Commonly Confused Words

If I have one recurrent writing flaw, that problem is wordiness. But if I have two, the second one is that I tend to confuse words that look or sound alike. For instance, I often use then when I mean than. Likewise, I recently had a professor mock me for using statue when I meant statute.

Thanks to the largely chaotic nature of the English language, we have the joy of grappling with such words. Some are homophones, which sound the same when spoken but are spelled differently (as with too, two, and to). Others resemble each other closely enough in sound and meaning to cause confusion (as with lay and lie). This article does not provide a compendium of possible errors, but instead a collection of strategies to avoid them. For a relatively thorough list of commonly confused words, see a handbook such as Andrea A. Lunsford's The Everyday Writer.


1. Find substitutes for easily confused words.

For instance, if you have trouble with affect and effect, then use synonyms. Take the following sentence:

Our strongest weapons have no affect on it!

This is an incorrect usage; the correct word is effect. But you could avoid the possibility of error by choosing another word entirely:

Our strongest weapons have no impact on it!

The meaning is the same, but you do not have to worry about choosing between affect and effect. Likewise, if you often confuse your (belonging to you) and you're (the contraction for you are), you can avoid the problem by not using contractions.

2. Create or learn some rules for distinguishing between commonly confused words.

For instance, make yourself a rule that you will only use affect as a verb and effect as a noun. While you can sometimes break this rule without being wrong (affect is often a noun in psychological research), adhering to the rule will prevent confusion in nearly all cases.

By setting rules for yourself, you make it easier to remember which word is correct in a given situation.

3. Make a list of words you commonly confuse, including definitions.

Then, as you proofread your work, note each instance of a troublesome word and check to see if you've made the right choice. You should refer to the list whenever you are in doubt.

Improving Your Paper

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