10 Commonly Confused Words

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Below is a list of  ten of the most commonly confused words in English and a brief explanation of each. Click the link at the bottom for a free PDF copy of the article. Please share!

 

1.       its/it’s

 Its is a possessive pronoun. Possessive pronouns, unlike possessive nouns (e.g., sister’s, dog’s, Bob’s),   do not contain an apostrophe: ours, yours, his, theirs, its. It’s is a contraction of the words it and is. Before including the apostrophe, be sure you mean it is.

  • As it made the sharp turn, the Honda lost its hubcap.
  • Many people believe it’s possible to travel in time. (Think: Many people believe it is possible to travel in time.)
2.      to/too/two 

To is usually a preposition and begins a prepositional phrase (to the store, to Grandmother’s house, to Chicago). If to is followed by a verb, it is being used as an infinitive (to leave, to eat, to grow).

  • I asked Melanie to the prom.
  • I would like to visit the Grand Canyon.

Too is an adverb meaning “to an excessive degree,”  “also,” or “very.” Use too when modifying verbs, adjectives or adverbs.

  • Trigonometry is too hard for me.
  • I like artichokes too.

Two is the number.  You know, the one that comes between one and three?

3.       lie/lay  

This one confuses just about everybody.  Lie is an intransitive verb. That means you don’t lie something, you just lie. Lay, on the other hand, is transitive—you have to lay something.

  • I think I’ll lie on the sofa and take a nap.
  • Lay your coat on the sofa.

What makes this really confusing, however, is that the past form of the verb lie is lay (no kidding). The past form of lay, on the other hand, is laid.

  • Yesterday, I lay on the sofa.
  • Yesterday, I laid my coat on the sofa.

Note: Due to common usage, the intransitive use of lay is becoming increasingly acceptable.

4.       affect/effect

Usually, affect is the verb and effect is the noun.

  • Plentiful sunshine greatly affects the health of house plants.
  • Plentiful sunshine has many effects on house plants.

It’s not common, but effect can be used as a verb too, meaning “to bring about.”

  • We all hope the new CEO can effect some needed change in company morale.
5.       their/there/they’re

Their is a possessive pronoun. Use it to show ownership.

  • My teammates left their soggy socks in my locker

There is a pronoun that sometimes shows location and other times precedes a linking verb, taking the place of the subject.

  • I put my chewed gum right there behind the sofa.
  • There are twelve flamingoes in the gazebo.

They’re is a contraction of they and are.

  • I can’t believe they’re raising my taxes! (Think: I can’t believe they are raising my taxes!)
6.       fewer/less

Fewer is used with items that can be counted. Less should be used with amounts that cannot be counted. Note: This is a general principle; there are some exceptions, and contemporary experts increasingly disregard the distinction here.

  • That actress gets fewer roles than she used to.
  • That actress has less talent than my Aunt Patsy.

There are several related errors here that all revolve around the difference between amount and number. This chart will help distinguish words that belong to particular categories:

not countable example countable example
amount a small amount of color number a small number of insects
less less beauty fewer fewer people
quantity a vast quantity of liquid number a vast number of stars
much much applause many many standing ovations

 

7.       than/then

Than is used in comparisons. Use then when referring to time.

  • Disco was more popular than punk rock.
  • Finish high school first, then you can think about college.
8.       accept/except

Accept means to receive willingly. Except means to leave something out or exclude it.

  • Vinnie felt obligated to accept the gift of ballet tickets.
  • I like all flavors of ice cream except those with nuts.
9.       anxious/eager

Anxious has traditionally meant “filled with anxiety.” That’s not a good thing. So, when you say, “I’ve been anxious to meet you,” you probably mean “eager to meet you.” Eager means “anticipating with pleasure.”.

  • I am anxious about my root canal this afternoon.
  • I am eager to see my favorite uncle, Henry, at the reunion.

Note: The use of anxious as a synonym for eager is becoming increasingly acceptable due to common usage

10.   complement/compliment

When you say something nice about somebody, you are offering a compliment. When something goes nicely with something else or makes up for what something else lacks, we say it complements the object.

 

  • The tablecloth nicely complements the wallpaper.
  • When I asked if she had lost some weight, I meant it as a compliment.

Click here for a printable copy of this lesson: Top Ten Confused Words

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian Wasko

Brian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.

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  1. Rhonda Barfield
    Rhonda Barfield06-02-2012

    Hmmm. I was familiar with all of these except for the “anxious”/”eager” distinction. And writing coaches are supposed to know everything. . .

  2. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko05-30-2012

    Yes, that’s true, Marie (it’s why I wrote “usually), but it’s such a specialized usage, I didn’t think we needed to mention it in this short overview.

    Thanks for keeping us honest!

  3. Marie
    Marie05-30-2012

    Affect can be a noun in psychologists’ jargon.
    “He had flat affect.”
    = “He showed no emotion.”

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