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)...


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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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.

  Example:

  •   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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Misused Words: Common Writing Mistakes in English

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