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11.3: Commonly Confused Words

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  • Commonly Confused Words

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    Some words in English cause trouble for speakers and writers because these words share a similar pronunciation, meaning, or spelling with another word. These words are called "commonly confused words."

    For example, read aloud the following sentences containing the commonly confused words new and knew:

    I liked her new sweater.
    I knew she would wear that sweater today.

    These words may sound alike when spoken, but they carry entirely different usages and meanings. New is an adjective that describes the sweater, and knew is the past tense of the verb to know.


    Recognizing Commonly Confused Words

    New and knew are just two of the words that can be confusing because of their similarities.

    The English language contains so many words; no one can say for certain how many words exist. In fact, many words in English are borrowed from other languages. Many words have multiple meanings and forms, further expanding the immeasurable number of English words.

    Although the list of commonly confused words serves as a helpful guide, even these words may have more meanings than shown here. When in doubt, consult an expert: the dictionary!


    Strategies to Avoid Commonly Confused Words

    When writing, you need to choose the correct word according to its spelling and meaning in the context. Not only does selecting the correct word improve your vocabulary and your writing, but it also makes a good impression on your readers. It also helps reduce confusion and improve clarity. The following strategies can help you avoid misusing confusing words.

    Use a dictionary. Keep a dictionary at your desk while you write. Look up words when you are uncertain of their meanings or spellings. Many dictionaries are also available online, and the Internet's easy access will not slow you down. Check out your cell phone or smartphone to see if a dictionary app is available.

    Keep a list of words you commonly confuse. Be aware of the words that often confuse you. When you notice a pattern of confusing words, keep a list nearby, and consult the list as you write. Check the list again before you submit an assignment to your instructor.

    Study the list of commonly confused words. You may not yet know which words confuse you, but before you sit down to write, study the words on the list. Prepare your mind for working with words by reviewing the commonly confused words identified in this chapter.

    List of Commonly Confused Words

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    a an and

    a (article)

    Used before a word that begins with a consonant.

    Example: a key, a mouse, a screen

    an (article)

    Used before a word that begins with a vowel.

    Example: an airplane, an ocean, an igloo

    and (conjunction)

    Connects two or more words together.

    Example: peanut butter and jelly, pen and pencil, jump and shout

    accept except

    accept (verb)

    Definition: to take or agree to something offered.

    Example: They accepted our proposal for the conference.

    except (conjunction)

    Definition: only or but.

    Example: We could fly there except the tickets cost too much.

    affect effect

    affect (verb)

    Definition: to influence or cause changes.

    Example: Hurricane winds affect the amount of rainfall.

    effect (noun)

    Definition: an outcome or result.

    Example: The heavy rains will have an effect on the crop growth.


    effect (verb)

    Definition: to cause something to happen.

    Example: The computer virus effected a collapse of the entire system

    are our

    are (verb)

    A conjugated form of the verb "to be."

    Example: My cousins are all tall and blonde.

    our (pronoun)

    Indicates possession, usually follows the pronoun "we."

    Example: We will bring our cameras to take pictures.

    by buy

    by (preposition)

    Definition: next to.

    Example: My glasses are by the bed.

    buy (verb)

    Definition: to purchase.

    Example: I will buy new glasses after the doctor's appointment.

    its it's

    its (pronoun)

    A form of "it" that shows possession.

    Example: The butterfly flapped its wings.

    it's (contraction)

    Joins the words it and is.

    Example: It's the most beautiful butterfly I have ever seen.

    know no

    know (verb)

    Definition: to understand or possess knowledge.

    Example: I know the male peacock sports the brilliant feathers.

    no

    Used to make a negative.

    Example: I have no time to visit the zoo this weekend.

    loose lose

    loose (adjective)

    Definition: something that is not tight or is detached.

    Example: Without a belt, her pants are loose on her waist.

    lose (verb)

    Definition: to forget, to give up, or to fail to earn something.

    Example: She will lose even more weight after finishing the marathon training.

    of have

    of (preposition)

    Definition: from or about.

    Example: I studied maps of the city to know where to rent a new apartment.

    have (verb)

    Definition: to possess something.

    Example: I have many friends to help me move.


    have (linking verb)

    Used to connect verbs.

    Example: I should have helped her with that heavy box.

    quite quiet quit

    quite (adverb)

    Definition: really or truly.

    Example: My work will require quite a lot of concentration.

    quiet (adjective).

    Definition: not loud.

    Example: I need a quiet room to complete the assignments.

    quit (verb).

    Definition: to stop or to end.

    Example: I will quit when I am hungry for dinner.

    right write

    right (adjective)

    Definition: proper or correct.

    Example: When bowling, she practices the right form.


    right (adjective)

    Definition: the opposite of left.

    Example: The ball curved to the right and hit the last pin.

    write (verb)

    Definition: to communicate on paper.

    Example: After the team members bowl, I will write down their scores.

    set sit

    set (verb).

    Definition: to put an item down.
    Example: She set the mug on the saucer.


    set (noun)

    Definition: a group of similar objects.

    Example: All the mugs and saucers belonged in a set.

    sit (verb)

    Definition: to lower oneself down on a chair or another place.
    Example: I'll sit on the sofa while she brews the tea.

    suppose supposed

    suppose (verb).

    Definition: Means to think or to consider.
    Example: I suppose I will bake the bread, because no one else has the recipe.


    It can also mean to suggest.

    Example: Suppose we all split the cost of the dinner.

    supposed (verb) The passive form of suppose.

    Definition: something must, should, or is expected to happen.

    Example: John was supposed [by his boss] to empty the fryers at the end of his shift.

    The experiment was supposed [by the scientists] to create a cure for cancer.

    The "by" phrase [shown in brackets] is usually left out, so it is easy to forget that suppose in these cases always requires an ed ending.

    Wrong: Susan was suppose to do her homework.

    Right: Susan was supposed to do her homework.

    than then

    than (conjunction)

    Used to connect two or more items when comparing

    Example: Registered nurses require less schooling than doctors.

    then (adverb)

    Definition: next or at a specific time.

    Example: Doctors first complete medical school and then obtain a residency.

    their they're there

    their (pronoun)

    Definition: Pronoun that shows possession.

    Example: The dog walker feeds their dogs everyday at two o'clock.

    they're (contraction)

    Definition: combination of "they" and "are."

    Example: They're the sweetest dogs in the neighborhood.

    there (adverb)

    Definition: a particular place.

    Example: The dogs' bowls are over there.


    there (pronoun)

    Definition: Indicates the presence of something

    Example: There are more treats if the dogs behave.

    to two too

    to (preposition)

    Definition: Indicates movement.

    Example: Let's go to the circus.


    Definition: a word that completes an infinitive verb.
    Example: to play, to ride, to watch.

    two (adj.)

    Definition: The number after one. It describes how many.

    Example: Two clowns squirted the elephants with water.

    Too (adverb)

    Definition: also or very.

    Example: The tents were too loud, and we left.

    use used

    use (verb)

    Definition: to apply for some purpose.

    Example: We use a weed wacker to trim the hedges.

    used (verb)

    Definition: The past tense form of the verb "to use."

    Example: He used the lawnmower last night before it rained.


    used to (verb)

    Definition: something done in the past but not in the present.

    Example: He used to hire a team to landscape, but now he landscapes alone.

    who's whose

    who's (contraction)

    Definition: Joins the words who+is, or who+has.

    Example: Who's the new student? Who's met him?

    whose (pronoun)

    Definition: A form of who that shows possession.

    Example: Whose schedule allows them to take the new student on a campus tour?

    your you're

    your (pronoun)

    Definition: A form of "you" that shows possession.

    Example: Your book bag is unzipped.

    you're (contraction)

    Definition: Joins the words you+are.

    Example: You're the girl with the unzipped book bag.

    Key Takeaways

    Commonly Confused Words

    • In order to write accurately, it is important for writers to be aware of commonly confused words.
    • Although commonly confused words may look alike or sound alike, their meanings are very different.
    • Consulting the dictionary is one way to make sure you are using the correct word in your writing. You may also keep a list of commonly confused words nearby when you write, and you may study the list of commonly confused words in this chapter.
    • Choosing the proper words leaves a positive impression on your readers.
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