Most Misunderstood Words
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.
It’s hard to deny the fact that the English language has a lot of regularly confused words. They either look alike, sound alike or, worst of all, look and sound alike (but have completely different meanings).
If you take a moment to study the regularly confused words below, you might be able to compose your next paper or text without having to stop and chat with Google!
Affect vs. Effect
These two are tricky because each word can act as both a noun and a verb. While it’s common to see “affect” working as a verb and “effect” working as a noun, both can operate as different parts of speech. Let’s take a look:
Affect (verb) — to have an effect on; influence; produce a change in; to stir the emotions
- The dog’s death affected his owners.
Affect (noun) — feeling or emotion, as it relates to psychology
- One of the telltale signs of love is persistent positive affect.
Effect (verb) — to create or to cause
- The new principal is trying to effect positive change in her students.
Effect (noun) — anything brought about by a cause or agent; result
- The new speed limit law had little effect on the speed of the motorists.
Here’s a concise summary of it all:
- The manager’s attempt to effect (v.) positive change on employee affect (n.) had the unintentional effect (n.) of affecting (v.) punctuality.
Accept vs. Except
Accept (verb) — to receive
- I accepted all my birthday gifts with gratitude.
Except (conjunction) — apart from; otherwise than; were it not true
- When Susan travels, she packs everything except the kitchen sink.
All Intensive Purposes vs. All Intents and Purposes
“All intensive purpose” is an incorrect use of the phrase “all intents and purposes.”
“All intents and purposes” is a phrase that means “for all practical purposes” or “under most usual situations.”
- For all intents and purposes, she planned to buy the refrigerator but still wanted to check the reviews.
A Lot vs. Allot
A lot (noun phrase) — many
- A lot of people came to the party.
Note — “A lot” is always two separate words. “Alot” is not a real word.
Allot (verb) — to distribute, give or assign
- Fifteen minutes were allotted to each of the speakers at the conference.
Allusion vs. Illusion
Allusion (noun) — an indirect reference
- The Austin Powers movies often make allusions to the James Bond films.
Illusion (noun) — a false idea or conception; belief or opinion not in accord with the facts; an unreal, deceptive, or misleading appearance or image
- The magician created the illusion that he was levitating.
Awhile vs. A While
Awhile (adverb) — for a while; for a short time
- The guests planned to stay awhile.
A while (noun) — for a short time; when “while” is used as the object of the preposition (i.e., for a while), then the “a” is separated from the “while”
- The guests planned to stay for a while.
Bad vs. Badly
Bad (adjective) — not good
- Your feet smell bad.
Badly (adverb) — not well; in a bad manner; harmfully; incorrectly; wickedly; unpleasantly
- Charlotte plays tennis very badly.
- The people involved in the accident were badly hurt.
Note — Adjectives generally describe nouns, so even if you use the word “bad” following a verb in a sentence, if it’s meant to describe the thing itself, then use the adjective. “Bad” here means the same as “rotten,” “rancid,” or “stinky,” all of which are adjectives. For example, “She had a bad taste in her mouth after eating the bad apple.”
It can also operate under the pretense of being evil, of low quality, damaged, or undesirable. For example, “The writer had a bad back from sitting in a bad chair.” If you can replace “bad” with another adjective and still have a sentence that makes sense, then you know that “bad” was the correct choice.
Adverbs often describe the manner in which something is done. To say “your feet smell badly” is to say that your feet are inhaling through the nose and perceiving odors, and that they’re going about it all wrong.
Borrow vs. Lend
Borrow (verb) — to take or accept something for a short time with the intention of returning it to its rightful owner
- May I borrow a pencil, please?
Lend (verb) — to give something for a short time with the intention of getting it back
- Would you please lend me a pencil?
Breath vs. Breathe
Breath (noun) — air taken into the lungs and then let out
- Take a deep breath.
Breathe (verb) — to inhale and exhale
- Just calm down and breathe.
One way to differentiate between the two is to remember that the noun, breath, is pronounced with an EH vowel sound, as in “bed.” Meanwhile, breathe is pronounced with an EE vowel sound, as in “sheen.”
Butt Naked vs. Buck Naked
Butt naked is a phrase that means to be without clothes.
- The baby tore off his diaper and ran around the house butt naked.
Buck naked is a phrase that also means to be naked and without clothing.
- The baby tore off his diaper and ran around the house buck naked.
Note — Neither of these phrases is incorrect. The term buck naked may derive from the term buckskin, that from which hides are fashioned. However, neither term has much etymological backing for one being more correct than another.
Cache vs. Cash
Cache (noun) — a safe place to store supplies; anything stored or hidden in such a place
- The hikers found a cache with some cash and jewels.
Cash (noun) — money, coins, bills; currency
- ATM machines dispense cash.
Chomp at the Bit vs. Champ at the Bit
Chomp at the bit — an overused and incorrect form of “champ at the bit”
Champ at the bit (idiom) — ready or anxious; eager to be going or moving along.
- The kids were champing at the bit to see the newest Harry Potter movie.
Complement vs. Compliment
Complement (noun) — that which completes or brings to perfection; (verb) — to make complete
- Red wine is a nice complement to a steak dinner.
Compliment (noun) — something said in admiration, praise, or flattery; (verb) — to pay a compliment to; congratulate
- She gave me a nice compliment when she said I looked thin.
Comprise vs. Compose
Comprise (verb) — to include; to contain; to consist of; to be composed of
- The state of North Carolina comprises 100 counties.
Compose (verb) — to form in combination; make up; constitute
- One hundred counties compose the state of North Carolina.
Could Of vs. Could Have
Could of — an incorrect use of the verb phrase “could have”; when written as a contraction “could’ve” sounds like “could of.”
Could have — the past perfect tense of the verb “could”
- I could have gone to the play, but I had to study that night.
Desert vs. Dessert
Desert (verb) — to forsake or abandon; to leave without permission; to fail when needed
- Soldiers should not desert their posts.
Desert (noun) — dry, barren, sandy region
- The largest desert in the world is the Sahara.
Dessert (noun) — a sweet course served at the end of a meal
- Fruit makes a healthy dessert after lunch or dinner.
Done vs. Did
Done (adjective) — completed; sufficiently cooked
- The Thanksgiving turkey is done!
Done (verb) — the past participle of do
- After an hour, the roast was done.
For more on participles, check out Participle Examples.
Did (verb) — past tense of do
- The children did not want to leave the playground.
For more on the past tense, check out this Past Tense Verb Chart.
Elicit vs. Illicit
Elicit (verb) — to draw forth; evoke
- The teacher elicited answers from the students.
Illicit (adjective) — unlawful; illegal
- The teacher discovered illicit drugs in a student’s desk.
Hone vs. Home
Hone (verb) — to sharpen; to yearn or long for; to grumble or moan
- Practicing the piano daily is a good way to hone your skills.
Home (noun) — dwelling; place where a person lives
- After the long drive, we were all ready to be home and asleep.
Idiosyncrasy vs. Idiosyncracy
Idiosyncrasy (noun) — any personal peculiarity or mannerism; individual reaction to food or drug.
- Twins have idiosyncrasies, which often help to distinguish one from the other.
Idiosyncracy is a misspelling of idiosyncrasy.
Imitated vs. Intimated
Imitated (verb) — past tense of the verb imitate, which means to seek to follow the example of; impersonate; mimic
- The toddler imitated the dog by crawling on hands and knees and barking.
Intimated (verb) — to make known indirectly; to hint or imply
- The pirate intimated that he knew where the treasure was buried.
In a Sense vs. In Essence
In a sense (idiom) — in a way; in one way of looking at it
- In a sense, computers have been a boon to society.
In essence (idiom) — by nature; essentially
- The cat is, in essence, quiet and timid.
Its vs. It’s
Its (possessive pronoun) — of, belonging to, made by, or done by it
- The dog will only eat its food when I am also eating.
It’s (contraction) of it + is
- It’s a very strange dog.
Lead vs. Led
Lead (noun) — a heavy, soft, malleable, bluish-gray metallic chemical element used in batteries and in numerous alloys and compounds
- I think it was Mrs. White in the billiard room with the lead pipe.
Led (verb) — past tense and past participle of the verb “to lead”
- The two coaches have each led their teams to numerous championships.
Lose vs. Loose
Lose (verb) — to become unable to find; to mislay; to fail to win or gain
- Did you lose your glasses again?
- How many games did your team lose last season?
Loose (adjective) — not tight; giving enough room
- I’ve lost twenty pounds, and now these jeans are really loose.
More/Most Importantly vs. More/Most Important
More/most importantly — a phrase used often in writing to show emphasis; however, many grammarians insist that this is not correct usage. The adverbial ending of -ly is not needed.
More/most important — Use this phrase instead.
- The most important part of story is the ending.
- Even more important than that, you need to be nicer to one another.
Passed vs. Past
Passed (verb) — past tense of the verb “to pass”
- I think we passed the store. Let’s turn around and go back.
Past (adjective) — of a former time; bygone; (noun) — the time that has gone by; days, months, or years gone by
- In the past, I’ve gotten lost a lot, but this time, I know where we are.
Precede vs. Proceed
Precede (verb) — to be, come, or go before in time, place, order, rank, or importance
- The election of a new president precedes his inauguration.
Proceed (verb) — to advance or go on, especially after stopping
- After your first assignment has been completed and approved, you may proceed to the second one.
Principal vs. Principle
Principal (noun) — a governing or presiding officer, specifically of a school; (adjective) — first in rank, authority, importance, degree, etc.
- The student’s parents had to have a meeting with the principal.
Principle (noun) — a fundamental truth, law, doctrine, or motivating force, upon which others are based
- The student’s parents thought that they had instilled stronger moral principles in their son.
Seen vs. Saw
Seen (verb) — past participle of the verb see; must be used with the verbs has, have, or had
- I have seen the movie three times.
Note — I “seen” the movie three times is not correct though it is commonly used in spoken language.
Saw (verb) — past tense of the verb see
- I saw the movie yesterday.
Sell vs. Sale
Sell (verb) — to give up, deliver or exchange for money
- People who move often sell unwanted items instead of packing them.
Sale (noun) — the act of selling; the work, department, etc. of selling
- Black Friday sales always bring in the bargain shoppers.
Should Of vs. Should Have
Should of — an incorrect use of the verb phrase “should have”; when written as a contraction “should’ve” sounds like “should of.”
Should have — the past perfect tense of the verb “should”
- I should have gone to the play instead of studying because I failed my test anyway.
Site vs. Sight vs. Cite
Sight (noun) — something seen, a view, field of vision
- She was a sight for sore eyes.
Site (noun) — a piece of land considered for a specific purpose
- The corner lot was a perfect site for the new shopping center.
Cite (verb) — to show your source of information
- She didn’t properly cite her sources in her essay.
Stationary vs. Stationery
Stationary (adjective) — not moving or not movable; fixed or still
- I rode the stationary bike at the gym for an hour.
Stationery (noun) — writing materials; specifically, paper and envelopes used for letters
- My grandmother has given me a lot of stationery over the years. I think she wants me to use it to write her.
Than vs. Then
Than (conjunction) — used to introduce the second element in a comparison
- My right foot is bigger than my left foot.
Then (adverb) — at that time; next in order; (adjective) — of that time; (noun) — that time
- Take off all your clothes first. Then, get in the shower.
- Emily drove up to New York with her then-boyfriend Nick.
- Let’s wait until we’re hungry; we can decide what we want to eat then.
Their vs. There vs. They’re
Their (adjective) — of, belonging to, made by, or done by them
- They were proud of their work.
There (noun) — that place or point
- Just put it over there.
They’re (contraction) of they + are
- They’re going out to dinner tonight.
To vs. Too vs. Two
To (preposition) — in the direction of and reaching; as far as; to the extent of
- I’m going to Baltimore.
Too (adverb) — in addition; as well; besides; also; more than enough; superfluously; overly; to a regrettable extent; extremely
- I’m going to Baltimore too.
- I’m too busy. I can’t go to Baltimore.
Two (adjective) — the number 2
- I have two jobs.
Your vs. You’re
Your (adjective) — belonging to you
- Is this your dog?
You’re (contraction) — you are
- You’re a great mother!
Who vs. Whom
Who (subject pronoun) — what or which person or persons; the person or persons that, or a person that (used to introduce a relative clause)
- Who is going to the party with you?
Whom (object pronoun) — what or which person or persons; the person or persons that, or a person that (used to introduce a relative clause)
- With whom are you going to the party?
Would Of vs. Would Have
Would of — an incorrect use of the verb phrase “would have”; when written as a contraction “would’ve” sounds like “would of.”
Would have — the past perfect tense of the verb “would”
- I would have gone to the play except my car wouldn’t start.
Conquer Commonly 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.