Confusing Words and How To Avoid Them


To the ear, a misused word will get past the person hearing it. He or she will most likely get your meaning, but written down, it would be a jarring grammatical error. When speaking, the context of a word, sentence, or phrase can be gleaned from the speaker’s facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language. Not so with the written word.

Even to a native speaker, English can be a bewildering language to learn, and it doesn’t help matters that it has a lot of commonly misused words. Words that are regularly misused include affect and effect as well as break and brake. They either look alike, sound alike or, worst of all, look and sound alike but have completely different meanings. Take break and brake. Break can mean to render a thing useless or to give somebody a chance. On the other hand, a brake is a device to slow down a vehicle, or it can mean a tool to bend metal. You see? Two similar-sounding words, FOUR different meanings and uses!

This problem has been clearly highlighted through many blogs. Today’s surfeit blogging and publishing platforms has allowed anyone to write and post content on just about any subject. While this has democratized access for everyone on the planet, it has also highlighted the deficiencies with regard to the literacy of many aspiring authors and writers. It doesn’t help too that in the push to come out with unique content, content mills have been pushing writers to write 2,000 (or more) words a day. As a result, quality of research and writing has suffered considerably.

These days, spelling mistakes are more often the mark of a careless writer as the easy access to online spelling checkers should have mad spelling mistakes a thing of the past! However, I must admit even writers with a few years of experience under their belt can get caught. In addition, while the words being typed can be automatically spell-checked, the type of words used can still be erroneous which further deepens the grammar problem online.

Humans write better than computers

One can argue that there are grammar checkers available, and to a certain extent this is true. However, don’t think for a moment that they are a cure for poor writing skills. Grammar checkers are great for flagging typographical errors such as repeating words, punctuation errors, or even words that have been omitted. In addition, like spell checkers, these grammar checkers are limited (at least for now) by the preset rules and algorithms imparted to them by their programmers. If you’re also talking about following a certain style guide, then it further complicates things.

For example, authorize and authorise are both correct spellings for two words with the same meaning. But one spelling is for US English and the other is the standard spelling for UK English. An electronic spellchecker won’t help in this situation - the spellings are both correct and won’t be flagged if you’ve loaded multiple dictionaries into your spell checking software. Nevertheless it’s still a grammatical error. To the reader, the glaring inconsistency shows poor form and an omission on the part of the proofreader, or in this case, a grammar checker.

How do you ensure that you don’t make these mistakes? For one, read. A lot. Read from books, or high ranking journal or article sources online that you are sure have a solid editorial staff. Only by consistently reading high quality articles will you be able to immediately gauge if something is amiss with what you are reading.

Now would be a good time to show you examples of confusing words:

  • Advice vs. Advise - the first word pertains to a future action, the second is about a plan of action
  • Assure vs. Ensure - assure is to give someone a positive feeling, words to erase some doubt in the person’s mind; ensure is to make sure that an intended action happens
  • Capital vs. Capitol - the first word usually means the seat of government or company assets; the second word refers to the building housing the seat of government
  • Climatic vs. Climactic - the first word refers to our planet’s weather, the second word refers to the apex of a sequence of events
  • Elicit vs. Illicit - elicit means to get a response while illicit is an act against normally accepted behavior
  • Fair vs. Fare - fair refers to an exhibition; a fare is what you pay when you ride a bus or a plane Fare can also be used as verb when wishing someone well, as in fare thee well
  • Its vs. It's - its is a possessive pronoun (The dog is chewing its toy), it’s is short for it is, as in it’s springtime
  • To vs. Too - to denotes an action or process (to eat, to linger) while too is a word similar in meaning to also
  • Wear vs. Ware - wear is to put something on, it can also mean a thing deteriorating as it is being used; ware on the other hand refers to merchandise

This list is by no means extensive. It’s strictly to emphasize the need to expose yourself to a range of reading subjects, so that you are not limited to, say, just technical jargon, or just literary treatises. There are more expansive lists out there in case you want to delve deeper into this subject, but our advice remains - read more, and from high quality edited and proofread sources.

If you are unsure of when to use a certain word which could have a different meaning, change the word by consulting a thesaurus. Chances are, you will find a word with the same meaning, but more appropriate to the message or idea you want to convey.


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