The English language has many words that look and sound alike, and become confused with one another. Many words share similar meanings that are easy to misuse.
Knowing the differences between these words can help you use them correctly and ensure your message is made clear to your audience without any confusion or misinterpretation. Use this article as a quick reference when you need to double-check easily mistaken spellings or definitions.
Easily Mixed Up Words in the English Language
The English language has many confusing word pairs that either look alike or sound alike and gets mixed up in speech and writing. Knowing some of the most commonly confused words in advance can help you determine proper use so you don’t accidentally miscommunicate what you are trying to say.
Take a look at some of the words most often spelled or used incorrectly, their denotative meaning, and examples of how to properly use them.
Accept vs. Except
Accept means to agree to receive or agree to do something. Except means to disclude or leave out. For example:
- She accepted the new job and was excited to get started, except she was concerned about how early she had to be in the office.
Adverse vs. Averse
Adverse is to be unfavorable or harmful. Averse means to strongly dislike or to be opposed to something. For example:
- She was overwhelmed with the adverse circumstances at work, leading to a strong aversion to her co-workers and project manager.
Advise vs. Advice
The act of advising is to provide recommendations and is a verb, while advice is a noun and is the recommendation given. For example:
- Her role was to advise students of their future options and offer sound advice from which they could choose.
Affect vs. Effect
To affect something means to change or make a difference to. Effect is a result, or the means to bring about a result. For example:
- The effect the doctor had on her health was positive; we had no idea she could be affected in such a manner.
Allusion vs. Illusion
An allusion is an implied or indirect reference to something. Illusion is something that may seem to be real but isn’t or is a mistaken idea. For example:
- The CEO of the company made no allusions concerning the economic problems they were facing. He wanted nobody under the illusion that things would work out.
Aloud vs. Allowed
Aloud is another way to say something out loud. Allowed means you are permitted to do something. For example:
- She read the rules they were allowed to follow aloud to the rest of the campers.
Appraise vs. Apprise
Appraise means to assess something, while apprising means to inform someone. For example:
- The realtor apprised the new buyers of the cost of the house appraisal so they could move forward with the purchase.
Assure vs. Ensure vs. Insure
To assure is to confirm something will happen or that something is the truth. Ensure means to make sure of something or to guarantee it. Insure means to take out a policy to keep something covered financially. For example:
- She was assured that the insurance policy included her home and car after the company ensured her coverage.
Bare vs. Bear
Bare can be a verb or adjective and can be used to reveal or open something, or to mean naked, uncovered, or minimal. A bear is a large, omnivorous mammal. For example:
- The poor baby bear had been caught in the fire and was bare of most of his fur, but was expected to make a full recovery.
Brake vs. Break
Brake can be a noun, as in the brake used to stop a vehicle, or a verb meaning to brake or stop motion. Break means to either separate into pieces or to take a pause at something. For example:
- To effectively stop your vehicle, you should ensure the brake is in working order.
- After the way the school year went, she needed a long break from all the work and drama.
Broach vs. Brooch
Broach means to raise a subject for discussion, while a brooch is a piece of jewelry, usually pinned or clasped to the front of a garment. For example:
- I hate to broach the subject and start a family feud, but isn’t that brooch you’re wearing part of the inheritance given to your sister?
Capitol vs. Capital
A Capitol is a building that houses the government. For example:
- The governor meets with the legislature in the Capitol building once a year. Capital has various meanings and can refer to a capital letter, money, or refer to where a seat of government is located.
Cereal vs. Serial
Cereal is the popular name given to a breakfast food made from edible grains. Serial is the word used to describe something happening in order, or in a series. For example:
- The popular cereal company was releasing a limited serial edition of toys in their boxes based on the new movie hitting theatres next week.
Chord vs. Cord
A chord is a group of musical notes and a cord is a length of string-like material. For example:
- She played the chords on the piano to create the background melody for the rest of the orchestra to follow.
Cord can also be used as an adjective to help describe something cord-like. For example:
- The sculpture was incredibly cord-like in its length and detail, almost as if it had been created to mimic a giant rope reaching to the heavens.
Coarse vs. Course
Coarse is a descriptive word to mean rough or unfinished, while the word course is used in multiple ways to provide direction, describe a school subject or class, or describe part of a meal. For example:
- The menu draft was relatively coarse and unfinished but gave them a basic idea of what main courses would be served for the evening.
Complement vs. Compliment
Complement describes things that go well together, and a compliment gives positive feedback to someone concerning something. For example:
- I was complimented on how nicely I had paired the complementary colors for the event decoration.
Cue vs. Queue
Cue can be a verb to signal for action or a noun to describe a wooden rod. A queue is a line to wait in. For example:
- The queue to get concert tickets stretched around the block and was her cue to give up hope of scoring seats.
Desert vs. Dessert
A desert can be a noun to describe a dry, arid geological feature, and it can also be a verb to abandon or leave something. Dessert is a sweet treat served after the main meal. For example:
- It was sweltering in the desert area we were visiting, but luckily we found relief in the shade, where we sipped sweet dessert wine to cool off. We also found travel much more manageable after we deserted the heavier clothing we had been wearing for cool, flowy materials.
Elicit vs. Illicit
If you draw out a reply or evoke a reaction, you display elicit behavior, but if you break the law, you are partaking in illicit behavior. For example:
- He never elicited a suitable response from the police concerning his illicit behavior, so they wouldn’t release him until a judge set a bond.
Emigrate vs. Immigrate
Emigration is to move away from where you are from to someplace new. Immigrating means moving into a new place or country. For example:
- My grandfather emigrated from Italy in 1913. My Grandmother immigrated to another country during WWI for her family’s safety.
Foreword vs. Forward
Foreword is the name given to the introduction of a book. Forward is the word used to describe moving onwards or ahead. For example:
- To move forward through the story, she had to first finish the foreword, which gave the novel’s historical background.
It’s vs. Its
It’s is a contraction of “it is”. Its is a possessive pronoun that means “belonging to it”. For example:
- It’s not that difficult to remember that you must first allow the horse and its rider to pass before entering the arena behind them.
Lead vs. Led
Lead is a noun, rhymes with “red”, and is a type of metal. For example:
- Lead vests are used to help block harmful radiation from x-rays.
Lead is a verb, rhymes with “reed”, and means to direct something behind. Led (which rhymes with “red”) is the past tense of the verb to lead. For example:
- It was easy to lead the well-trained horse behind the rest of the parade.
Loose vs. Lose
Lose is a verb and means to misplace something. Loose is an adjective that helps detail a weak, moveable, or slack item. For example:
- My favorite t-shirt is a loose-fitting v-neck that I always lose in the laundry since it blends in with the rest of my clothing.
Meat vs. Meet
Meat is the flesh of an animal and is commonly associated with food. Meet means to make personal contact with another. For example:
- It was so good to meet all your old friends at the wine tasting event; we will have to learn how to make the cheese and meat board they served to enjoy at home.
Pole vs. Poll
A pole is a long, slender piece of wood or metal, while a poll is a form of informational data gathered through various means. For example:
- The line for the voting poll wrapped halfway around the building at stopped at the flag pole outside the backdoor.
Pore vs. Pour
A pore is a tiny opening, sometimes microscopic. It can also mean to study something closely. For example:
- We pored over the plant’s tiny pores that could close when drought-stressed.
Pour means to flow or cause to flow. For example:
- To ensure the recipe is done correctly, be sure to measure your pour carefully before adding to the dry ingredients.
Principal vs. Principle
A principal is the head of a school, but it can also mean something important. For example:
- The principal reason behind this meeting is to discuss who the school’s next principal will be.
The principle means a fundamental rule or belief. For example:
- She always sets aside an hour for invoicing on a matter of principle to ensure her charges are correct.
Sight vs. Site
Sight is the ability to see, while a site is a location. For example:
- Her sight was deteriorating in her old age, so she wanted to spend time visiting her favorite sites to commit them to memory.
Then vs. Than
Then is an adverb to indicate a time frame in which something happens. Than is a conjunction that is used to compare two things. For example:
- First, we went to the ballgame, and then we went to the movies where we compared whether gummy bears were better than gummy worms.
Their vs. They’re vs. There
Their is a pronoun that is plural possessive and is used to explain ownership of something. For example:
- Their new car is perfect and fits the whole family comfortably.
There is a word that means a place and is used to explain a location. For example:
- If you end up going over there, we cannot guarantee you will be back in time for the flight.
They’re is a contraction that means they are and is used to describe something somebody is or is doing. For example:
- If I didn’t know better, I would think they’re headed in the wrong direction on purpose.
To vs. Too vs. Two
To is a preposition used to indicate direction. Too is an adverb meaning in addition or also. Two is a number. For example:
- All too often I find my students struggling to understand basic concepts in class, such as having only two days to write an essay draft so we can edit it on day three.
Who vs. Whom
Who is a pronoun used as the subject of a sentence. Whom is a pronoun used as a direct object. For example:
- I couldn’t figure out who was responsible for what in the group project. I saw for whom each part was assigned, but they had confused the directions.
Yolk vs. Yoke
A yolk is the yellow center of an egg. For example:
- She asked for her eggs to be over-easy, leaving the yolk runny and perfect for dipping toast.
A yoke is a wooden crosspiece used to harness together working ungulates. Yoke can also be used as a verb to describe the action of harnessing together two objects. For example:
- I need you to yoke those two oxen together for the parade so we can hitch them to the wagon.
Your vs. You’re
Your is a pronoun that is second person possessive and provides ownership. You’re is a contraction that means you are. For example:
- If you’re planning on making it to the movie on time, you might want to park your car in paid parking for a closer spot.
Although these are not all the words that either look or sound similar, they are the most commonly mistaken and misused. Use this guide to help you determine the proper use and spelling of each, so your writing does not become confused or misunderstood.