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11 Commonly Confused English Words (and How to Use Them Correctly)

Caitlyn didn't always like school, but that doesn't mean she didn't learn a thing or two.

The English language includes a number of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.

The English language includes a number of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.

Don't Loose (Lose) Your Cool!

Problems with word usage, in any language, can be a major hindrance in being able to communicate effectively with other people in both speech and writing. In a language as complicated as English, it can be all too easy to use words that do not mean the same thing interchangeably.

Sometimes, these errors come from a lack of understanding, while in other cases, they may just be simple spelling mistakes that we don't necessarily pick up on because the difference comprises only a letter or two.

The goal of this article is to provide a list of some of the most commonly confused pairs of words in the language and explain how to use each of these words correctly to help make communication easier.

There are a couple of concepts we should review before jumping into the list of words below. These concepts are "homophones" and "homographs."

What Is a Homophone?

The English language includes many words that are pronounced the same but have different spellings and meanings. These words are called "homophones," and they add an extra layer of confusion to the language.

Homo means "same," and phone means sound, so homophone means a pair of words that are spelled differently but have the same sound when pronounced. For example, "pair" and "pear" are pronounced the same, but they are spelled differently and mean two completely different things.

What Is a Homograph?

The English language also includes many words that have the same spelling but are pronounced differently and have different meanings. These words are called "homographs," and they, too, add an extra layer of complexity.

Momo means "same," and graph means "written," so homograph means a pair of words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently and have different meanings. For example, "bass" (a fish) and "bass" (a sound/instrument) are pronounced differently and mean different things but are spelled the same.

11 Homophone Pairs With Definitions and Usage Guidelines

Confusing enough for you? It'll get easier. This article focuses exclusively on homophones—words that sound the same when spoken but mean different things and have different spellings. What follows is a list of some of the most commonly mixed-up homophones in the language.

1. Bear and Bare

The word "bear" has quite a few different meanings, as seen below. "Bear" can refer to a large mammal, dealing with something difficult, yielding something, or even going in a certain direction. Bare, on the other hand, has fewer meanings.

Bear

  • Carry (verb)
  • Put up with (verb)
  • A mammal of the family Ursidae (noun)
  • Be called by a name or title (verb)
  • Support (verb)
  • Turn and proceed in a direction (verb)

"I cannot bear this guilt any longer. I have to confess."

"Did you see that bear down by the river?"

"Be sure to bear right at the signpost and then continue until you get to the old schoolhouse."

"He came bearing gifts for the children."

"He will always bear the title 'King of Kings.'"

Bare

  • Naked (adjective)
  • Uncover (verb)
  • Basic or without detail (adjective)

"The forest appeared bare after the leaves fell off of the trees."

"She squealed when she saw that he was indeed bare while swimming in the lake."

"Your stories are always so bare."

2. Compliment and Complement

These words are confused quite regularly because of how close they are in spelling and sound. So, do people "complement" or "compliment" each other? Does that shirt "compliment" or "complement" his eyes?

Compliment

  • Praise or express approval (verb)
  • An admiring remark (noun)

"He complimented her neat handwriting during the lesson."

"She accepted his compliment with a giggle."

Complement

  • Add to so as to improve (verb)
  • An addition that improves or completes something (noun)

"It's difficult to find complementary colors sometimes, but the room won't look right if they clash."

"Hot fudge is the perfect complement to vanilla ice cream."

Note: An easy way to keep this one straight is to remember that "complement" and "complete" both start with "comple-."

3. Weather and Whether

Noticing a pattern here? Many words that are confused with one another are homophones because though they are spelled differently, they sound exactly the same when spoken. This can be rather confusing in writing.

Weather

  • The state of the atmosphere at any given time (noun)
  • Wear away at something (verb)
  • Withstand a difficulty (verb)

"Look at the weather on Channel 9. I need to know if it will rain tomorrow or not."

"She was able to weather the ordeal and come out of the other side stronger than she'd ever been."

Whether

  • Expressing a doubt between two alternatives (conjunction)
  • Expressing an inquiry (conjunction)
  • Indicating that a statement applies whichever of the alternatives mentioned is the case (conjunction)

"I don't know whether to use 'then' or 'than' in this sentence."

"Can you go see whether or not the dinner is done yet?"

"Whether you want to go or not is beside the point because you have to."

4. Elicit and Illicit

Confusion between these two most often comes from not knowing how to correctly spell "elicit".

Elicit

  • Draw out a reply or reaction (verb)

"In order to elicit a response from the sleeping bear, the zookeeper prodded him with a poker stick."

Illicit

  • Not allowed by law or rules (adjective)

"How could you bring these illicit drugs into my house?"

Note: Remember that "Illicit" and "Illegal" both start with "I."

5. Loose and Lose

"Loose" and "lose" are the bane of nearly every English teacher's existence. Students often confuse these two words because of their similar spelling and close pronunciation. "Loose" is pronounced with an "s" sound, while "lose" is usually pronounced with a "z" sound.

Loose

  • unfasten, set free (verb)
  • Not tight (adjective)

"He loosed the dogs from their kennels and allowed them to run free."

"How loose should the knot be if I need to untie it later?"

Lose

  • Be deprived of (verb)
  • Be unable to find (verb)

"How did you already lose your new pocket knife? You've only had it a week!"

"Don't lose your cool; we've still got a quarter left in the game."

6. Stationary and Stationery

This may not be a commonly known thing because not many people write letters anymore, but there is a difference between standing still and writing materials when it comes to spelling.

Stationary

  • Not moving (adjective)

"When she performed the table cloth trick, the stacked glasses and plates remained stationary, much to the relief of her parents."

Stationery

  • Writing materials like paper and pen (noun)

"In order to make her invitations, she had to purchase stationery from the office-supply store in town."

7. Principle and Principal

This is another case of two words with similar spellings that sound the same but have different meanings.

Principle

  • A fundamental rule or belief (noun)

"If you don't stick to your principles, people will take advantage of you."

Principal

  • Most important (adjective)
  • The head of a school (noun)

"Seatbelts provide the principal safety measure in the event of a crash, but airbags also help reduce the risk of serious injury."

"The principal declared that it was Spirit Week."

Note: It can be helpful to remember that the word "principal" includes the word "pal," whereas "principle" does not.

8. Palate, Palette, and Pallet

Here we have three distinct words—each with its own spelling and meaning(s)—that are all pronounced in the same way.

Palate

  • The roof of the mouth (noun)
  • The sense of taste (noun)

"Lift the palate while singing in order to open the airways."

"I'm not sure what it is about them, but olives really just don't suit my palate."

Palette

  • A board for mixing paint colors (noun)

"The artist's palette is often reduced to a mess of mingled colors by the time the masterpiece is finished."

Pallet

  • A platform on which goods are stored or transported (noun)
  • A straw bed (noun—archaic)

"Once the pallets are all loaded, you can go ahead and use the forklift to load them onto the truck."

9. Ensure and Insure

The issue that typically comes into play here is the misspelling of "ensure." Depending on how one pronounces the word "ensure," it can sound like it is spelled with an "i," so sometimes people write it as "insure," despite the fact that that word has a totally different definition.

Ensure

  • Make certain that something will happen (verb)

"In order to ensure the party went off without a hitch, she made herself head of the committee."

Insure

  • Arrange for compensation in the event that something is lost, stolen, or damaged (verb)

"Be sure to insure your car in case of any accidents that may happen."

10. Lead and Led

Though these two words are pronounced exactly the same, their definitions are totally different.

Lead

  • A heavy metallic element (noun)

"Lead is known for being heavy, so it is often used in fishing weights"

Led

  • Past tense form of the verb "lead," which means show someone the way

"The king led his people through a long, cold winter."

Note: "Lead," the present-tense version of "led" is spelled the same as "lead," the heavy metal. This means that lead and lead are homographs. Lead (pronounced "lehd") is the metallic element, as in lead pencils or paint. Lead (pronounced "leed") means guide or to be at the front of.

"The toys had to be recalled because they were painted with lead paint, which is extremely poisinous."

"The shepherd has to lead his sheep up to the pastures to graze."

11. Then and Than

These two words are much like "there," "their," and "they're." Mistakes made with these words can be caused by a lack of understanding or a simple slip-up.

Then

  • At that time (adverb)
  • After that, next, afterward (adverb)
  • In that case, therefore (adverb)

"I will see you then."

"First he went to the store, then he went to the market." (This is a case in which a lot of people use "than" by mistake.)

"If you pay your bail, then you should be out in no time."

Than

  • Introducing the second element in a comparison—used in expressions introducing an exception or contrast (conjunction/preposition)

"It's so much hotter here than it is up north."

Note: Basically, "then" is about a time in the future or past, while "than" is used when making comparisons.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Caitlyn Booth

Comments

reluctant history on July 11, 2018:

Great article, thank you!

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