Misused Words: Common Writing Mistakes in English

Many words in the English language are commonly misused because they sound similar, yet they have different spelling and meaning (homonyms)...

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Other words may not sound alike, yet might still be confusing. 

1. Affect, Effect

Affect is a verb meaning “influence, shape” and effect is a noun meaning “result, outcome.” Effect can be used as a verb only when it means to bring about or cause something to happen.


  •   Will the study affect the school’s budget? (verb)
  •   We are studying the effects of the environment on behavior. (noun)
  •   We are hoping that the results will effect a change in his behavior. (verb)

2. Accept, Except

Accept is a verb that means to receive; except is a preposition that means excluding.


  •   John will accept his award during the ceremony.
  •   Everyone will be in attendance except his father.

3. Ensure, Insure, & Assure

Ensure means to make something certain; insure means to guarantee something against monetary loss, or protect against risk; assure means to state in a convincing manner.


  •   I cannot ensure that the contract is legally binding.
  •    The stolen ring was insured for $5,000.
  •    I can assure you of her sincerity.

4. There, Their, They’re

There refers to a place that indicates where something is located and can be used as a pronoun that introduces a sentence. Their is a plural possessive pronoun. They’re is a contraction of they are.


  •   Please leave your dripping umbrella over there. (location)
  •   There is no room for argument here. (introduces a sentence)
  •   The students had to turn in their proposals on Wednesday. (possessive)
  •   They’re meeting in the boardroom.

5. Council, Counsel

A council is group of people that assembles for discussion; counsel means advice or guidance.


  •   The council met twice every month.
  •   He obviously did not want any legal counsel.

6. Compliment, Complement

Compliment means a statement of praise; complement means to go well with or perfect something else.


  •   The customer sent his compliments to the chef.
  •   The picture complements the design perfectly.

7. Allusion, Illusion

Allusion is an indirectly made reference. Illusion is a misconception or false impression.


  •   He made several allusions to the poem in his paper.
  •   John was under no illusion about his new job; he knew exactly what to expect.

8. Principle, Principal

Principle means rule or standard. Principal refers to a person who holds a high position or plays an important role; it also an adjective that means chief or leading.


  •   The school principal will be resigning next year.
  •   He has a principal reason for resigning.
  •   He has always refused to compromise his principles.

9. Elicit, Illicit

Elicit means to bring out, draw out, or evoke. Illicit means illegal.


  •   Nothing the teacher said could elicit a response from the child.
  •   He is in jail for illicit drugs.

10. It’s, Its

Its is a possessive pronoun that indicates ownership or possession; it’s is a contraction of it is or it has. Note: The use of contractions needs to be avoided in formal writing.


  •   Place each item in its designated box. (possessive)
  •    It’s a shame that Jerry cannot make it to the concert tonight. (it is)
  •    It’s been a long time since he attended any musical event. (it has)

11. Emigrant, Immigrant

An emigrant is one who leaves one’s native country to settle in another; an immigrant is one who enters and settles in a new country.


  •   The emigrant spent four weeks aboard the ship before it landed in LA.
  •   It is very hard for immigrants to find jobs.

12. That, Which

That usually introduces as essential phrase that is not set off by commas; which introduces a non-essential phrase that is set off by commas.


  •   This is the room that we were looking for. (essential)
  •   The old car, which I’ve had for years, has finally broken down. (not essential)

13. Comprise, Compose

The whole comprises (or includes) the parts; and the parts compose (or make up) the whole.


  •   The United States comprises fifty states.
  •   Organic compounds compose the fertilizer used by the farmer.

14. Lie, Lay

Lie means to recline or rest on a surface; its principal parts are lie, lay, lain. Lay means to put or place; its principal parts are lay and laid.


  •   I was so tired after work I had to lie down for a short time.
  •   I laid the files on the desk.


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