A List of Commonly Confused Words

By University of Richmond Writing Center

Words that sound alike or nearly alike but have different meanings often cause writers trouble. Here are a few of the most common pairs with correct definitions and examples:

  1. ACCEPT-to receive
    ex: He accepts defeat well.
    EXCEPT-to take or leave out
    ex: Please take all the books off the shelf except for the red one.
  2. AFFECT-to influence
    ex: Lack of sleep affects the quality of your work.
    EFFECT-n., result, v., to accomplish
    ex: The subtle effect of the lighting made the room look ominous.
    ex: Can the university effect such a change without disrupting classes?
  3. A LOT (two words)-many.
    ALOT (one word)-Not the correct form.
  4. ALLUSION-an indirect reference
    ex: The professor made an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s work.
    ILLUSION-a false perception of reality
    ex: They saw a mirage: that is a type of illusion one sees in the desert.
  5. ALL READY-prepared
    ex: Dinner was all ready when the guests arrived.
    ALREADY-by this time
    ex: The turkey was already burned when the guests arrived.
  6. ALTOGETHER-entirely
    ex: Altogether, I thought that the student’s presentation was well planned.
    ALL TOGETHER-gathered, with everything in one place
    ex: We were all together at the family reunion last spring.
  7. APART-to be separated
    ex: The chain-link fence kept the angry dogs apart. OR My old car fell apart before we reached California.
    A PART-to be joined with
    ex: The new course was a part of the new field of study at the university. OR A part of this plan involves getting started at dawn.
  8. ASCENT– climb
    ex: The plane’s ascent made my ears pop.
    ex: The martian assented to undergo experiments.
  9. BREATH-noun, air inhaled or exhaled
    ex: You could see his breath in the cold air.
    BREATHE-verb, to inhale or exhale
    ex: If you don’t breathe, then you are dead.
  10. CAPITAL-seat of government. Also financial resources.
    ex: The capital of Virginia is Richmond.
    ex: The firm had enough capital to build the new plant.
    CAPITOL-the actual building in which the legislative body meets
    ex: The governor announced his resignation in a speech given at the capitol today.
  11. CITE-to quote or document
    ex: I cited ten quotes from the same author in my paper.
    ex: The sight of the American flag arouses different emotions in different parts of the world.
    SITE-position or place
    ex: The new office building was built on the site of a cemetery.
  12. COMPLEMENT-noun, something that completes; verb, to complete
    ex: A nice dry white wine complements a seafood entree.
    COMPLIMENT-noun, praise; verb, to praise
    ex: The professor complimented Betty on her proper use of a comma.
  13. CONSCIENCE-sense of right and wrong
    ex: The student’s conscience kept him from cheating on the exam.
    ex: I was conscious when the burglar entered the house.
  14. COUNCIL-a group that consults or advises
    ex: The men and women on the council voted in favor of an outdoor concert in their town.
    COUNSEL-to advise
    ex: The parole officer counseled the convict before he was released.
  15. ELICIT-to draw or bring out
    ex: The teacher elicited the correct response from the student.
    ex: The Columbian drug lord was arrested for his illicit activities.
  16. EMINENT-famous, respected
    ex: The eminent podiatrist won the Physician of the Year award.
    IMMANENT-inherent or intrinsic
    ex: The meaning of the poem was immanent, and not easily recognized.
    IMMINENT-ready to take place
    ex: A fight between my sister and me is imminent from the moment I enter my house.
  17. ITS-of or belonging to it
    ex: The baby will scream as soon as its mother walks out of the room.
    IT’S-contraction for it is
    ex: It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
  18. LEAD-noun, a type of metal
    ex: Is that pipe made of lead?
    LED-verb, past tense of the verb “to lead”
    ex: She led the campers on an over-night hike.
  19. LIE-to lie down (a person or animal. hint: people can tell lies)
    ex: I have a headache, so I’m going to lie down for a while.
    (also lying, lay, has/have lain–The dog has lain in the shade all day; yesterday, the dog lay there for twelve hours).
    LAY-to lay an object down.
    ex: “Lay down that shotgun, Pappy!” The sheriff demanded of the crazed moonshiner.
    ex: The town lay at the foot of the mountain.
    (also laying, laid, has/have laid–At that point, Pappy laid the shotgun on the ground).
  20. LOSE-verb, to misplace or not win
    ex: Mom glared at Mikey. “If you lose that new lunchbox, don’t even think of coming home!”
    LOOSE-adjective, to not be tight; verb (rarely used)–to release
    ex: The burglar’s pants were so loose that he was sure to lose the race with the cop chasing him.
    ex: While awaiting trial, he was never set loose from jail because no one would post his bail.
  21. NOVEL-noun, a book that is a work of fiction. Do not use “novel” for nonfiction; use “book” or “work.”
    ex: Mark Twain wrote his novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when he was already well known, but before he published many other works of fiction and nonfiction.
  22. PASSED-verb, past tense of “to pass,” to have moved
    ex: The tornado passed through the city quickly, but it caused great damage.
    PAST-belonging to a former time or place
    ex: Who was the past president of Microsquish Computers?
    ex: Go past the fire station and turn right.
  23. PRECEDE-to come before
    ex: Pre-writing precedes the rough draft of good papers.
    PROCEED-to go forward
    ex: He proceeded to pass back the failing grades on the exam/
    Thanks to Shelley for showing us we had “proceed” misspelled as “procede” in one spot!
  24. PRINCIPAL-adjective, most important; noun, a person who has authority
    ex: The principal ingredient in chocolate chip cookies is chocolate chips.
    ex: The principal of the school does the announcements each morning.
    PRINCIPLE-a general or fundamental truth
    ex: The study was based on the principle of gravity.
  25. QUOTE-verb, to cite
    ex: I would like to quote Dickens in my next paper.
    QUOTATION-noun, the act of citing
    ex: The book of famous quotations inspired us all.
  26. RELUCTANT-to hesitate or feel unwilling
    ex: We became reluctant to drive further and eventually turned back when the road became icy.
    RETICENT-to be reluctant to speak; to be reserved in manner. Note that The American Heritage Dictionary lists “reluctant” as a synonym for “reticent,” as the third definition. For nuance and variety, we recommend “reticent” for reluctance when speaking or showing emotion (after all, even extroverts can become reluctant).
    ex: They called him reticent, because he rarely spoke. But he listened carefully and only spoke when he had something important to say.
  27. STATIONARY-standing still
    ex: The accident was my fault because I ran into a stationary object.
    STATIONERY-writing paper
    ex: My mother bought me stationery that was on recycled paper.
  28. SUPPOSED TO-correct form for “to be obligated to” or “presumed to” NOT “suppose to”
    SUPPOSE-to guess or make a conjecture
    ex: Do you suppose we will get to the airport on time? When is our plane supposed to arrive? We are supposed to check our bags before we board, but I suppose we could do that at the curb and save time.
  29. THAN-use with comparisons
    ex: I would rather go out to eat than eat at the dining hall.
    THEN-at that time, or next
    ex: I studied for my exam for seven hours, and then I went to bed.
  30. THEIR-possessive form of they
    ex: Their house is at the end of the block.
    THERE-indicates location (hint: think of “here and there”)
    ex: There goes my chance of winning the lottery!
    THEY’RE-contraction for “they are”
    ex: They’re in Europe for the summer–again!
  31. THROUGH-by means of; finished; into or out of
    ex: He plowed right through the other team’s defensive line.
    THREW-past tense of throw
    ex: She threw away his love letters.
    THOROUGH-careful or complete
    ex: John thoroughly cleaned his room; there was not even a speck of dust when he finished.
    THOUGH-however; nevertheless
    ex: He’s really a sweetheart though he looks tough on the outside.
    THRU-abbreviated slang for through; not appropriate in standard writing
    ex: We’re thru for the day!
  32. TO-toward
    ex: I went to the University of Richmond.
    TOO-also, or excessively
    ex: He drank too many screwdrivers and was unable to drive home.
    TWO-a number
    ex: Only two students did not turn in the assignment.
  33. WHO-pronoun, referring to a person or persons
    ex: Jane wondered how Jack, who is so smart, could be having difficulties in Calculus.
    WHICH-pronoun, replacing a singular or plural thing(s);not used to refer to persons
    ex: Which section of history did you get into?
    THAT-used to refer to things or a group or class of people
    ex: I lost the book that I bought last week.
  34. WHO-used as a subject or as a subject complement (see above)
    ex: John is the man who can get the job done.
    WHOM-used as an object
    ex: Whom did Sarah choose as her replacement?