The English language has numerous quirks due to regional variations, contributions from other languages, and evolution over time. One of these quirks is that tons of English words sound alike or are spelled differently by one letter, leading to a long list of words often confused by both native and ESL speakers.
Let’s glance through a short selection of the most commonly confused words and their meanings and try to clear up some of the confusion.
Commonly Confused Words
Here are some of the most frequently confused words in English. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it does include the most commonly confused pairings. We’ll include definitions and examples of the ways we most often use them.
Parts of speech key
- n noun
- v verb
- adj adjective
- adv adverb
- prep preposition
- pr pronoun
- c contraction
- conj conjunction
Accept vs. except
accept (v) = to be okay with, to receive willingly
except (v/prep/conj) = leave out
She chose to accept all of their assignments except one.
affect (v) = to act on or influence
effect (v) = to cause a result
I hoped the drug would affect my symptoms, but it didn’t effect change.
affect (n) = emotion or display of emotion
effect (n) = result
Her joyous affect was an effect of the good news she had received.
affective (adj) = related to emotion
effective (adj) = able to achieve a result
For affective disorders, medications may be effective treatments.
Amused vs. bemused
amused (adj) = entertained, convinced that something is funny
bemused (adj) = dazed, confused, lost in thought
Though she was amused by the nonsensical meme, he was too bemused by its caption to find it funny.
Word nerd note: Language is always evolving, so when a word is used the wrong way repeatedly over time, it can adopt different meanings. Bemused is in the middle of this evolution. Writers so often use it to mean amused that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has added another meaning for it. The new meaning combines the two words’ definitions into one: amused by something that’s confusing.
Apart vs. a part
apart (adj) = separated, not together
a part (n) = one piece of a larger set
I truly wanted to be a part of the family, but disagreements kept tearing us apart.
Assure vs. ensure vs. insure
assure (v) = to convince, guarantee, or confirm
ensure (v) = to make sure (by action)
insure (v) = to take out an insurance policy
He assured me that I could insure my boat to ensure I could replace it if a storm destroyed it.
Bowl vs. bowel
bowl (n) = a deep dish with a rounded bottom used to hold food
bowel (n) = intestine
The dietician recommended a daily bowl of high-fiber cereal to help with my bowel disorder.
Breath vs. breathe
breath (n) = air that a person inhales and exhales
breathe (v) = to inhale and exhale air
My doctor told me to breathe in, so I took a deep breath.
Farther vs. further
farther (adv/adj) = a greater distance
further (adv/adj) = more fully, to a greater degree, in addition
She had so much farther to go before she would arrive. And further, she was tired.
Word nerd note: According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, farther and further meant the same thing for a long time, but people have recently begun to use them differently. In a nutshell, if you’re not talking about physical distance, use further.
Flaunt vs. flout
flaunt (v) = to show off
flout (v) = to rebel against
Every day he flaunted an enormous, flashy belt buckle, flouting the school’s dress code.
Lay vs. lie
lay (v) = to place a being or an object on a surface
lie (v) = to lay oneself on a surface
The dog refused to lie down, so I picked her up to lay her on the bed.
Word nerd note: Lay is something a person does to another person, animal, or object. Lie is something a person or animal does to itself. The same applies to set vs. sit: you set an object on the floor, but you sit on the floor.
Lead vs. led
lead (v) = to guide or direct
led (v) = past tense of lead
The teacher asked him to lead the class in a song, so he led them in a simple chorus of “The Wheels on the Bus.”
Lose vs. loose
lose (v) = to fail to keep or fail to win
loose (adj) = describes something that is not tight or not well attached
The car’s hubcap was loose, so it was only a matter of time before he would lose it.
passed (v) = went by
past (n/adj) = refers to events that have already happened
So much time had passed, and she had to look to the future. She couldn’t keep living in the past.
Pore vs. pour
pore (v) = to look carefully
pour (v) = to dispense liquid from a container
I pored over the instruction manual before I began pouring the concrete.
Prostrate vs. prostate
prostrate (v) = to bow in worship or respect
prostate (n) = a gland in a man’s body that helps make semen
The old man prostrated himself in prayer that his prostate cancer would be healed.
Statue vs. statute
statue (n) = a 3D artistic form, such as a sculpture, made to look like a person or object
statute (n) = a law
The statute regulated businesses’ freedom to place statues in front of their buildings.
Tenant vs. tenet
tenant (n) = someone who rents a property
tenet (n) = a key part of a larger concept
One of the tenets of the lease was the requirement to keep the property clean, but the tenant did not abide by it.
Than vs. then
than (conj/prep) = compared to
then (adv/n/adj) = at that time, afterward, or in that case
Then she realized that the new uniform was better than the old one.
There vs. they’re vs. their
there (adv/pr/adj) = a place or the existence of something
they’re (c) = they are
their (adj) = belonging to someone
There’s a new construction site over there; I think they’re building their new townhomes soon.
To vs. too
to (prep/adv) = in the direction of or for the purpose of
too (adv) = also or more than necessary
I wanted to go to dinner, but my boyfriend was too tired. Honestly, I was tired, too.
Track vs. tract
track (n) = a defined route or path
tract (n) = a section or portion of something
As long as I stayed on track with my diet, my digestive tract would heal.
Who’s vs. whose
who’s (c) = who is or who has
whose (adj/pr) = who something belongs to
When mom asks whose mess that is, I’ll wait to see who’s going to speak up.
Sometimes we write something only to go back later and realize we used the wrong word. In some cases, we find that we use the same misused words every time!
A variety of scientific studies have found that between the late 1980s and about 2010, using the wrong word became a much more common writing error. This time frame coincides with the rise of writing technology like autocorrection and predictive typing. As a result, scientists suspect that we rely on technology to spell words correctly, leading to these errors.
Here are just a few examples of words we often use incorrectly when typing because we expect technology to correct them for us.
Conscious vs. conscience
conscious (adj) = aware
conscience (n) = inner voice or sense of right and wrong
When my conscience is speaking to me, I’m always conscious of it.
Definitely vs. defiantly
definitely (adv) = for sure
defiantly (adv) = in rebellion
He definitely wasn’t backing down. “What are you going to do about it?” he demanded defiantly.
Deprecate vs. depreciate
deprecate (v) = to talk negatively about
depreciate (v) = to lose value or lower the value of
Our currency had depreciated so much in the past year that our politicians had begun to speak of our country in a self-deprecating tone.
Image vs. imagine
image (n) = a picture
imagine (v) = to see a picture or idea in one’s mind
What I had imagined was strikingly different from the image I saw at the museum.
A Better Grammar Checker
Despite finding that we make more errors involving confusing words, scientists have found that we’re not making more errors than ever before—just different kinds of errors. Overall, our spelling has improved, and that's a fundamental truth. So the solution is not to ditch technology. It’s to develop better technology.
That’s what we’re doing at QuillBot. Our Grammar Checker, Spell Checker and Proofreader are driven by AI, meaning they learn by reviewing thousands upon thousands of high-quality English texts. Using what they learns, they offer you more accurate and helpful suggestions than the standard autocorrection or intelligent typing tools can.
QuillBot's grammar checker is here to assist you with that!
Work smarter, not harder, with QuillBot.
What is the most confusing English word?
Opinions may vary. However, one top candidate is through (a preposition indicating movement or progress along the middle of something or by means of something). In more casual settings, it’s sometimes spelled thru. Its homophone is threw, the past tense of throw (to propel something into the air). And it’s often confused with thorough (complete) and though (however or in spite of).
Why are some English words confusing?
English includes a lot of words borrowed from other languages and a lot of different ways to spell the same sounds. As a result, many English words don’t follow English pronunciation rules, or they look or sound similar but have different meanings.
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