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.

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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:

Accept vs. Except

Accept (verb) — to receive

All Intensive Purposes vs. All Intents and Purposes

“All intensive purpose” is an incorrect use of the phrase “all intents and purposes.”

A Lot vs. Allot

A lot (noun phrase) — many

Allusion vs. Illusion

Allusion (noun) — an indirect reference

Awhile vs. A While

Awhile (adverb) — for a while; for a short time

Bad vs. Badly

Bad (adjective) — not good

  • The people involved in the accident were badly hurt.

Borrow vs. Lend

Borrow (verb) — to take or accept something for a short time with the intention of returning it to its rightful owner

Breath vs. Breathe

Breath (noun) — air taken into the lungs and then let out

Butt Naked vs. Buck Naked

Butt naked is a phrase that means to be without clothes.

Cache vs. Cash

Cache (noun) — a safe place to store supplies; anything stored or hidden in such a place

Chomp at the Bit vs. Champ at the Bit

Chomp at the bit — an overused and incorrect form of “champ at the bit”

Complement vs. Compliment

Complement (noun) — that which completes or brings to perfection; (verb) — to make complete

Comprise vs. Compose

Comprise (verb) — to include; to contain; to consist of; to be composed of

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.”

Desert vs. Dessert

Desert (verb) — to forsake or abandon; to leave without permission; to fail when needed

Done vs. Did

Done (adjective) — completed; sufficiently cooked

Elicit vs. Illicit

Elicit (verb) — to draw forth; evoke

Hone vs. Home

Hone (verb) — to sharpen; to yearn or long for; to grumble or moan

Idiosyncrasy vs. Idiosyncracy

Idiosyncrasy (noun) — any personal peculiarity or mannerism; individual reaction to food or drug.

Imitated vs. Intimated

Imitated (verb) — past tense of the verb imitate, which means to seek to follow the example of; impersonate; mimic

In a Sense vs. In Essence

In a sense (idiom) — in a way; in one way of looking at it

Its vs. It’s

Its (possessive pronoun) — of, belonging to, made by, or done by it

Lead vs. Led

Lead (noun) — a heavy, soft, malleable, bluish-gray metallic chemical element used in batteries and in numerous alloys and compounds

Lose vs. Loose

Lose (verb) — to become unable to find; to mislay; to fail to win or gain

  • How many games did your team lose last season?

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.

  • 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”

Precede vs. Proceed

Precede (verb) — to be, come, or go before in time, place, order, rank, or importance

Principal vs. Principle

Principal (noun) — a governing or presiding officer, specifically of a school; (adjective) — first in rank, authority, importance, degree, etc.

Seen vs. Saw

Seen (verb) — past participle of the verb see; must be used with the verbs has, have, or had

Sell vs. Sale

Sell (verb) — to give up, deliver or exchange for money

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.”

Site vs. Sight vs. Cite

Sight (noun) — something seen, a view, field of vision

Stationary vs. Stationery

Stationary (adjective) — not moving or not movable; fixed or still

Than vs. Then

Than (conjunction) — used to introduce the second element in a comparison

  • 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

To vs. Too vs. Two

To (preposition) — in the direction of and reaching; as far as; to the extent of

  • I’m too busy. I can’t go to Baltimore.

Your vs. You’re

Your (adjective) — belonging to you

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)

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.”

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.

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Teaching Writing, Grammar, Literature, and the SAT One Page at a time…

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