Words Confused

Words confused in the English language abound. Closely-sounding words, or words with a subtle different spelling trip up even the most conscientious student. Sometimes the differences defy logic, which confounds memory and leads to repetitive error. What’s to be done? There is no easy way. We have to learn by rote, tiresome though that may be. Here’s a list to start with.Greenboard

Abductor and Adductor (in muscles)

Abductor – any muscle that abducts; draws away from the axis of the body or limb. (Latin abducere to draw away)

Adductor – any muscle that adducts; draws toward the axis of the body or limb. (Latin adducer to bring into).

The abductor and adductor muscles most often referred to are those either side of the thigh. The abductor muscle is on the outside, allowing you to straddle your legs. The adductor muscle is on the inside of your legs, allowing you to draw your legs in, as for example, to stand to attention.

Aside from that, abduct, of course, means to carry off, to kidnap. Adduce means to bring forward, or to bring into evidence.

Accept and Except

Accept (verb) – To take or receive something. “I will accept your offer on one condition.”

Except (preposition) – With the exclusion of; save; but. “Everyone except Andrew will have to help.”

However, do not confuse with “excerpt” (noun) – a passage or quotation taken from a book. (Latin excerpere to pick out).

Accessary and Accessory

Accessary (noun) – An accessary is a person who aids (as in committing a crime).

Accessory (noun) – An accessory is an attachment, or extra feature.

Aloud and Allowed

Aloud (adverb). “Say it aloud so that everyone can hear; do not talk softly.”

Allowed (verb). “We were not allowed to play outside; we’re not permitted.”

However, do not confuse either word with loud (adjective), in for example, describing a noise: “We were all startled by a loud noise in the yard.”

Amount and Number

“Amount” should be used to refer to quantities that cannot be counted or cannot be expressed in terms of a single number.

Example: “Repairing the washing machine took a great amount of work.”

On the other hand, “number” is used for quantities that can be counted.

Example: “A large number of deer ate the corn.”

“A large amount of/a great deal of” are used with uncountable nouns such as: water, money, time, etc.

The rule for collective nouns is this: use a singular verb when the group is considered as a unit acting together:

  • The number of people present was large.

On the other hand, use a plural verb when the individual members of the group are acting separately. For example:

  • A large number of people were present.
Among and Amongst

Among and amongst. The former is the earlier version and seems to be far more in use these days. Both mean the same thing: situated in the middle of a group of people or things (preposition).

Any more and Anymore

[Please see separate entry]

Awake and Wake

[Please see separate entry]

Aural and Oral

Aural – relating to ears or the sense of hearing.

Oral – spoken rather than written; relating to the mouth.

Beside and Besides

Beside means at the side of.

Besides means in addition to.

Breach and Breech

Breach: violation of the law; a gap made in a wall.

Breech: back of a gun barrel; the lower part of anything (eg the buttocks)

Brake and Break

Brake means to stop.

Break means to shatter; or (as a noun) an interval.

Cancer and Capricorn

The Tropic of Cancer (or Northern Tropic) is the northernmost line of latitude when the sun is directly overhead on the June Solstice.

The Tropic of Capricorn (or Southern Tropic) is the southernmost line of latitude when the sun is directly overhead on the December Solstice.

The two demarcate the tropics. [To help remember, consider Cancer is above Capricorn in an A-Z list; thus north above south on the globe].

Canvas and Canvass

Canvas (noun) – coarse cloth for a tent, etc.

Canvass (verb) – to solicit for votes or an opinion; to discuss.

Coarse and Course

Coarse: crude, rough, harsh.

Course: a golf course, a racing course; a division between a meal.

Complement and Compliment

Complement: to accompany, to go with; full quantity. [mnemonic: complEte]

Compliment: give praise, give approval. “Here is a gift with our compliments.” [mnemonic be nIce].

Council and Counsel

Council is an assembly; a committee that arranges business.

Counsel is a legal adviser (noun); or to give advice (verb).

Dependant and Dependent

A dependant (noun) is a person who relies on another: a child is a dependant of a parent.

Dependent (adjective) means depending on; determined or influenced by.

Due to and Owing to

[Please see separate entry]

Egoist and Egotist

The two are almost interchangeable with some dictionaries noting that, when used, egoist often means egotist.

An egoist believes he is better and more important than anyone else, though he may not say so. What you might consider a secretive conceit. He is a selfish person, very cunning.

On the other hand, an egotist only talks about himself and tries to steer all conversations to being all about him (certainly opposite to being secretive!). He is boastful and self-centred.

In most instances, however, the word “egotist” is preferred.

Note. Egoism (the opposite of altruism) relates to the habit of valuing everything from one’s own perspective. The view in ethics is that morality ultimately rests on self-interest.

Egotism, on the other hand, is excessive reference to oneself in conversation or writing. Boastfulness, selfishness, or excessive pride; an inflated sense of one’s own importance; being conceited or vain.

Elicit and Illicit

Elicit (verb) – to draw out; to produce a response or reaction.

Illicit (adjective) – forbidden by law; illegal.

Else and Whose

Else. Else is often used redundantly in combination with prepositions such as but, except, or besides. For example: “No one else but Sam saw the accident.” Here you could omit the word “else” and it would still make sense.

When a pronoun is followed by else, the possessive form is generally written thus: Someone else’s (not someone’s else).

Both “who else’s” and “whose else” are in use, but not “whose else’s”. For example: “Who else’s book could it have been?” “Whose else feels that Gary should be allowed to join the team?”

Whose. It has sometimes been claimed that whose should be used only as the possessive form of who: He is a man whose power has greatly eroded. But there are also plenty of examples where the word whose is used as the possessive of which, as in: The play, whose style is rigidly formal, is typical of the period.

In the final analysis there seems little agreement on the correct grammatical use of whose in these various examples. This tends to happen when a language is evolving. When usage falls out of favour, die-hards trying to stick the “rules” end up sounding stilted.

Meanwhile, perhaps note that who’s is a contraction of the verb: who is?

[Please see separate entry for further discussion]

Forgo and Forego

To forgo is to do without or relinquish: “I will forgo the pleasure of your company.”

To forego, by contrast, is to go before, to precede. “Forego a partner in death.”

Formally and Formerly

Formally means in a formal manner.

Formerly means previously, before.

Ingenious and Ingenuous

Ingenious means very clever, skilful in invention.

Ingenuous means artless, innocent, unsuspecting. [Disingenuous means dishonest]

Intrusive and Obtrusive

To be intrusive is to involve oneself in the affairs of others, generally in an objectionable manner, tactlessly but not necessarily in a way that calls attention to oneself.

To be obtrusive is to interfere without regard for propriety or subtlety.

The two words can apply to the same situation, but intrusive emphasises the effect on the recipient of the attention, while obtrusive focuses on how the attention is perceived from the outside.

Loose and Lose

“I saw that the screw was loose.” (pronounced looce). The screw was not tight.

“I do not want to lose my position.” (pronounced looz). To fail to keep, or win.

Marshal and Martial

Marshal is an officer (noun); an official responsible for supervising public events (noun). To arrange in due order (verb).

Martial (adjective) – of war or the army, warlike

Metre and Meter

There are 100 centimetres in a metre (note: -re, the measurement).

The man came to read the meter. (note: -er, an instrument used for measuring) examples: speedometer, thermometer, barometer, altimeter.

Of and Off

Of (preposition) – indicates relationships between words:  “This book of short stories is great fun to read.”

Off (adverb or preposition) – indicates separation or disconnection: “Please switch the stove off.”

Passed and Past

[Please see separate entry]

Peace and Piece

Peace (noun) – freedom from noise or anxiety; the end of war.

Piece (noun) – a portion separated from the whole. An item used in constructing something.

Principal and Principle

Principal – (as an adjective) most important, main; (as a noun) the most important person in a group or organisation.

Principle (noun) – truth, law, a rule, code of conduct; morally correct behaviour.

Preferred and Proffered

Prefer – to like someone or something better.

Proffer – to offer something for consideration; to hold out something to grasp.

Probably and Properly

Probably (adverb) – almost certainly. “He will probably help me.”

Properly (adverb) – in a proper way; completely. “Do your work properly, and I will consider a reward.”

Reign and Rein

Reign (verb) – to rule as a monarch; be the dominant quality or aspect.

Rein – (as a noun) a long, narrow strap attached to a horse’s bit; (as a verb) to keep under control.

[Not to be confused with rain!]

Resent and Resent

Resent (soft “S”) and Resent (hard “S” like a “Z”).

Resent – [soft] sent it again. (Old English Sendan and re- meaning “again”). (Middle English, from Latin).

Resent – [hard] to feel indignantly aggrieved. (Latin Sentire meaning “to feel”; add re which acts as an intensive; resent is to feel strongly; also from Resentir (French “to be angry”)

Review and Revue

Review is a survey, inspection.

Revue is a stage production.

Seeming and Seemingly

Seeming is an adjective (it modifies a noun).

Seemingly is an adverb (it modifies an adjective or a verb).

Sew and Sow

Sew (verb) – to join or repair something by making stitches with a needle and thread.

Sow (verb) – to plant seed by scattering on the ground; to introduce something unwelcome.

[And, of course, a sow (noun) is a female pig].

Silicon and Silicone

Silicon is a grey non-metallic chemical element.

Silicone is a synthetic resin made from silicon.

Stair and Stare

Stair (noun) – each of a set of fixed steps. “I went upstairs to bed”.

Stare (verb) – to look fixedly at someone.

Stalactite and Stalagmite

A Stalactite comes down from the ceiling.

A Stalagmite comes up from the ground.

[Mnemonic: stalaCtite/Ceiling; stalaGmite/Ground

Stationary and Stationery

Stationary (adjective) – not moving, not changing in quantity or condition.

Stationery (noun) – writing paper and envelopes, pencils, paper, etc.

[Mnemonic: stationARy is cAR stopped; stationEry is papEr]

Straight and Strait

Straight – line without a curve or bend; honest and direct.

Strait – narrow passage of water connecting two seas.

Taught and Taut

Taught (verb) – past tense of to teach.

Taut (adjective) – stretched or pulled tight.

That and Which

[Please see separate entry]

Their, There, and They’re

Their (possessive) – belonging to or associated with. “We went to their house.”

There (adverb) – in, at or to that place or position. “Put the book over there.”

They’re – contraction of the verb they are. “They’re not in a position to refuse.”

Thorough and Through

Thorough – complete with regard to every detail; total, absolute. “We had a thorough spring clean yesterday.”

Through – from one side to the other; from beginning to end. “We went through the tunnel.”

Though and Although

Though and although are interchangeable in most situations, though the former is in more common usage these days. They mean despite the fact that; in spite of the fact that; however, but.

Though is only used with as and even however:

  • “You look as though you have seen a ghost.”
  • “Even though I am annoyed about this I will support you.”

Furthermore, only though can be used as an adverb, where it means however, or nevertheless:

  • “This weekend, though, the cinema was very busy.”

Although is preferred in a more formal setting, and often works better when introducing a sentence:

  • “Although the match was given the go ahead, in the end the weather worsened, and play was stopped at half-time.”
Urban and Urbane

Urban (adjective) – relating to a town or city.

Urbane (adjective) – suave, courteous, sophisticated.

Waist and Waste

Waist – part of the body between the ribs and the hips; narrowest part of the torso.

Waste – (As a verb) to squander, neglect or fail to use; to wear away; (as a noun) rubbish, barren land.

Waive and Wave

Waive – to refrain from claiming, to set aside, to forgo.

Wave – to move one’s hand to and fro in greeting, to direct, or as a signal; a ridge of water moving over the surface of a body of water; a swell, a surge; a mass of movement.

While and Whilst

[Please see separate entry]

Who and Whom; Whomsoever and Whatever

[Please see separate entry]

You, Your, You’re and Yours

You (pronoun) – used to refer to the person or the people that the speaker is addressing. “I gave it to you.”

Your (possessive adjective) – belonging to or associated with the person that the speaker is addressing. “I want your book.” [your is the adjective describing book].

You’re (verb) – contraction of you are. “You’re not allowed to come.”

Yours (possessive pronoun) – used to refer to something belonging to or associated with the person or people that the speaker is addressing. “The book is yours.”

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By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon and The Sands of Rotar.

Last updated: Monday, 13th April 2020