeth!

It’s – this is a shortened version of ‘it has’ or ‘it is’:

It’s seen me now and I’m afraid it’s too late to run away!

LITERALLY vs VIRTUALLY

Literally – to speak in the most basic and straightforward fashion:

There were literally no customers today.

In this context, it would mean there was not a single customer at all.

Virtually – nearly or almost:

There were virtually no customers today.

In this context, it would mean there were very few customersalmost none.

PRINCIPAL vs PRINCIPLE

Principal – of foremost importance, or the head of an educational organisation:

The principal called the student into his office to discuss the principal values of the school.

Principle – only ever a noun, it is a fundamental truth or code of conduct:

He refused on principle to accept the bribe.

STATIONARY vs STATIONERY

Stationary – not moving:

It’s a good idea to remain stationary while having your hair cut.

Stationery – office supplies:

It’s a good idea to keep your stationery supplies well-stocked.

THAN vs THEN

Than – a term used with comparatives or alternatives:

My sister is taller than I am.

Then – a term used with relation to time, or ‘in the case of’:

If I stand on a box then I will be taller than my sister.

WEATHER vs WHETHER

Weather – atmospheric conditions:

The weather should be delightful this weekend.

Whether – an indication of choice:

I don’t know whether we will go to the park or not.

These are just a small portion of commonly confused words. What are some of the words you’ve often seen mixed up, or do you have any handy hints for remebering which is the right word in the right context?

Posted in Copywriting Tips by 19 comments

19 Responses to “Commonly Confused Words”

  • Reply Sally March 22, 2011at 9:16 am

    Great article Anna! I can see myself referring back to this article repeatedly… lol
    Thank you.

    • Reply Anna Peterson March 22, 2011at 10:29 am

      Thanks Sally, glad to know it’s helpful 🙂

  • Reply Stephen March 22, 2011at 12:17 pm

    Great to see you promoting the correct usage of our problematic English language! 😉

    A couple of reminders I use myself include:
    Compliment – makes someone smile (the ‘i’ in smile matches the ‘i’ in compliment)
    Complement – goes together (the ‘e’ in together matches the ‘e’ in together)

    Stationary – not moving, therefore “halt” (the ‘a’ in halt matches the ‘a’ in stationary)
    Stationery – everything else, office supplies (pick whichever ‘e’ you wish to match)

    I’ve passed these on to many colleagues in the past. Great to share them here with your readers too. 🙂

    • Reply Anna Peterson March 22, 2011at 12:24 pm

      Hey thanks for sharing your tips here Stephen! It’s always great to find new ways to make these confusing words easier to remember. A great application of the “KISS” theory..!

    • Reply Rachael Andrews July 26, 2011at 2:32 am

      I do the principal of a school is your ‘pal’ , love these little tricks

      • Reply Anna Butler July 26, 2011at 2:47 am

        Maybe not if you’re being called into the principal’s office..! 😉

        But not a bad way to remember. Perhaps the same could be applied to the principals which serve as your ethical guide… they are your ‘pals’.

        Thanks for sharing Rachael.

  • Reply Kate Toon March 23, 2011at 6:16 pm

    A very well written clear explanation that I will be bookmarking!
    I always remember the stationery/stationary one by thinking ‘ the cAr is stationAry, the lEtter is StationEry.’

    • Reply Anna Peterson March 24, 2011at 8:40 am

      Hi Kate – thanks for your feedback and your tips on remembering stationery/stationary. I really enjoy finding out the different methods people employ to remember similar words (or even names, dates.. whatever!).

      Keep an eye on this blog for similar articles down the track.

  • Reply Dan March 25, 2011at 11:03 am

    Thanks for the article, affect vs effect gets me every time. It confuses me so much I usually just use another word like has an impact on!

    • Reply Anna Peterson March 25, 2011at 12:03 pm

      My pleasure Dan… and when in doubt, absolutely substitute a word you know is correct!

      Another tip for remembering Affect vs Effect is to remember the phrase “cause and effect”. If you can remember Affect = CAUSE (change, modify, etc.) and Effect = RESULT of what was caused (changed, modified, etc.), that should also help as a quick reference.

  • Reply blengas March 30, 2011at 10:55 pm

    I was looking for this kind of review for about 1 hour.. i’m glad i found it. Great piece of work, continue it. Best Regards.

    • Reply Anna Peterson March 31, 2011at 9:36 am

      Hi Blengas – thanks so much for your feedback and I’m really glad you found it to be a helpful article. I’ll definitely be exploring more of the trickier elements of the English language in future posts, so I hope you keep reading 😀

  • Reply Tania Shirgwin July 26, 2011at 2:18 am

    Thanks Anna
    Great post – I’ve bookmarked as I always have difficulty with some of these words.
    English is confusing especially as it continues to evolve. Love to know your thoughts – scarves or scarfs? What is the most acceptable?
    Cheers
    Tania

    • Reply Anna Butler July 26, 2011at 2:35 am

      Hi Tania,

      I would only use “scarfs” if I was describing how my dog “scarfs” down his food in 2 seconds flat! As with most words ending with the letter “F”, the plural from changes to a “V”… so “scarves” would be the most acceptable term (just like leaf/leaves, proof/proves, loaf/loaves…)

      Of course, the English language always has some exceptions – although I can’t think of any off the top of my head right now…. except the aforementioned use of “scarfs” (and that use of the word isn’t even mentioned in my trusty Penguin dictionary).

      Hope that helps 🙂

  • Reply Chris Leese July 26, 2011at 2:19 am

    My pet hate at the moment is the use of ‘there’s’ where ‘there are’ would be correct. Granted, it’s a mistake made more commonly in speech than in writing, and I’m probably guilty of it too, but I expect newsreaders, at least, to get it right.

    • Reply Anna Butler July 26, 2011at 2:40 am

      I have to admit, I find that’s probably the one contraction I correct myself on the most.

      As you said, most of us use “there’s” (there is) in speech when we should in fact use “there’re” (there are). For instance, if you were to say “There’s several ways of going about it”, it wouldn’t really sound that bad… until you removed the contraction and said “There is several ways of going about it”, which does sound decidedly odd.

      I totally agree, however, that professional speakers or writers should use the correct phrasing.

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