Writing Wednesday: 25 Commonly Confused Words that Undermine Your Writing

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Homophones, homonyms, homographs and heteronyms. These words all sound pretty similar, which is fitting because they are used to describe the many ways similar-sounding or -spelled words can actually differ. This may sound like a boring language lesson but mixing up these pesky words can dilute the strength of your writing and undermine your credibility.

A Brief Rundown

Homonyms and Homophones: Words that fall into these categories share a sound (like “fair judgment” and “country fair“), but have different meanings. Homophones are a special type of homonym, which have a shared sound but different spelling (like “bear” and “bare“).

Homographs and Heteronyms: These types of words have a common spelling (like “lie down” and “tell a lie“), but have different meanings. Heteronyms take this distinction even further, and have a shared spelling but a different sound (like “tear your shirt” and “shed a tear“).

Where it gets really fun is when homographs can also be homonyms! So you can see how these sorts of words can be confusing, especially when you have to remember them in addition to all the other easily mixed-up words in the English language.

So check out the twenty-five word pairs below to see if you have been weakening your writing by making the wrong word choice!

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1) Precedence and Precedent

Precedence: The act of preceding, the right to preferential treatment or the ceremonial priority to be observed by people of different stations.
Precedent: An event that happened earlier and is looked at as an example or guide for how similar events should follow.

“As per the precedent set at our last meeting, I should be given precedence over you for voicing my opinion.”

2) Accept and Except

Accept: A verb meaning to agree with, take in or receive.
Except: A preposition meaning “apart from”; sometimes used as a verb meaning to leave out.

“We accept all major credit cards except Diner’s Club.”

3) Lie and Lay

Lie: An intransitive verb, meaning it is being done by a subject.
Lay: A transitive verb, meaning it is being done to an object.

Okay, the above is almost always true – except for when “lay” is the past tense of “lie.” Isn’t grammar fun! “I know that you shouldn’t lie down after eating. But after I lay my coat on my bed, I lay down for a quick nap anyway.”

4) Haggle and Barter

Haggle: To negotiate a price.
Barter: To exchange goods, rather than money, as part of a transaction.

5) Allusion and Illusion

Allusion: A metaphorical reference.
Illusion: A false or misleading impression of reality.

The television show Arrested Development poked fun at this commonly confused pair when magician Tony Wonder was forced to rename his show “Use Your Allusion” upon finding out that Guns ‘n’ Roses had already taken Use Your Illusion (and Use Your Illusion II) for their album name. Rather than magic tricks, the “World’s Greatest Magician” ended up paying tribute to “the works of America’s Greatest Poets.”

6) Take and Bring

Take: To deliver something to another place.
Bring: To come to a place with something.

The best way to remember this one is to think about direction in relation to the speaker – “bring” is coming and “take” is going.

“Please bring me the cookies and take this broccoli away.”

7) Capital and Capitol

Capital: The most important city in a region or country; the administrative and governmental centre.
Capitol: The actual building or buildings in which the state’s government meets.

8) Affect and Effect

Affect: As a verb it means “to influence something.” As a noun it is used in psychology to communicate an emotion or desire that influences behaviour or action.
Effect: As a verb it means to “cause” or “bring about something.” As a noun it applies the change that occurs as a result of an influence or action.

“Her friendly affect had a strong effect on him that affected him greatly, causing a very positive emotional effect.” Okay, this was a bit of a stretch – try to avoid using all four meanings at once!

9) Canvas and Canvass

Canvas: A type of fabric.
Canvass: Trying to get people’s support, or finding where their support lies.

Most people don’t realise there are two different spellings for these words.

10) Ironic and Coincidental

Ironic: Something that is the opposite of what is expected or appropriate.
Coincidental: A notable occurrence of somehow connected events with no obvious causality.

Thanks to Alanis Morissette, a whole generation of music fans grew up with the misconception that something merely coincidental could be classified as “Ironic.”

11) Elicit and Illicit

Elicit: A verb meaning to evoke or draw out a response.
Illicit: Describes something that is illegal or otherwise forbidden.

“His illicit conduct elicited a five-year sentence from the judge.”

12) Defuse and Diffuse

Defuse: Literally, to “de-fuse” a bomb. More generally, it means to render a situation less volatile or dangerous.
Diffuse: To disperse randomly.

“She defused the situation by diffusing the arguing parties around the room.”

13) Principal and Principle

Principal: First in order of importance (e.g., a figurehead or initial investment).
Principle: The fundamental truth or assumption that is the foundation of a belief system or scientific truth.

14) E.g., and I.e.,

E.g.,: Exempli gratiā, a Latin term meaning “for example.”
I.e.,: Id est, a Latin term meaning “that is.”

While not full words in their standard usage, these common Latin abbreviations still make the cut as they continue to be misused in both academic and colloquial writing. Most people assume they can be used interchangeably when providing an example when, in fact, “i.e.” should only be used for further clarification of what has already been stated.

15) Guaranty and Guarantee

Guaranty: A binding insurance of the performance of a service or product.
Guarantee: The person who benefits from that guaranty.

A similar confusion exists between “warranty” and “warrantee.”

16) Nauseous and Nauseated

Nauseous: Causing a sensation of nausea.
Nauseated: Experiencing a sensation of nausea.

While both are now commonly used to mean “nauseated,” the original intended meanings may cause you to think twice before saying “I’m nauseous” the next time you’re feeling ill.

17) Hay and Straw

Hay: Animal feed made from a cut and dried grassy plant.
Straw: The dry stalk of a cereal plant (e.g., barley, oats, rice or rye) used to line an animal’s pen or stall.

Though these words may not come up unless you are writing a story set in the country, you can save yourself some research time by simply learning the difference between them.

18) Comprise and Compose

Comprise: A verb referring to how a whole is made up of elements.
Compose: As a non-musical verb, it refers to how elements come together to make up a whole.

Like “bring” and “take,” these words refer to opposite sides of a similar experience. “Canada comprises ten provinces and three territories” versus “Canada is composed of ten provinces and three territories.”

19) If and Whether

If: Expresses conditionality.
Whether: Refers to alternatives.

Many people use these words interchangeably, especially in casual conversation. However, if you are going to choose one of these words, be sure to note whether you are speaking of conditional terms or comparing options.

20) Levee and Levy

Levee: A raised structure built along a river to prevent flooding.
Levy: A verb meaning to impose a fine or other assessment.

If you make a mistake with these when speaking it is no problem. But in your writing, you will be showing your ignorance of the difference between the two.

21) Farther and Further

Farther: Used to describe actual quantifiable distance.
Further: Used to describe a more figurative type of distance or to express a degree or extent.

Keep “far” in mind to help you remember this one: “He moved farther from the city, further hurting his chances at the job.”

22) Less and Fewer

Less: A smaller amount of something that cannot be quantified.
Fewer: A smaller number of actual things.

“John had fewer friends than Mark because he was less nice.”

23) Preemptory and Preemptive

Preemptory: An absolute, undeniable statement.
Preemptive: An action taken before an adverse action can be.

These words may sound similar but they don’t actually mean the same thing. Many people use “preemptory” when they mean “preemptive,” perhaps not even realising they aren’t the same word.

24) Reluctant and Reticent

Reluctant: Unwilling.
Reticent: Quiet.

While “reticent” can mean unwilling to speak, it does not apply as generally as “reluctant” does.

25) Loath and Loathe

Loath: Yet another adjective for “unwilling”!
Loathe: A verb meaning “to strongly dislike.”

“Though I am loath to admit it, I truly loathe my new haircut.”

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