Fifty commonly confused words

We all need to improve our vocabulary

Here’s a list of fifty commonly confused words for you to ponder, and memorise if that seems like a good idea to you. You may know some of them already (in fact, you may very well have a good idea of most of them), but you probably don’t know them all. But here’s an opportunity to have them all, complete with working examples, where necessary, right at your fingertips.

Some of the most commonly confused words have only slightly differing meanings, which largely accounts for the confusion, while some have wildly differing meanings and are commonly confused words because they sound so similar. The confusion arises when people simply haven’t taken the time to get to know them properly.

Sometimes, in everyday speech, you can get away with a close approximation of the exact word by a bit of nifty footwork, so to speak, but if the person you’re speaking to has a clear understanding of the words you use (or misuse) then your deception will quickly be unmasked.

A spell checker won’t help with commonly confused words

Sew take the thyme to learn these words once an four awl, and you’re miss steaks won’t have too slip bye unnoticed. Inn fact, yule bee making fewer missed aches and there’ll be awl most nothing fore anyone two spot. Try as they mite, they won’t fined fault with you’re vocabulary. And bit bi bit you’re command off English will get better as thyme moves on.

A spell chequer wooden bee able two tell the difference bee tween the rite words and the wrong ones, just as long ass there reel words, rite? Ow cud a peace off soft wear no the difference? An if cleverly designed soft were can’t make an intelligent choice, imagine how easy it mite bee to slip up, even with the best Will in the whirled. Missed aches happen, you no! Even when you’ve got a spell chequer two cheque you’re vocabulary.

It’s important to have a clear understanding of words

But is it really important, you might ask. Well, long before there were any words, there were thoughts. Hard to imagine, maybe, but there was a time when humans had thoughts and practically no way to express them, apart from body language (much as animals do). As time went on, we developed speech (possibly the greatest of all human achievements), and our thoughts could then be not just expressed verbally, but crystallised into specific words.

As speech improved and developed, it became possible to say exactly what we were thinking, and the more our vocabulary grew, the more it became precise enough to express a thought with precision and real clarity.

The next step, which doubtless took millennia, was the development of writing. This was another awesome leap forward. It meant we could communicate with others not present, even others far distant, and even after we ourselves were dead and gone. So it became possible to pass on our knowledge across both time and space, and to build on the achievements of the past. An absolutely incredible leap forward!


So much of our knowledge and learning comes from the great thinkers of the past, the likes of Shakespeare, Darwin, Socrates, Edison, and Confucius. And the thing they all have in common is that they’re all long dead, and if not for the great skill that is writing we would have lost practically all that they had to bequeath to us.

So yes, it is important to use words correctly, and the more precise our understanding of words, the more effectively we can communicate our thoughts. So it’s worth making the effort to learn the subtle differences between words. Only by continually building up our vocabulary can we be sure that we’re saying exactly what we mean, and meaning exactly what we are saying.

Learning difficult words by example

Along with each pair of commonly confused words (or at least most of them) I give an example of each word in use. This is the way you learned the vast majority of the words in your vocabulary, by seeing (or hearing) them in use. This is a perfectly natural method of learning and doesn’t call for any extra effort on your part.

Any word you’re not clear on, you’re welcome to look it up in a good English dictionary, of course, but it would be a waste of both my time and yours for me to list the dictionary definitions of all of them. For a lot of people, the written definition isn’t a very clear way of explaining a word’s meaning anyway.

Just by reading this page and referring to it occasionally you will be improving your vocabulary. And you’ll find you’re gaining a more complete and more rounded understanding of words (specially commonly confused words). And the beauty of it is that the more words you know, and the more you understand them, the easier it is to understand new ones as you come across them. The more you learn, the easier it is to add to your fund of knowledge.

Use this list as a valuable reference

This page will be of interest to you if you just want to improve your vocabulary. And if English isn’t your first language, then this page really will prove invaluable. You may find yourself using a thesaurus more often, not because you’re unsure of a word but because you’re aware there are so many similar words that you could use.

This is a chance to learn something useful, and practise your memory techniques at the same time. A double whammy!

Ready? Okay, here’s fifty commonly confused words!

1 – advice and advise

Advice is carefully considered guidance, usually given by someone knowledgeable.

Advise is the verb connected to the noun, ‘advice’. The person giving the advice is advising.

2 – accede and exceed

If you accede to someone’s demands, you agree to them. Using the word might also indicate you have agreed to demands under pressure. It can also mean assuming an official position, as in “He acceded to the role of final arbiter, although he had formerly been just an onlooker”.

If you exceed your authority, you’ve overstepped the mark and gone too far.

3 – accept and except

Sometimes people confuse these two words, or use one where they should really use the other. No point in getting worked up over it, you just have to accept it, that’s all! Specially if their vocabulary is usually faultless – I mean, if every word they utter is accurate and correct, except this one …

4 – allude and elude (and elide)

If you allude to something, you suggest it indirectly. For example, you might allude to something mentioned earlier in a discussion, without going into detail.

If you elude, you are escaping, or getting away from a tricky situation. A person might elude his pursuers, for example.

If a sound or part of a word is omitted in speech, it is said to be elided.

5 – altogether and all together

I was altogether mystified at her reaction … but then the others came in and we, all together, agreed it was a bit over the top. Especially as she had chosen to appear in the altogether!

6 – alter and altar

To change something, whether for good or ill, would be to alter it, but if you gave praise in front of a statue you would very likely be at the altar of your chosen deity.

7 – amoral and immoral

Somebody who is immoral might do things that are considered bad, or evil. On the other hand, someone who is amoral might do the same things, but not out of evil, but because he simply has no moral compass to guide him.

8 – appraise and apprise

A jeweller might appraise a piece of jewellery (i.e. rate the value of it), and he might even apprise a colleague of his appraisal (i.e. inform him).

9 – auger and augur

An auger is a particular type of drill bit for boring holes in wood.

To augur is to predict an outcome, as in “the dark and gathering clouds did not augur well for the afternoon’s weather”.

10 – bare and bear

Bear with me a moment, I really must have a word with that person who’s just entered the office in a state of undress. I can’t bear it when a person thinks it’s okay to turn up for an interview practically bare. Oh no, now a wild animal’s got in the office … that’s all I need, a grizzly bear invading my office space!

11 – bazaar and bizarre

You can take a walk round a bazaar in the Middle East, but if you find that particular outdoor market strange and unusual you might say that you find it somewhat bizarre.

12 – blonde and blond

These two terms are borrowed from French, and as such they have to obey the rule of gender. In other words, a beautiful blonde actress must have an ‘e’ on the end of blonde, whereas a tall, striking blond warrior has no need of the ‘e’ (assuming the warrior is a male).

13 – bought and brought

Bought is the past participle of ‘to buy’, while brought is the past participle of ‘to bring’. If you need to remember which is which, just remember which one has the ‘r’ in it (both ‘bring’ and ‘brought’).

The customer bought a number of paving slabs and a few bags of sand at the builder’s yard. The delivery man brought them round later that afternoon.

14 – caught and court

If a burglar gets caught, he could end up in court!

15 – collaborate and corroborate

If you collaborate, you work alongside someone else. This can be a good thing, as in collaborating on an important project, or not so good, as in collaborating with the enemy.

If you corroborate something, you confirm it, or give it further strength, as in a detective successfully finding corroborating evidence.

16 – continually and continuously

These two words are very often confused. People often use them interchangeably, but the difference is interesting. And if you understand the difference, you’re unlikely to get the two words confused.

If you repeatedly get the two words confused, you continually confuse one with the other. Continual indicates repetition. Another example would be “continually making the same mistake”.

On the other hand, if someone uses either word endlessly, and without interruption (though it would be highly unlikely), then he would be using that word continuously. Continuous indicates something happening in a steady stream, without interruption. Another example would be “the continuous humming of the engines”.

17 – compliment and complement

You can give someone a compliment by making a comment on how nice they look. If you mention that a lady’s shoes match her other accessories, you’ll be commenting on the fact that they complement each other.

18 – council and counsel

A council is an elected body of people, to manage the affairs of a city, for example.

Counsel is advice given to someone. The term is often used in a formal sense, e.g. “he carefully considered the counsel of his lieutenants before making a move”.

19 – course and coarse

A course can refer to a path, or a plan of study, or a stage of a meal.

Coarse cloth is roughly made, and the word can equally apply to a rough or harsh voice as well. In fact, the word can apply to anything rough, such as a coarse file or rasp.

20 – credible and creditable

If a thing is credible, it is believable (think of incredible … unbelievable). If a thing is creditable, it is deserving of credit (e.g. “… and although they didn’t take the trophy, they put up a creditable performance”).

21 – current and currant

Two words that look and sound almost identical, yet have different meanings.

Current is concerned with flow, as in a current of water or electricity. Also, affairs that are happening right now (flowing along right now) are called current affairs.

A currant, on the other hand, is a small dried fruit, or the bush on which it grew.

22 – discreet and discrete

If a person does something they wish to keep private, or secret, they have to be discreet about mentioning it. An entirely different situation arises when there are two quite separate and distinct things – in that situation, it would be correct to say the two things are quite discrete.

23 – devise and device

If a person is inventive, it’s quite possible they could devise something quite useful … a particular device, for example.

24 – draught and draft

“Close that window, you’re letting a draught in. It’s disturbing the draft version of the building’s plans on my desk”.

25 – elicit and illicit

To elicit something is to draw it out, as in “His clever questioning slowly elicited the truth out of the prisoner “, while something illegal is correctly referred to as something illicit.

26 – eminent and imminent

An eminent person is one of high rank, or having some special quality, as in “He was well known as an eminent professor”.

Imminent implies something is just about to happen, as in “imminent danger of explosion”.

27 – exercise and exorcise

When you go the gym, you probably have the intention of doing some exercise, while your motivation would be quite different if you visited a supposedly haunted house – your motivation then would perhaps be to exorcise a troubled spirit.

28 – faze and phase (and phrase)

If something fazes someone, it disturbs him in some way, as in “he wasn’t happy to hear the criticism, but it didn’t faze him at all”.

If something appears in different forms, such as a fashion item, it could be said to be appearing in various phases. A phase can be any period or style of a thing, or any stage in its development, such as the larval phase of an insect.

A phrase, on the other hand, is a grammatical term. It means a sequence of words that act as a unit in a sentence. It can also mean a short, self-contained section of a musical composition, mirroring the grammatical term, but in music, not words.

29 – flounder and founder

To flounder is to struggle awkwardly and helplessly, as in thick mud, or due to drunkenness. The word is also the name of a kind of fish.

To founder (referring to a ship) is to take on water and sink. Of course it can also mean a person who began a company or project.

30 – gorilla and guerilla

A gorilla is a large ape, whereas a guerilla is a soldier, or a partisan fighter. Guerilla comes from the French word ‘guerre’, which means war.

31 – hanged and hung

These two words are often used interchangeably, but it’s easy to know which one to use in a particular situation. A person who is facing the death penalty is due to be hanged, whereas a picture, for example, would be hung.

32 – hoard and horde

A hoarder is someone who gathers lots of items (or hoards them), some of them of questionable value, and allows the hoard to get out of hand. An entirely different thing is a horde of people, or a horde of insects (for example) … although not so different really – horde doesn’t just mean many things, it indicates that they’ve become a seething mass (and there’s some similarity to a hoarder’s hoard).

33 – immediately and immediacy

These two words have very similar meanings, but there is a subtle difference.

When something is happening immediately, it is happening without delay.

When someone uses the word immediacy, it generally means that the person or thing referred to has a quality of urgency and instant and total involvement. An example would be a very effective speaker, whose oratory might be referred to as having a quality of immediacy, in that it conveys something very directly and effectively to the listener.

34 – imply and infer

It’s easy to see why these two words would be confused – the words themselves are quite similar, and so are their meanings. The difference is quite subtle, but important.

You can imply something, without saying it specifically (i.e. you can suggest it by your words, even though you’re careful not to actually put it into words. On the other hand, a listener might infer the truth from what you say (or don’t say)! That is, he might deduce the facts from whatever he has available.

35 – incite and insight

If you encourage someone to act in a certain way (particularly an unlawful or violent way), then you are inciting them to do something.

If, however, you consider doing such a thing and then see that it is wrong, and decide not to, you have used insight to see the better course of action, i.e. you have gained an accurate and deep understanding of the situation.

36 – it’s and its

You only ever need to use ‘it’s’ to indicate a missing letter, as in “It’s best if you leave now” (meaning ‘it is best if …’).

The other version (its) is quite different – it’s a possessive pronoun, meaning it refers to something belonging to it, as in “The cat was clearly upset – its hair stood on end”.

You might think ‘its’ needs an apostrophe, being a possessive, but it doesn’t. It’s like his (which was probably ‘he’s’ originally) and has long since lost its apostrophe, and ‘hers’, which also doesn’t have one.

37 – lesson and lessen

A lesson is something that has to be learned, while to lessen something is to make it less, as in “eventually the rainfall lessened, till the day was quite still and quiet”.

38 – notable and noticeable

Something notable is worth of note, i.e. it’s remarkable, special, outstanding in some way. Also notable is the fact that this word, though it comes from ‘note’, does not have the ‘e’ at the end of ‘note’.

Something noticeable is also worthy of note, but in the sense that it’s very clear or easily perceived.

39 – passed and past

These two words have quite similar meanings, but they are still distinct (or maybe that should be discrete). If you are in a race and many runners have caught up with you and gone ahead, they have passed you by. If that really bothers you and you find yourself reliving each embarrassing moment, you’re living in the past.

40 – perforation and peroration (and peregrination)

The little holes in a tea bag, or along the pull-apart line in a book of stamps, consists of many little perforations. The peroration, on the other hand, is the concluding part of a speech, that part that might be a call to action, or designed to inspire enthusiasm.

Peregrination is something else altogether – it means travelling around, from place to place, usually on foot.

41 – poured and pored

A drink is always poured, never pored.

When someone studies something carefully, he may very well pore over it, i.e. stare at it, read it very attentively, study the details.

42 – precede and proceed

If you have a list of things, those that come before the last one precede it. Once you have the list sorted out, you’re ready to carry on, or proceed.

43 – prescribe and proscribe

When your doctor wants you to take a certain medication, he will prescribe it. When the law of the land specifically forbids or condemns a certain action, it will proscribe it.

44 – principal and principle

The principal of a school is the headteacher. The principal is also the main person involved in something, e.g. the principal in a legal case. It can also refer to the sum borrowed or invested, before tax or interest is taken into consideration.

A standard principle of business is that the customer is always right. If you’re sure of your position, you might well choose to stick to your position as a matter of principle.

45 – profit and prophet

When you buy something at wholesale price and then sell it on, you might make a profit. When you start to preach to a throng of eager listeners, specially if you foretell things yet to come, you might become a prophet. (Note: Some modern-day prophets are not averse to turning a profit!)

46 – they’re and their and there

These three words all sound the same, but they have different meanings.

‘They’re’ is a contraction of ‘they are’. The apostrophe indicates that there is a letter missing.

‘Their’ is a possessive pronoun – it indicates that something ‘belongs’ to them.

‘There’ just indicates place – some other place that’s not here. Or it can be a part of the verb ‘to be’, as in “There are several different meanings for this word”.

47 – threw and through

You can walk through a doorway, but if you got hold of something and propelled it through the doorway an onlooker might say that you threw it through the aperture. Threw is the past participle of ‘to throw’.

48 – tortuous and torturous

“That maze we just finally exited was almost as tortuous and convoluted as the chairman’s arguments. Finding our way out was a long and dizzying experience, quite uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t go as far as to call it torturous. Unpleasantness is one thing, torture is quite another”.

49 – uninterested and disinterested

If you’re just not interested in something to the point of boredom, it’s correct to say you’re uninterested in that particular subject.

On the other hand, if you have no interest in a thing, e.g. no financial interest, then it would be correct to say you are a disinterested party.

50 – vociferous and voracious

Someone who is loud and outspoken is vociferous (from ‘vox’, the Latin for voice), while a person (or a horde of insects) who eats greedily is voracious (the same word can apply to a person’s massive appetite for information on a particular subject).


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