Easily Confused Words – Part 1
“The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
During my 25 years of reading and correcting papers and reports for students and adults, I have come across many different spelling and usage errors. Some have made me smile and some have made me groan and shake my head. Here is a small sample of the words I have seen confused or substituted the most often. Some of my own spelling and usage demons are included in this list too.
Advice, Advise: The noun advice means a suggestion or opinion regarding a course of action. Advise is a verb meaning to give advice, and the person who does this is an advisor or adviser (both are correct).
- My college advisor gave me some great advice. He advised me to take a variety of courses before declaring a major.
Affect, Effect: Affect is usually used as a verb meaning to influence or to have an effect on. (1) The noun effect means results or consequences. (2) The verb effect means to bring about.
- The coronavirus affected all of our lives and had a dramatic effect on schools, hospitals, and businesses. (1)
- When life returns to normal, businesses hope to effect changes in their operations. (2)
Al and All words: Some one-word and two-word forms vary according to the meaning:
- The ham is almost done; you are all most welcome to join us for dinner.
- By the time we were all ready to leave, the taxi was already here.
- We were not altogether happy about being all together at the camp.
The last two are frequently misused:
- All right is correct, meaning entirely right or adequate, but alright is not a word.
- A lot is correct but alot is not a word.
Capital, Capitol: Capital and capitol are often confused because they refer to things that are related. A town or city that is the seat of government is the capital but the building in which a legislative body meets is the capitol.
- Capital also refers to wealth, an uppercase letter, and something first rate or excellent, as in a capital idea.
- The Capitol building which houses the U.S. Congress is always capitalized.
Complement, Compliment: While distinct in meaning, they are often confused because they are pronounced the same and almost spelled the same. Complement is both a verb and a noun, meaning to complete a whole or satisfy a need. Compliment is also a verb and a noun meaning praise.
- “The antique silver was a complement to the beautifully set table.” (noun) (Am. Heritage)
- “The neutral color of the paint complements the beauty of the oak floors.” (verb) (Am. Heritage)
- The bride paid her friend a compliment on the exquisitely wrapped gift.
- The guests complimented the bride’s parents on the delicious dinner.
Fewer, Less: Fewer is used with individual items that can be counted (fewer potatoes) and less is used for quantity or when the item is regarded as a single entity (less oatmeal).
- “The fewer mistakes you make, the less embarrassment you will feel.” (Venolia)
Irregardless: This is a redundancy and is not considered standard English. Use regardless and you won’t get into trouble with the Grammar Police.
Its, It’s: Its is the possessive pronoun and it’s is a contraction meaning it is or it has.
- “The apostrophe has a life of its own.” (Venolia)
- “It’s easy to put the apostrophe in its place.” (Venolia)
Lay, Lie: Lay means to place or put down while lie means to recline.
More confusing and misused words will appear in “Easily Confused Words-Part Two.”
Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries. 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2016.
Venolia, Jan. Write Right! A Desktop Digest of Punctuation, Grammar, and Style. 4th Edition. Berkley: Ten Speed Press, 2001.
Karen Schuster, April 19, 2020