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Words often confused and misused

Words often confused and misused in the English language are usually words that sound similar but can mean something entirely different. So to help you out we have compiled this list of twenty groups of words that are often confused and misused:

• adapt / adopt
Adapt means alter or make suitable for a purpose and adopt means accept or take (an idea etc.) from someone else.

• affect / effect
These words have several meanings but those that are most confused are the verbs. Affect is to have an effect on someone or something (e.g. paralysis affected his limbs) and effect is to bring about or accomplish something (e.g. giving up smoking may effect an improvement in your health). Effect can be a noun and a verb, but affect is only a verb.

• aggravate / irritate
Aggravate means to increase the gravity of a condition already serious. It should not be confused with irritate, which is to annoy or cause anger, displeasure, impatience etc.

• air / heir
These are homophones, words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. They are usually spelt differently. Although air has several meanings we usually take it as the gaseous substance we breathe. An heir, on the other hand, is a person who inherits or is entitled to inherit.

• aisle / isle
These are also homophones. An aisle is a passage between rows of seats. Isle is a small island. In both words the‘s’ is silent.

• all right / alright
Before checking this I wasn’t sure if one could use alright and all right interchangeably. A Concise Dictionary of Correct English says “alright is always wrong.” Other dictionaries disapprove of it but grudgingly accept that it is gaining legitimacy. You decide for yourself but I will stick with what my old English teacher at school told us: “The spelling a-l-r-i-g-h-t is a barbarism.”

• amoral / immoral
Amoral is a word coined by Robert Louis Stevenson which means unconcerned with morals, or having no sense of right or wrong. It is not judgmental. Immoral also has to do with right and wrong but certainly is judgmental. Here the ‘immoral’ person knows the difference.

• avenge / revenge
Avenge (verb) is to punish a wrongdoing with the purpose of seeing justice done (e.g. he avenged his brother’s murder). Revenge (noun or verb) is more personal and is concerned with retaliation by inflicting harm.

• bathos / pathos
Bathos is an anti-climax or disappointment. Pathos is a quality that raises pity or sadness. Both words are of Greek origin.

• between I / between me
Saying between you and I is a common error and is always wrong. All prepositions are followed by the accusative case (direct object). Similarly, to say they beat John and I at tennis is wrong because beat is a transitive verb (takes an object). While we’re at it you should never say in between. Between is sufficient.

• blond / blonde
Both mean fair-haired, blond for males and blonde for females. In all other cases use blond.

• canvas / canvass
Canvas, the cloth, should not be confused with the noun or verb canvass, which has to do with the ascertainment of opinion (e.g. to canvass for votes).

• capture / captivate
Second-language English speakers may have difficulty with this one. Although capture is used to describe downloading data on a computer its more common meaning is to take captive, in the sense of capturing prisoners. Captivate is figurative, in the sense of an actor captivating an audience by his irresistible acting skills and leaving them spellbound.

• careen / career
The noun, verb or adjective career is derived from the Latin carrus (car). It has several shades of meaning e.g. a diplomatic career, a career woman or the car careered off the road. Careen is unrelated and comes from the Latin carina (keel of a ship). It means to cause a boat or small ship to heel over so that repair or maintenance work can be done. Why, in American English, it has come to mean lurch, sway, seesaw or stagger drunkenly (as a car careening off the road) can only be guessed at. Remember that this meaning of careen is for North American use only.

• childish / childlike
Being childish is to display the behaviour and immaturity of a child. Being childlike is to resemble a child in innocence, trust and naivety.

• classic / classical
As adjectives both mean of the first class. Classic denotes something of historical value and serving as a standard of excellence. Classical usually refers to the works of art, literature, architecture and ideals of ancient Greece and Rome.

• contagious / infectious
When applied to disease this word, derived from the Latin for touch or to have contact, means spread by physical contact. Infectious, on the other hand, refers to a disease transmitted by air or water. The distinction is important.

• contemptible / contemptuous
Contemptible is deserving of scorn, ridicule or contempt. It refers to the person or thing the contempt is aimed at. Contemptuous refers to the person or thing feeling or showing the contempt. (E.g. that contemptible hooligan makes me feel contemptuous.)

• council / counsel
It is important that you differentiate between these two spellings. A council is an assembly of people (e.g. municipal council) whereas counsel is advice (e.g. take my counsel). Note that a councillor is someone in local government and a counsellor is someone who gives advice (e.g. marriage-guidance counsellor).

• compare / contrast
These are similar in meaning and both are followed by ‘with’. Compare lays stress on the similarities between two things while contrast emphasises the differences. An exception is compare to, which means liken to.

• compliment / complement
As a verb or a noun compliment has to do with showing esteem or admiration (e.g. paying a pretty compliment). Complement deals with making something complete or the full number required to make it complete (e.g. when all the crew members of a ship are on board, the ship has a full complement). These words are often confused.

• continual / continuous
Continual: always going on, very frequent, never coming to an end. Continuous: connected, unbroken, uninterrupted (e.g. water may flow continuously but a tap drips continually).

The English language can be very confusing, especially if you are not a native English speaker, and we hope that this list of words often confused and misused words will help you on your way to becoming a better writer. Please also have a look at commonly confused words in English and commonly confused words to complete our list.


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



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