Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a writing session and words are flowing, yet you suddenly freeze. The story you’re telling remains crystal clear in your mind, yet you find yourself stumped about whether to use the word “affect” or “effect.”
Even the most talented writer with captivating stories to tell can get a little confused when it comes to proper English language word usage. Plenty of great writing becomes slightly derailed by spelling errors and usage errors involving commonly used words with different meanings. Whether you’re an experienced writer or someone trying your hand at creative writing for the first time since high school, take the time to review some common errors of word usage so you can be sure you’re selecting the right words every time.
16 Commonly Confused Words
What follows is a list of commonly confused words. Many are homophones—words that sound alike but are spelled differently—and homonyms—words that are spelled alike and sound alike but have different meanings (and thus won't be caught by a spellchecker if misused). Take the time to study these confusing words, which are among the most misused English words in contemporary writing.
- Affect vs. effect: When in doubt, “affect” is used as a verb and “effect” is used as a noun. “To affect” means “to cause change,” while “effect” means “a change or outcome.” On occasion, effect can be used as a verb (“she effected change on the institution”) and affect can be used as a noun (“she had a funny affect on stage”)—but note that in the latter example, the vowel sound of the word changes, and the first syllable becomes stressed.
- Capital vs. capitol: As a general rule, it’s almost always “capital.” The only time you should use “capitol” is when referring to an actual building that serves as the seat of government.
- Emigrate vs. immigrate: to “emigrate” is to leave one place and head for another. To “immigrate” is to arrive in a new place, having left another. So if a Pakistani woman leaves Pakistan and moves to England, she has emigrated from Pakistan and immigrated to England.
- Flaunt vs. flout: To “flaunt” something is to show it off. You can flaunt your new car or your Super Bowl championship ring. To “flout” is to disobey. You can flout the rule that says you can’t drive your car through the garden.
- Compliment vs. complement: “Compliment” refers to praise. “Complement” refers to something that adds to an existing person, thing, or idea—ideally making it whole. Both of these words can function as either a verb or a noun.
- Elude vs. allude: Unlike some other common word choice errors, these two do not have similar meanings. “Elude” means “to avoid detection” (either by being unnoticed or by creating physical distance). “Allude” means “to make indirect reference to something”; it’s related to the noun “allusion.”
- Allot vs. a lot: “A lot” refers to a large quantity. “Allot” is a verb, which means “to apportion.”
- Lose vs. loose: “Lose” is a verb meaning the opposite of “win.” “Loose” is an adjective meaning the opposite of “tight.”
- Apprise vs. appraise: “Apprise” is a verb that means “to inform someone of something.” “Appraise” is also a verb, but it means “to assess the value of something.”
- Lead vs. led: “Lead,” when it rhymes with “reed,” is a verb that means “to guide.” The past tense of the verb is “led.” However, there’s a heteronym here, which means there are two words with different meanings and different pronunciations that are both spelled this way. “Lead” can also rhyme with “head,” in which case it refers to an element on the periodic table.
- Prescribe vs. proscribe: To “prescribe” is to lay out instructions, like a doctor prescribing rest and hydration for a sick patient. To “proscribe” is to forbid or prohibit.
- Defuse vs. diffuse: “Defuse” means “to de-escalate from tension”—either literally when you defuse a bomb or figuratively when you calm down some angry people. “Diffuse” means “dispersed and spread out.” It’s often used as an adjective but can also be a verb.
- Between vs. among: “Between” refers to an interaction involving two parties. “Among” refers to an interaction involving three or more parties. So a secret can be shared between two friends or among a group of people.
- Disinterested vs. uninterested: “Disinterested” means “impartial and unbiased.” It’s typically a positive descriptor. “Uninterested” means you can’t be bothered to care. It’s the correct word to describe a disengaged teenager or someone who groans when sports come on TV.
- It’s vs. its: When spelled with an apostrophe, "it’s” is a contraction for “it is.” Without an apostrophe, it is a possessive pronoun. In other words, “its” is the possessive form of the pronoun “it.” The apostrophes make all the difference here.
- Current vs. currant: “Current” is by far the more common spelling. In noun form, it commonly refers to the flow of a fluid, and in adjective form, it commonly refers to the present day. “Currant,” on the other hand, is a type of berry.
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