Often Confused Words

Often Confused Words

Learning the differences between these often-confused words will help you overcome many of your spelling problems.

a, an

Use an before a word that begins with a vowel sound (a, e, i, and o, plus when it sounds like uh) or silent h. Note that it’s not the letter but the sound of the letter that matters.
     an apple, an essay, an inch, an onion
     an umpire, an ugly design (the u’s sound like uh)
     an hour, an honest person (silent h)
Use a before a word that begins with a consonant sound (all the sounds except the vowels, plus u or eu when they sound like you).
     a chart, a pie, a history book (the h is not silent in history)
     a union, a uniform, a unit (the u’s sound like you)
     a European vacation, a euphemism (eu sounds like you)

accept, except

Accept means “to receive willingly.”
     I accept your apology.
Except means “excluding” or “but.”
     Everyone arrived on time except him.

affect, effect

Affect is a verb and means “to alter or influence.”
     All quizzes will affect the final grade.
Effect is most commonly used as a noun and means “a result.” If a, an, or the is in the front of the word, then you will know it isn’t a verb, and you should use effect.
     We studied the effects of sleep deprivation in my psychology class.

all ready, already

If you can leave out the all and the sentence still makes sense, then all ready is the form to use. (In that form, all is a separate word and could be left out.)
     We are all ready for the trip. (We are ready for the trip makes sense.)
     The banquet is all ready. (The banquet is ready makes sense.)
But if you can’t leave out the all and still have the sentence make sense, then use already (the form in which the al has to stay in the word).
     They have already eaten. (They have ready eaten doesn’t make sense.)

are, our

Are is a verb.
     We are going to Colorado Springs.
Our is a pronoun indicating possession.
     We painted our fence to match the house.

choose, chose

The difference here is one of time. Use choose for present and future; use chose for past.
     I will choose a new major this semester.
     We chose the wrong time of year to get married.

coarse, course

Coarse describes a rough texture.
     I used coarse sandpaper to smooth the surface of the board.
Course is used for all other meanings.
     Of course we saw the golf course when we went to Pebble Beach.

complement, compliment

Complement means to complete something or bring it to perfection.
     Use a color wheel to find a complement for purple.
     Juliet’s personality complements Romeo’s; she is practical, and he is a dreamer.
Compliment refers to praise. Remember “I like compliments,” and you will remember to use the i spelling when you mean praise.
     My evaluation included nice compliments from my coworkers.
     We complimented them on their new home.

conscious, conscience

Conscious means “aware.”
     They weren’t conscious of any problems before the accident.
Conscience means that inner voice of right and wrong. The extra n in conscience should remind you of No, which is what your conscience often says to you.
     My conscience told me to turn in the expensive watch I found.

dessert, desert

Dessert is the sweet one, the one you like two helpings of. So give it two helpings of s.
     We had a whole chocolate cheesecake for dessert.
The other one, desert, is used for all other meanings and has two pronunciations.
     I promised that I won’t desert you.
     The snake slithered slowly across the desert.

do, due

Do is a verb, an action. You do something.
     I always do my best work at night.
But payment or an assignment is due; it is scheduled for a certain time.
     Our first essay is due tomorrow.
Due can also be used before to in a phrase that means because of.
     The outdoor concert was canceled due to rain.

have, of

Have is a verb. Sometimes, in a contraction, it sounds like of. When you say could’ve, the have may sound like of, but it is not written that way.
Always write could have, would have, should have, might have.
     We should have planned our vacation sooner.
     Then we could have used our coupon for a free one-way ticket.
Use of only in a prepositional phrase.
     She sent me a box of chocolates for my birthday.

hear, here

The last three letters of hear spell “ear.” You hear with your ear.
     When I listen to a sea shell, I hear ocean sounds.
The other spelling here tells “where.” Note that the three words indicating a place or pointing out something all have here in them: here, there, where.
     I’ll be here for three more weeks.

it's, its

It’s is a contraction and means “it is” or “it has.”
     It’s hot. (It is hot.)
     It’s been hot all week. (It has been hot all week.)
Its is a possessive. (Possessives such as its, yours, hers, ours, theirs, whose are already possessive and never need an apostrophe.)
     The jury had made its decision.

knew, new

Knew has to do with knowledge (both start with k).
New means “not old.”
     They knew that she wanted a new bike.

know, no

Know has to do with knowledge (both start with k).
     By Friday, I must know all the state capitals.
No means “not any” or the opposite of “yes.”
     My boss has no patience.
     No, I need to work late.

loose, lose

Loose means “not tight.” Note how l o o s e that word is. It has plenty of room for two o’s.
     My dog’s tooth is loose.
Lose is the opposite of win.
     If we lose this game, we will be out for the season.

passed, past

The past form of the verb “to pass” is passed.
     She easily passed her math class.
     We passed your house twice before we saw the address.
Use past when it’s not a verb.
     We drove past your house. (the same as “We drove by your house”)
     In the past, he had to borrow his brother’s car.

personal, personnel

Pronouce these two correctly, and you won't confuse them - personal, personnel.
     She shared her personal views as a parent.
Personnel means “a group of employees.”
     I had an appointment in the personnel office.

piece, peace

Remember “piece of pie.” The one meaning “a piece of something” always begins with pie.
     One child asked for an extra piece of candy.
The other one, peace, is the opposite of war.
     The two gangs discussed the possibility of a peace treaty.

principal, principle

Principal means ”main.” Both words have a in them: principal, main.
     The principal concern is safety. (main concern)
     He lost both principal and interest. (main amount of money)
Also, think of a school’s “principal” as your “pal.”
     An elementary school principal must be kind. (main administrator)
A principle is a “rule.” Both words end in le: principle, rule.
     I am proud of my high principles. (rules of conduct)
     We value the principle of truth in advertising. (rule)

quiet, quite

Pronounce these two correctly, and you won’t confuse them.
Quiet means “free from noise” and rhymes with diet.
     Tennis players need quiet in order to concentrate.
Quite means “very” and rhymes with bite.
     It was quite hot in the auditorium.

right, write

Right means “correct” or “proper.”
     You will find your keys if you look in the right place.
It also means in the exact location, position, or moment.
     Your keys are right where you left them.
Write means to compose sentences, poems, essays, and so forth.
     I asked my teacher to write a letter of recommendation for me.

than, then

Than compares two things.
     I am taller than my sister.
Then tells when (then and when rhyme, and both have e in them.)
     I always write a rough draft of a paper first; then I revise it.

their, there, they're

Their is a possessive, meaning belonging to them.
     Their cars have always been red.
There points out something. (Remember that the three words indicating a place or pointing out something all have here in them: here, there, where.)
     I know that I haven’t been there before.
     There was a rainbow in the sky.
They’re is a contraction and means “they are.”
     They’re living in Canada. (They are living in Canada now.)

threw, through

Threw is the past form of “to throw.”
     We threw snowballs at each other.
     I threw away my chance at a scholarship.
If you don’t mean “to throw something,” use through.
     We could see our beautiful view through the new curtains.

two, too, to

Two is a number.
     We have written two papers so far in my English class.
Too means “extra” or “also,” and so it has an extra o.
     The movie was too long and too violent. (extra)
     They are enrolled in that biology class too. (also)
Use to for all other meanings.
     They like to ski. They’re going to the mountains.

who's, whose

Who’s is a contraction and means “who is” or “who has.”
     Who’s responsible for signing the checks? (Who is responsible?)
     Who’s been reading my journal? (Who has been...?)
Whose is a possessive. (Possessives such as whose, its, yours, hers, ours, theirs are already possessive and never take an apostrophe.)
     Whose keys are these?

you're, your

You’re is a contraction and means “you are.”
     You’re as smart as I am. (You are as smart as I am.)
Your is a possessive meaning belonging to you.
     I borrowed your lab book.

Glazier, Teresa Ferster and Paige Wilson. The Least You Should Know About English Writing
      Skills. Fort Worth, Harcourt College Publishers: 2000. 3-17.

Page last updated July 31, 2023.