Guide to Common Grammatical Quandaries 

Ah, the English language -- so delightfully confusing! This list was compiled from errors found in newspapers, magazines, published books and websites.  If professional writers and editors missed these, chances are that most "regular" people have trouble with them, as well.  In many instances, both options are actual words, so spellcheck won't catch the error for you.  The rules outlined here are based on American English; British English has some differences in spelling and usage.  The list is periodically updated with new guidelines, so bookmark it and check back often!

A

 

a vs. an - The general rule for these articles is to use "an" before a word beginning with a vowel, and "a" before a word beginning with a consonant. The use of "an" is extended to include words (or letters, in the case of acronyms) starting with a mere vowel sound. You should also use "an" before words beginning with a silent "h" - but use "a" before words where the "h" is spoken. The same type of apparent contradiction is true for words beginning with vowels, but whose beginning sound is that of a consonant. Here are some examples to help you out: "Tom has gone to buy an anchor for his boat." "Judy will only be gone for an hour." "We stayed in a hotel near Chicago." "Madeline is a great girl." "Jerry took a TWA flight to New York." "Jody volunteered to serve on an FHA committee."  "That singer from the 1700's was reputed to be a eunuch."
 

an vs. and - This is another one where I want to think the errors are due to careless thumb-typing, but the frequency with which I see the latter used for the former makes me suspect the worst.

     An is an indefinite article that is used preceding words beginning with a vowel sound, as explained in the entry above: “Carrie has an hourglass figure.”  “Kevin brought the teacher an apple.”

     And is a conjunction used to connect two parts of a sentence, or toward the end of a list of items: “The Smiths went to both Europe and Asia on their latest trip.” For dinner, we’re having roast beef, potatoes, and salad.” And can never be substituted correctly for an.


absorbent vs. exorbitant - These are not words I would expect someone to confuse. But there it was one day, the wrong one staring at me from a syndicated advice column. I had to read the sentence over a couple of times, thinking, "that doesn't make sense," before I realized what the writer had been trying to say. Then, of course, I had to laugh!

     Absorbent  is an adjective that means able to absorb something, such as liquids, light, or heat: "These new paper towels are really absorbent."  "I need to find some new cat litter that's more absorbent." It can also be a noun that refers to something able to absorb: "The company used an absorbent to clean up the oil spill."

     Exorbitant is an adjective that means improperly or unusually excessive: "That lawyer's fees were really exorbitant." "Julia spent an exorbitant amount on clothing for her honeymoon."


accept vs. except - They may sound similar, but their meanings are almost entirely opposite.

     To accept something is to receive or welcome it: "Marsha will be there to accept her award." "The committee will accept applications for grants through October 1." "Mary did not accept John's advances." "Do you still accept cash as payment?"

     Except, however, is used to show things that are excluded: "Everyone except Laurie went on the field trip."  "I like all vegetables except beets."  "I got all the questions right on the test, except two."


ad vs. add - The shorter version of this, ad, is a noun that is short for "advertisement": "Justine placed an ad for her shop in the local newspaper." "Mary Sue couldn't afford the ad proposed by that salesman." "Jack makes a good living writing ad copy."  The plural of it is "ads":  "Sarah's new DVR lets her skip through all the ads in her favorite programs."

      Add is a verb that comes from "addition": "Stephanie would like to add a room onto her house."  "Can you add this list of numbers for me?"  "We'd like to add another person onto our reservation for dinner." When used with an "s" on the end, it's the third person singular conjugation of the verb:  "Mark always adds too much spice to his chili."


adverse vs. averse - Only one letter makes all the difference in these two words!

     Adverse means "bad" or "negative", as in "Mary had an adverse reaction to her medication;" Mary had a bad reaction to her medication.

     Averse means "opposed" or "against", as in "John was averse to seeing the doctor;" John was opposed to seeing the doctor.  A person cannot be "adverse to" something.  You wouldn't say "John was bad to seeing the doctor;" it doesn't make sense. Try substituting one of the synonyms listed here if you're unsure whether to use "adverse" or "averse", and see which way the sentence sounds correct.


advice vs. advise - Advice (with a "C") is a noun; it's something you would offer to someone or receive from them. Advise (with an "S") is a verb; it's something you do when you give advice. The two words are not interchangeable. Here are some examples of correct usage:  "Could you advise me on this legal matter?" "Paul gave me some good advice last week." "If you want my advice, I think you should dump him!"
 

affect vs. effect - Affect is a verb meaning to influence something, as in "Jim tried to affect the outcome of the election." Effect can be a noun or a verb; when used as a verb, it means to bring about, or to cause something specific to happen: "I tried to effect a reasonable solution to the problem." As a noun: "The effect of the change was positive."

      When you use "effect" as a verb, the sentence will usually say what it is the person was trying to do, whereas "affect" is not specific.  Note the differences in the example sentences above.  In the first one, you know that Jim was trying to have an impact on the election, but you don't know what he wanted to happen.  In the second one, the person was trying to bring about "a reasonable solution", so you know what they were trying to accomplish.  This may help you to remember the difference between the two words.
 

aid vs. aide - The one of these without the "e" can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it is synonymous with "help" or "assistance": "Do you need aid?" "Jeannine is going overseas to provide aid to disaster victims."

     The one spelled with the "e" on the end can only be a noun.  It also has to do with helping, but it is a person who does the helping: "Dorothy is Mr. Garcia's aide." "James is advertising to hire an aide." "The general's aide-de-camp gave me this message for you."
 

aisle vs. isle - Although they're pronounced exactly alike, these two words have very different meanings, and are not interchangeable in written communication. Aisle (with the "a") is a narrow corridor, like in a store; it's also what a bride walks down in a church when she gets married. Isle is a shortened version of the word "island", and means the same thing as island. Here's how to use them properly:  "Elizabeth looked beautiful in her gown as she walked down the aisle." "Baked beans are with the canned goods on aisle four." "Steve had fond memories of his childhood on the remote and exotic isle."
 

alot - There is no such word as this. If you mean to say that there are bunches of something, this is two words: "a lot". There is a word, allot, that refers to dividing or portioning out something: "John decided to allot each child an equal share of the pie."
 

although - This is one word, with only one L. It's a conjunction that means "in spite of the fact that..." or "granted that..."  Imagine my shock upon finding it as "all though" on the website of a national arts radio network! They must've left the transcription of that interview to the summer interns. Here's what the site should have said: "...although all films are manipulated,..."
 

amiss vs. remiss - Both words are used as adjectives, but they have different meanings. When something is wrong or out of place, it is amiss:  "When she saw the broken window, Laura knew something must be amiss."

     If you neglect to do something you should have done, or are careless about something, you are remiss:  "Manuel was remiss in neglecting to mention the other contestants." "The council members were remiss when they failed to vote on the issue."
 

apart vs. a part - The one-word version of this is an adjective that means "separate" or "separated": "John and Marsha have been apart for six months while he has been stationed overseas." "Apart from the last paragraph, this contract is fine with me."

     The two-word version means "a portion":  "It's been great to be a part of a winning team." "Talent was only a part of the reason for Tracy's success." If you're not sure which to use, try substituting the above phrases for the words and see which one makes sense. You can also look at the following conjunction: something is typically apart from something else, but a part of something else.
 

appraise vs. apprise - To appraise something is to assess its value: "John came by to appraise Mary's painting yesterday." "Terry took his grandmother's rocking chair to The Antiques Roadshow to get it appraised."

     To apprise is to make someone aware of something, and it requires an object: "Sally stopped by to apprise us of next week's meeting." "The CEO stands by his story that he was never apprised of the accounting irregularities."
 

are vs. or - I found this error in an e-mail from a social networking site that urged me to “upgrade are be purged.” I elected to be purged.

     Are is a conjugation of the verb “to be”: “John and Sally are cute together.” “You are getting on my nerves!” "Where are you going on vacation this year?"

     Or is a conjunction that connects things, usually in comparison to each other:  “Do you want chicken or beef?”  “Upgrade or be purged.”  “It’s time to fish or cut bait.”
 

are vs. our - Although many people pronounce these words the same, they shouldn't be - nor do they mean anywhere near the same thing!

     Are is a conjugation of the verb "to be": "Where are we?" "You are a beautiful woman." "They are going to Europe on vacation."  When pronounced, it sounds exactly like the letter "R".

     Our, on the other hand, is what's known as a "possessive pronominal adjective" (check the dictionary): "That is our dog." "Our family celebrates Hanukkah instead of Christmas." When pronouncing the word, it sounds exactly like the word "hour".
 

Audubon vs. Autobahn - This mistake actually made me laugh when I saw it!

     Audubon usually refers to John James Audubon, the famous painter of birds, or to the bird conservation society founded in his honor: "That painting was a genuine Audubon." "Tara is a member of the Audubon Society."

     The Autobahn is the famed system of highways with no speed limits in Germany: "There is no other feeling in the world like cruising the Autobahn at 140 mph."

B

 

bare vs. bear - These are both words that can serve as more than one part of speech. When used as a verb, to "bare" something is to expose it; to make it naked: "Jennie wanted to bare her soul to Rosalind." "Isabel was about to bare her breasts in public." As an adjective, it is used in the same sense:  "The news story laid their plans bare." "In winter, that tree's branches are bare."

   The verb version of "bear," however, means to carry or bring forth, and is often used in reference to carrying a heavy burden: "It was difficult to watch Jesus bear the cross." "Bear in mind that you must be there on time." "Is that tree ever going to bear fruit?" The past tense of this verb is "bore":  "He bore that heavy burden all alone."


base vs. bass - For this little confusion, I'm referring to second word as a homonym for the first, pronounced with a long A (not with a short A like the fish, immortalized in the "Saturday Night Live" sketch about the Bass-O-Matic). Although the first word has a number of uses, the base of something is most commonly its bottom or foundation: "This statue has an unstable base." "The paint used on your woodwork has an oil base." "After a few hours, the base notes of her perfume became apparent." "Jim made it all the way to third base on that hit." Base may also be used as a verb: "On what do you base your conclusion?" "The company will base its operations in our town."

     The confusion often arises in that bass also refers to the lowest range, but it applies only to sound or music: "Joe sings bass in his church choir."  "I really enjoyed the bass line of that song." "Manuel is learning to play the bass."
 

bath vs. bathe - Ah, the difference one small letter can make! In addition to changing the pronunciation of the vowel in this word from short to long and the final "th" sound from soft to hard, the addition of the "e" at the end transforms the word from a noun into a verb...presto!

     A bath is something you take when you bathe: "Jimmy took a bath before going to bed." "Joan prefers a bath to a shower." "Phew! That dog needs a bath." It's also a shortened form of "bathroom" used to refer to the room in your house that contains the bathtub, shower, sink, etc.:  "This home has three bedrooms, but only one bath." If you lose a lot of money on a deal, you can also end up taking one:  "Melvin really took a bath on that investment!"

     To bathe can be to take a bath: "I believe I'm going to bathe now." It can also mean to give a bath to someone else: "Marie was just about to bathe the baby." If something is covered in something, it's also getting a bath: "The stage was bathed in light."


bazaar vs. bizarre - Here's another pair of words that sound exactly alike, but have vastly different meanings.

     A bazaar is a noun that means "marketplace": "Sherrie got that vase at a bazaar while she was on vacation." "Our garden club is holding its annual holiday bazaar next Saturday."

     "Bizarre" is an adjective that's a synonym for "odd" or "unusual": "Herb is acting really bizarre lately." "That's a bizarre way to display those items." "How bizarre!"

     Ready to blow your mind?  Here's a sentence using both words:  "Harry bought that bizarre painting at the church bazaar."
 

berth vs. birth - Someone actually wrote of it being necessary for people to “earn their first birth.” Huh?! That’s a lot of pressure for someone in the womb! So let’s explore the difference.

     A berth is a spot, space, or rank; think of a bunk on a ship or train: “Teddi was lucky to have secured a berth in the first-class car.” “Gerald achieved a captain’s berth at a younger age than most.”

     A birth is the occurrence of being born: “Sadie’s second child was a very difficult birth.” It can also mean one’s nationality, descent, or natural heritage: “Silas was of Scottish birth.” “Liberace must have been a pianist by birth.”
 

bonified - There is no such word as this. The correct term is two words, bona fide, which means "genuine" or "authentic". The phrase is Latin for "in good faith," and should always be italicized.  Use it like this:  "That painting was a bona fide Picasso."
 

boarders vs. borders - I had to laugh when I read this mistake in print! While both nouns, these two words differ greatly in meaning, and are not interchangeable.

      Boarders are people who rent rooms in houses: "Mrs. Andrews has taken in a few boarders to make ends meet." In some modern contexts, it's also used to refer to people who ride skateboards or snowboards: "They don't allow boarders on that slope."

      Borders are the edges of something, such as a country: "If we don't close our borders, the immigrants are going to outnumber us natives!"  "He's overseas, working with Doctors Without Borders." The word can also be used as a verb, meaning to sit right next to:  "Canada borders the U.S. to the north."


brake vs. break - Both of these can be either a noun or a verb, which may be where the confusion arises. Most commonly, a brake is what you step on to stop your vehicle: "Bob had to use the emergency brake to stop the car." This meaning can be plural, as well: “I think it’s time we put on the brakes in this relationship.” It can also be used as a verb in this sense: "Katherine knew when she saw the dog in the road ahead that it was time to brake." There are several other meanings that are more obscure; consult your friendly dictionary to see them all.

      Break is a word with even more meanings; it takes up more than a column in the printed dictionary. The most common meaning concerns a breach or fracture, whether used as a noun or a verb: "The fall caused Bobby to break his arm." "Carrie will break a dish every time she washes them."  Other common usages: "Give me a break!" “Those are the breaks.” "Joe worked for many weeks to break that horse." "Mack really needs to break his smoking habit." "Kim wants to break the record in this race." "Detective Jones was able to break the case."  "When can we break for lunch?"  "We will depart at break of day." "They were captured just one day after their prison break." "Our basketball team crushed theirs with the fast break."  "Jim is out on his coffee break." "Break a leg!"
 

breath vs. breathe - Only one letter makes a difference here. The one without the "e" at the end is a noun, while the other is a verb.  They're pronounced differently, too.

     A breath is something you take when you breathe: "Jennie took a deep breath before diving into the pool." "Tara was so beautiful she took Claude's breath away." "Asthma made Mary short of breath when she climbed the stairs." "The new teacher was a breath of fresh air." It's pronounced with a short E and a soft -th.

     Here's the verb, breathe, in use: "Don't forget to breathe during your exercises." "The cold weather during the race made it hard for Jack to breathe." This one is pronounced with a long E sound and a hard -th.
 

buses vs. busses - The plural of "bus" is "buses".  The double-S spelling is synonymous with "kisses", and is a somewhat antiquated term.  Here are sample sentences with correct usage: "The buses running to that part of town are always late." "John's fiancée  welcomed him home from the war with a flurry of busses." The same holds true for "busing" vs. "bussing"...although there may occasionally be some "bussing" going on during "busing"! (Oh, laugh...that was funny!)

C

 

century vs. sentry - I found this error in a college student's project at one of our local universities and immediately made a note to add it to this list. While both words are nouns, they have vastly different meanings.

     Century is most commonly used to mean a hundred years: "This building has been standing for over a century."  It can also be used to refer to a specific group of 100 years: "Stella is taking a class in 20th-century literature."  Less commonly, it can be used to refer to a group of 100 of people or things: "The century of soldiers passed without incident." Therein may be where the confusion arose with the students doing the project. What they actually meant to use was...

     Sentry, which is a guard, especially in a military sense: "The commander posted a sentry to watch for the enemy." "Jim is on sentry duty tonight." The students in question had referred to a "century" being posted...and while it's not inconceivable to have posted 100 men in a tower, I think it might get a little crowded!


cite vs. site - To cite something usually means to quote from it or offer it as proof: "John cited the reference work in his paper." "The judge can cite the Jones vs. Smith case as a legal precedent for his decision." Note that "cite" is a verb.

     A site is a location or place: "This is a lovely site." "That was the site of the most deadly Civil War battle."  Note that "site" is a noun.
 

complementary vs. complimentary - The one of these with the "e" in the middle has a meaning related to "complete". The other one has to do with paying someone a compliment. Examples: "The gravel driveway is complementary to the paved section of driveway." In other words, it completes the driveway; a gravel driveway can't talk, so it certainly can't tell the paved section it looks nice! "The boss has been very complimentary today - that's the fourth person whose work he's praised." The boss wasn't completing (finishing) anyone's work, he was praising it, so the word with the "i" in the middle was appropriate.
 

copyright vs. copywrite - There is no such word as "copywrite," but there is such a thing as a "copywriter". That's a person who writes copy for things like ads, brochures, sales letters, etc. Copywriting is the action of doing this.

     A copyright, on the other hand, is a legal right to publish a written work. A copywriter may officially register something he has written with the U.S. Copyright Office, a branch of the Library of Congress. This would be an instance of "copyrighting" the work.  Although an unofficial copyright exists on any work at the time of its creation, if an unregistered work is pirated, the piracy cannot be prosecuted in a court of law; only the theft of officially registered works can be.
 

council vs. counsel - The latter of these has several meanings, but is most often used today to refer to a lawyer or to legal advice. It can also be used as a verb. Examples:  "Sharon is going to seek legal counsel." "Jerry sought Lucy's counsel on this budgeting matter." "The vice-principal is trying to counsel that student on his behavior." (In Middle English, the two terms were mistakenly used interchangeably, which adds to the confusion today.)

     The version with a "C" in the middle is a group of people who can legislate, administer, discuss or advise. It's most often used in connection with governance of a municipality or an organization, and is never used to refer to a lawyer or legal advice. It is also never a verb. Examples:  "John is running for a position on the City Council." "The church council will meet next Tuesday." "The Council on Child Abuse held its annual convention in May."
 

crevasse vs. crevice - Both of these are cracks, but they have different implications. A crevasse is a break or deep crack in something like a glacier or levee: "John noticed a crevasse opening up in the ice before them." "The small crevasse quickly became wider as rain built up the water pressure behind the dam." The word's implication is of a dangerous fissure that may rapidly expand and cause a breach. It may also be used as a verb: "The glacier began to crevasse."

     A crevice, while also a crack, usually refers to a much smaller opening:  "Every crevice of her house was clean."  "The mouse hid from the cat in a tiny crevice of the wall."  A crevice may also be expanding, but the implication of the word is more benign, and it can only be used as a noun.
 

criteria - This is a plural word.  You cannot have one criteria; that is a criterion. Here are some examples of correct usage of the singular and plural versions:  "The product met all the important criteria for marketability." "Compatibility is the most important criterion in choosing a new hire for that department."
 

cue vs. queue - Although these two words are pronounced exactly the same, their vastly different spelling is a clue that they mean completely different things.

     Cue, when used as a noun, usually means a signal to do something: “Sam took her silence as a cue to kiss her.” “Natalie thought she was prepared for the play, but she missed her cue to enter in the final scene.” It can also be used as a verb to mean giving someone such a signal: “Can you cue the sopranos to enter on that measure?”

     A queue, however, is a line or waiting order for someting: “When Harry arrived at the DMV, there was already a queue that extended out the door.” “Our news segment went into a queue to be used when they needed a filler.”

D

 

dawn vs. don - The wrong one of these was used on a blog written by a college student. The only similarity between the two words is how they sound, so it was a very sloppy error!

     Dawn is usually used as a noun or adjective that means the time right around daybreak: “The battle began at dawn.” “Mary likes to go for a dawn run every day.” Or it can mean the beginning of something: “This event is the dawn of a new era.” It can also be used as a verb meaning to occur for the first time: “It dawned on Tim as he was leaving that he would never return.”

     Don is a verb that means to put on: “Geri will don a lovely evening gown for the formal.” “Sam knew his parents would don a smile of approval upon hearing of his new job.”
 

defuse vs. diffuse - These two words are often pronounced the same by Americans in speech, but have different meanings. To defuse something is to remove its explosive potential: "Mary carefully snipped the wires that would defuse the bomb." "Jennifer was sent to defuse the tense situation with the employees." It should technically be pronounced with a long E (as an astute and extremely persistent British site visitor pointed out), but this is not always how people actually say the word. This is probably where the confusion between the two spellings arises.

     To diffuse something is to spread it out in all directions: "A prism will diffuse white light into the colors of the rainbow." When pronounced with a soft "s", it becomes an adjective that describes something that has been spread out: "The terrorists have a diffuse network of allies."
 

depose vs. dispose - Hard to believe, but I actually saw a news article with this error. Although both words are verbs, their meanings are quite different. Depose has two common meanings. One is to remove someone from the throne, or some other office of power: "The people started a revolution to depose the evil king." "She has become so haughty as club president that someone should depose her." The second meaning is to take testimony from someone in a legal matter outside of court: "Harry's lawyer will depose the witness at his office today." You may be familiar with the related noun, "deposition." When someone gives a deposition, they are being deposed.

     Dispose, however, has nothing to do with overthrowing kings or testifying. Its primary meaning involves settling affairs: "John was chosen to dispose the estate." It can also mean to be inclined to do something; you may have heard it used this way in the past tense, especially in the south:  "I'm not disposed to go to work today." When followed by "of," in its more common usage, it has to do with throwing something away or dealing with it: "Please dispose of your trash properly and don't litter." "We can dispose of this matter quickly."
 

die vs. dye - Here are two more words that sound exactly alike, but have different meanings depending on the spelling.

     As a verb, to die is to stop living or existing: “If I don’t get water on it soon, that plant is going to die.” “I thought that bill never would die in committee.” As a noun, it can be the singular term for one of a pair of dice: “The die was cast.” Or it can be the part of a machine that stamps out shapes from the raw metal: “The die in that stamper is almost worn out.”

     To dye has to do with color, whether used as a verb, noun, or adjective: “Sherry has a very unusual dye job on her hair.” “Saturday, we are going to dye Easter eggs.” That blue dye is too harsh for such a delicate fabric.”
 

do vs. due - The two-letter version is a verb, pronounced "doo": "Do you have the correct time?" "What are you going to do for Thanksgiving this year?" "The rainy day left the children bored, with nothing to do." The three-letter version can be a noun or an adjective, and is correctly pronounced "dyoo": "Harry will get his due someday." "Melissa's next car payment is due this week." "The weather will be rainy tomorrow due to the cold front moving through the area." In its plural version, it's what you pay to be a member of something: "Gina has already paid her club dues for this month."
 

dominate vs. dominant - These two words are not interchangeable. Dominate is a verb: "Our team should dominate the division this season." "When it's finished, that building will dominate the skyline."

     Dominant is an adjective; among other meanings, it describes things that dominate:  "Harry is the dominant player on the team." "The blue-eyed gene appears to be the dominant one in his family." "Try playing that melody with a dominant chord."

     A related word is "predominant", which refers to the thing with the greatest importance or influence:  "The predominant reason for Mark's dismissal was his chronic absence."

E

 

effect vs. affect - Affect is a verb meaning to influence something, as in "Jim tried to affect the outcome of the election." Effect can be a noun or a verb; when used as a verb, it means to bring about, or to cause something specific to happen: "I tried to effect a reasonable solution to the problem." As a noun: "The effect of the changes was positive."

     When you use "effect" as a verb, the sentence will usually say what it is the person was trying to do, whereas "affect" is not specific.  Note the differences in the example sentences above.  In the first one, you know that Jim was trying to have an impact on the election, but you don't know what he wanted to happen.  In the second one, the person was trying to bring about "a reasonable solution", so you know what they were trying to accomplish.  This may help you to remember the difference between the two words.


elicit vs. illicit - Although they sound similar, there's a world of difference between these two words. Elicit is a verb meaning to bring forth: "Try as he might, Tom couldn't elicit a response from Laura." "The investigators tried everything they could to elicit a confession from the suspected thief."      Illicit, on the other hand, is an adjective that's synonymous with illegal: "Jerry used to make a living selling illicit drugs." "Some of the tactics they used in their interrogation were illicit."
 

eminent vs. imminent - Eminent applies to someone who is distinguished or outstanding in their field: "Ted is an eminent scholar in the area of history." Imminent means "about to happen very soon," and is often used to refer to negative things: "The fall of the government is imminent."
 

ensure vs. insure - While these two words are increasingly used interchangeably, when used accurately they have slight nuances in meaning that make one more appropriate than the other. Ensure has to do with making certain of something: "It's the best man's job to ensure that the groom is on time for the wedding."

    Insure has more to do with what you buy to cover losses in your life, health, or property: "You'd better insure your house for full replacement value." These days, the form of the word starting with an "E" has almost entirely been supplanted by use of the one starting with the "I", which is exactly the type of thing that is reducing the richness and diversity of the English language.  You can help to combat this trend by using the appropriate form of this word to say what you mean.
 

envelop vs. envelope - The first of these, the one that doesn't end in an "e", is a verb with the accent on the second syllable when pronounced (en-VEL-up). It means "to take in," "to include," "to hide" or "to enclose." Example:  "On that first sunny spring day, Clara stood outside and let the warmth envelop her."

     The second, the one that does end in an "e", is a noun with the accent on the first syllable when pronounced (EN-vul-ope). It's most commonly what you put a letter in to mail it. Example: "Judy carefully sealed the pink envelope containing her love letter to Michael." This word can also mean "limit" or "covering", as in this example: "When pilots first broke the sound barrier, they were pushing the edge of the envelope." It has additional meanings within the math and science disciplines; consult a dictionary as the final authority.
 

epitaph vs. epithet - This one gave a chuckle when found in a syndicated newspaper column! The two words do not mean the same thing, and are not interchangeable. An epitaph is what's written on your tombstone: "Marty has written a lovely epitaph for his wife's headstone." It can also be a short composition written in memory of someone who has died: "The paper carried a heart-warming epitaph about the late mayor."

     An epithet, on the other hand, is an often disparaging term used to describe someone; Webster's gives the example of using the term "egghead" for an intellectual: "In his dementia, Laura's father has begun uttering offensive epithets." An epithet, however, does not have to be disparaging: "After his run-in with the mouse in their kitchen, Sally used the epithet of, 'Bruce the Brave' to describe her husband."

     Unless they are habitual writers with a lot of dead friends, people generally do not go around "uttering epitaphs."
 

every day vs. everyday - These two are used interchangeably more and more these days, but that doesn't make it correct! The two-word version is synonymous with "all the days": "Jane wanted to enjoy every day of her vacation in Bermuda." "On their anniversary, John told Mary that every day of their marriage had been  wonderful." "You don't see that every day."

     The one-word version has a few meanings, but they're all similar. It can mean the same thing as "daily": "Taking out the trash is an everyday task." It can also mean "commonplace":  "Panhandlers are an everyday occurrence in New York."  Finally, it can mean that something is appropriate for ordinary days: "Laura wore an everyday dress to the grocery store." "Marcy chose a lovely pattern for her everyday china."
 

exasperate vs. exacerbate - This is a fairly advanced pairing, so I suppose I shouldn’t fault the writer who misused it in his op-ed. After all, he’s not a native English speaker, and there is an archaic usage of the former that’s very similar to the latter. They are sometimes used synonymously, but not in common usage. So I do fault the editor of that piece for not catching the error.

     To exasperate is to frustrate, provoke or irritate: “I’m so exasperated by these unruly children!” “The tour director on this trip has been most exasperating.”

    To exacerbate is to escalate or increase the intensity of something, most commonly problems or negative situations. “Ben’s attitude is just exacerbating the situation.” “Derrick’s craving for fats really exacerbates his weight problem.”

except vs. accept - They may sound similar, but their meanings are almost entirely opposite. To accept something is to receive or welcome it: "Marsha will be there to accept her award." "The committee will accept applications for grants through October 1." "Mary did not accept John's advances." "Do you still accept cash as payment?"

     Except, however, is used to show things that are excluded: "Everyone except Laurie went on the field trip." "I like all vegetables except beets."  "Jimmy got all the questions right on the test, except two."
 

exorbitant vs. absorbent - These are not words I would expect someone to confuse. But there it was one day, the wrong one staring at me from a syndicated advice column. I had to read the sentence over a couple of times, thinking, "that doesn't make sense," before I realized what the writer had been trying to say. Then, of course, I had to laugh!

     Absorbent can be an adjective that means able to absorb something, such as liquids, light, or heat:  "These new paper towels are really absorbent." "I need to find some new cat litter that's more absorbent." It can also be a noun that refers to something able to absorb:  "The company used an absorbent to clean up the oil spill."

     Exorbitant is an adjective that means improperly or unusually excessive: "That lawyer's fees were really exorbitant." "Julia spent an exorbitant amount on clothing for her honeymoon."

F

 

feel vs. fell - Please, please, please, watch your spelling! It's easy to make this mistake when typing, but there's a distinct difference between the meanings of the two words, and since they're both real words, spellcheck won't catch the error for you. In case you need the definitions, feel is something you do with your sense of touch or your emotions, while fell is the past tense of the verb "to fall". Here they are, used (and spelled) correctly:  "How does your broken arm feel today?" "I feel a strange attraction to that person." "Harry fell out of the tree." "Judy fell in love with Jim on their first date."


forego vs. forgo - Because these two words sound exactly alike and are both verbs, many people confuse them when writing. However, their meanings are quite different.

     To forego something means to go before it: “In those days, the husband would often forego his family to the new world to make sure they had a safe place to live.” “Hugo will forego you with a flashlight down the dark passageway.”

     To forgo something means to do without it or give it up: “I could never forgo eating chocolate during Lent.” “Dietitians will advise you never to forgo eating breakfast.”

G

 

gild vs. guild - While alternative spellings are becoming increasingly accepted, they dilute the richness of the English language. This is a classic example. The original meaning of the verb gild is to coat something in a thin layer of gold: "Renee is going to gild that bench for her foyer." It's also used, in the past tense, to refer to the time at the end of the 19th Century, when elaborate architecture and Victorian manners ruled the day, implying that the time was a golden age: "Jeannine lamented the passing of the Gilded Age." Another meaning is to make something appear brighter or more attractive than it really is, which is what gilding does to an object: "That slick salesman really knew how to gild the lily." The relation to gold is an essential aspect of this word's meaning, even though the dictionary allows it as an alternative spelling for "guild."

     Guild, on the other hand, is a noun with Medieval origins referring to a trade group or union. It has nothing to do with applying gold to anything: "Tom is a member of the Carpenters' Guild."


gilt vs. guilt - Although the first of these terms is related to the above-described "gild," the second has nothing to do with either it or "guild."  Gilt is an adjective describing something that is gilded (covered with a thin veneer of gold): "That gilt frame is a nice enhancement to Bob's painting." In the farming world, it's used to refer to a young female pig that's not yet a sow: "Jonah's sow was the mother of that gilt."

     Guilt, however, is a noun that can refer to the emotional tool often employed by nuns and Jewish mothers: "Nathan felt an overwhelming sense of guilt when his friend was blamed for stealing the book Nathan had taken." It can also be the opposite of innocent: "The prosecuting attorney left little doubt as to the guilt of the defendant."
 

graft vs. graph - I saw this incorrectly used by someone in an e-mail, but then when I saw it used in an official company publication, it really frosted my cookie! In today’s casual urban speech, the final consonant is often dropped. This has unfortunately spilled over into mainstream language and is leading to a lot of people misspelling words because they pronounce them sloppily.

     A graft can be a few things, but most typically it’s a procedure in which tissue from one area is removed and transplanted to another:  “Harold had to get a skin graft on that burn.” “Sidney will graft a new branch onto the fruit tree.”

     A graph is a diagram that illustrates mathematical relationships:  “Charlie used a bar graph to show sales growth over the years.”  “His presentation would have been much clearer if he could have shown us a graph of the figures.”

H

 

hall vs. haul - This one made me laugh when I saw it misused in print. While these two words sound alike, they mean very different things.

     Hall is a noun meaning a corridor or large room: “They passed each other in the hall without speaking.” “The church dinner is being held in the fellowship hall.” “We saw the Hall of MIrrors when we were at Versailles.”

     Haul is usually a verb that means to carry, pull, or transport: “I saw them haul the dead body out of the water.” “You can haul your fanny right down to the principal’s office!” It can also be used as a noun in the same sense: “Your last trip to Vegas earned you quite a haul!” “This project has been a really long haul.”  “Sam is a long-haul trucker.”

 

heals vs. heels - These two words are pronounced exactly the same, so people often mistake one for the other when writing. But they have very different meanings.
     Heals is a conjugation of the verb "to heal" which means to make better. "Homemade chicken soup heals a cold better than anything." "A kind word often heals a broken heart."
     Heels are those things at the back-ends of your feet. "Those shoes gave me a blister on both my heels!" "This new regulation comes right on the heels of another crippling blow to my business." The word can also be used to refer to high-heeled shoes: "Sally just got a new pair of heels."

 

hear vs. here - Hear has to do with sound, as in "Did you hear that noise?" Here is a place, as in "Come here!" The exclamation, "Hear, Hear!" originated in the British Parliament when things got unruly and someone would shout for the others to "Hear him, hear him!"  It became shortened to its current form and now is used to mean that one agrees with what someone is saying.
 

hers - This is the correct spelling of the possessive form of the pronoun "her." It should never contain an apostrophe before the "s". Example: "Jennie just left, and I think that sweater is hers." This is one of those exceptions to the rule that possession is shown by using apostrophe-s.
 

hominem vs. homonym - This is a classic example of why you need to be careful when using foreign phrases. Spellcheck will probably tell you the first one of these is spelled incorrectly and suggest that you change it to the latter. As you can see, this is not always appropriate.

    Ad hominem is a Latin phrase meaning, literally, "to the man". It's an adjective phrase that means an argument is based on the originator's singular point of view or prejudice rather than on commonly accepted logic or reason. You'll hear it often in today's volatile political climate:  "There's no place in this forum for such ad hominem attacks." "Every time I present logical arguments you can't counter with the facts, you resort to ad hominem tirades."

     A homonym, on the other hand, is a word that is spelled and pronounced exactly like another, but has a different meaning:  "In the sentence, 'You could spruce up your yard by planting a spruce tree,' the word 'spruce' is a homonym."
 

hose - Despite its ending in the "S" sound, this word is singular. The plural of it is hoses. The pronoun used to refer to a hose should be "it," and not "them". Examples: "See the hose attached to that sprinkler over there? Please hand it to me." "That hose is in the way." "Our local fire department just bought all new hoses."

     Ready to really get confused? When used to refer to hosiery, no article is needed before the word, and it's considered to be plural in that usage:  "Lorelei wore hose today, and they looked very nice." However: "Lorelei wore a pair of hose today."  (The singular article refers to "pair," not "hose.")

I

 

I vs. me - Perhaps, when we were young, it was drummed into our heads too much to say "Johnny and I", but the truth is that it’s sometimes proper to say "Johnny and me". To see when this is the case, try restating the sentence individually, such as "Johnny went to class" and "I went to class". These are correct, so the combined version would be "Johnny and I went to class". But check this out: "Susan talked to Johnny" and "Susan talked to me", so "Susan talked to Johnny and me" is the correct version here.
 

illicit vs. elicit - Although they sound similar, there's a world of difference between these two words. Elicit is a verb meaning to bring forth: "Try as he might, Tom couldn't elicit a response from Laura." "The investigators tried everything they could to elicit a confession from the suspected thief."

     Illicit, on the other hand, is an adjective that's synonymous with illegal: "Jerry used to make a living selling illicit drugs."  "Some of the tactics they used in their interrogation were illicit."
 

imminent vs. eminent - Eminent applies to someone who is distinguished or outstanding in their field: "Ted is an eminent scholar in the area of history." Imminent means "about to happen very soon," and is usually applied to negative things: "The fall of the government is imminent."
 

infections vs. infectious - I have to believe that this was a typo, and not an unchecked error, in the wire service news story where I saw it.  However, just in case, I thought it best to include the comparison in this list.

    Infections is a noun, the plural of "infection", which is a condition of the body caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites: "After being lost in the woods, Tim returned with various infections." "That antibiotic is no longer effective at treating all but the mildest infections."

    Infectious is an adjective.  It means that something is likely to cause infection: "That form of pneumonia is highly infectious."  or merely to spread its effect on others:  "Cathy has the most infectious laugh!" The medical specialty in which medical doctors may obtain certification is Infectious Diseases.
 

insure vs. ensure - While these two words are increasingly used interchangeably, when used accurately they have slight nuances in meaning that make one more appropriate than the other.  Ensure has to do with making certain of something:  "It's the best man's job to ensure that the groom is on time for the wedding."

    Insure has more to do with what you buy to cover losses in your life, health, or property:  "You'd better insure your house for full replacement value." These days, the form of the word starting with an "E" has almost entirely been supplanted by use of the one starting with the "I", which is exactly the type of thing that is reducing the richness and diversity of the English language.  You can help to combat this trend by using the appropriate form of this word to say what you mean.
 

inter- vs. intra- - Inter- means "between" (its focus is external), while intra- means "within" (its focus is internal).  That big waterway that runs just inside the U.S. coast is the Intracoastal Waterway, because it's within the confines of the coast.  Even though people tend to pronounce it as "intercoastal", when written it should be spelled with the correct prefix.  (After all, an "intercoastal" waterway would run between two coasts, right?)  A newsletter that is circulated only to employees of a company would be an intracompany newsletter; the same goes for an intranet website that is intended only for the use of a company's internal employees, while the Internet site is the company's website for the outside world.  An athletic competition between several nations is an international meet, while a competition featuring only one nation's athletes would be intranational.
 

into vs. in to - I'm seeing this error almost daily in newspapers, and it's really beginning to annoy me! This seems like such a minor difference, one word or two. But the subtlety of meaning between one or the other is important. The one-word version can be used in a multitude of ways.  It may imply transformation: "Jim is turning into quite a useful employee." Or transition: "It looked like rain, so Jane went into the house." Or extension to the middle of a period of time:  "They danced well into the night." Or even an encounter: "Laurie ran into her old friend Nancy yesterday."

     When the two-word version is used, think of the preposition "in" as belonging with the part of the sentence coming before it, while the preposition "to" belongs with the part of the sentence that lies after it:  "Mary went in to take a nap." The phrase "to take a nap" is the object of why Mary went in. She went in - pause - to take a nap. Here's another example: "Joe turned his partner in to clear his own name." What Joe did was to turn his partner in - why? - to clear his own name. Each clause of the sentence stands on its own as a phrase that has some meaning.  Asking the question, or inserting the pause, only works when the two-word version should be used.
 

into vs. in two - In another cringe-inducing moment, I read the phrase, “my heart will break into”. Really? Into what? (Song, perhaps?)

     As explained above, into can mean transformation, transition, or extension to the middle of a period of time, or an encounter (see examples above). It requires an object: one thing goes into another.

     In two means into two pieces, or in the plural form, in pairs: “My heart will break in two.” “Noah brought the animals on the ark in twos.”  Note that no object is required; the phrase is complete in itself.
 

interment vs. internment - These two words are often confused in modern publications. Interment (without an N in the middle) is a noun that means burial or putting into a tomb. It's what a funeral director does with dead bodies: "John's interment will be in the mausoleum on Tuesday." The associated verb would be "inter" (with the accent on the second syllable) or, in past tense, "interred": "John was interred in the mausoleum."

     Internment (with an N in the middle) is also a noun, but it means confinement or imprisonment, especially during times of war:  "Jerome served a period of internment during World War II."  Although it is frequently done, this word should never be substituted for the one that's synonymous with burial.
 

irregardless - Regardless of how many times you’ve heard it, there is no such word as this. The word you’re thinking of is "regardless", which likely has become confused with "irrespective" at some point in the past.
 

isle vs. aisle - Although they're pronounced exactly alike, these two words have very different meanings, and are not interchangeable in written communication. Isle is a shortened version of the word "island", and means the same thing as island. Aisle (with the "a") is a narrow corridor, like in a store; it's also the one a bride walks down when she gets married. Here's how to use them properly:  "Elizabeth looked beautiful in her gown as she walked down the aisle." "Baked beans are with the canned goods on aisle four." "Steve had fond memories of his childhood on the remote and exotic isle."
 

it’s vs. its - It’s, with an apostrophe, is a contraction of the words "it is", as in "It’s a nice day today." Its (no apostrophe) is the possessive form of the pronoun "it", as in "That large painting needs its own wall." If you’ve used "it’s" and are not sure if it’s correct, try reading your sentence out loud, substituting the words "it is" for the contraction.  You'll notice that when you do this with the sample sentences above, one makes sense, while the other does not. This is another of those exceptions to the rule about using an apostrophe-s to show possession.

L

 

lam vs. lamb - While there could be all sorts of perverted jokes about someone being “on the lamb”, they’re not the sorts of things that could be talked about in polite company.

     Lam was traditionally a slang verb for “to beat”, but it’s come to be used almost exclusively in the expression “on the lam,” which means to be on the run from the law.

     A lamb is a baby sheep. To be on one of those means something entirely different. “Jenny is serving lamb for Easter dinner.” “That baby blanket is soft as a lamb.”
 

lead vs. led - When the former is pronounced like the latter, it’s a heavy metal with the atomic symbol Pb. When pronounced with a long E ("leed"), one of its meanings is the present tense of a verb. The past tense of that verb is "led". Be careful not to use the present tense in your writing, just because it’s sometimes pronounced the same way, when you really mean the past tense. "Jim led the horse down the lane yesterday," uses the correct one.  Confusing?  Sure, but that's what makes the English language so rich and interesting!
 

less vs. lest - Perhaps this was just a spelling error that sprang from lazy pronunciation that drops the final consonant, but it still grated on me when I found it in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper!

     Less means "not as much as": "Gertrude has less to worry about these days." "My clothes fit better since I weigh so much less than I used to." "Mary makes less at this job than she did at her old one."

     Lest, however, has a completely different meaning. It can mean "for fear that":  "Karen won't got out at night, lest she be mugged." It can also mean "so that something won't happen": "Be careful, lest you fall." "We should whisper, lest we be 'shushed' by the librarian." As you can see, "not as much as" is not a substitute for "lest", so you can't substitute "less" for it, either.
 

lets vs. let's - The first of these, lets, is synonymous with "allows": "John lets his dog run on the beach without a leash." The second is a contraction of the words "let us":  "Let's go to the beach today." If you're not sure whether or not to use an apostrophe, substitute the words "let us" for the word and see if the sentence still makes sense.
 

license - Despite its ending in an "S" sound, this word is singular. The plural version of it is "licenses." The pronoun used to refer to a license should be "it" and not "them.  Example:  "When the officer asked me for my driver's license, I realized I didn't have it with me." "Barry's fishing license is expired." "Our entire class went to get their driver's licenses together."
 

lightening vs. lightning - This is a commonly-encountered error. Lightening is the process or action of becoming lighter in weight or density, or brighter in shade or luminosity: "Shirley has been lightening her hair." "Terry is lightening his workload at the office by delegating tasks to others." "The snowfall appears to be lightening." "I can see better now that the dawn is lightening the sky."

     Lightning (no "e" in the middle) is a flash of electricity jumping from cloud to cloud or from a cloud to the ground: "That bolt of lightning struck close to the house." It can also be used as an adjective to describe something that resembles lightning:  "Jerry drove lightning fast on the way home."
 

load vs. lode - I’ve often seen this error, so it simply had to be included here! Based on the meanings of the words, it’s fairly easy to see how the misunderstanding of which to use could occur. Here’s the difference:

     When used as a noun, a load can be something carried in something else: “That truck almost lost its load on that last curve.” “Jim is hauling a full load of produce to the farmer’s market.” It can also refer to the amount of something that can be carried at one time: “That electrical line is operating at full load.”

     A lode is a deposit of a mineral, usually in an underground vein: “The prospector discovered a huge new lode in that mountain.” It can also be used in a more general term to mean a large supply of something: “Jack knew that he had found the mother lode.”
 

loop vs. loupe - I found this error in a nationally-syndicated comic strip! A loop is a circle of something, be it rope, string, or roadway: "Joey put a loop of string around his finger to remind him to call Jamie.  "You should take that loop around the city to avoid the heavy traffic." This word can also be used as a verb:  "Loop this rope around the neck of that cow."

     A loupe, on the other hand, is a magnifying tool held near the eye, as used by jewelers: "Arlene was astounded at the flaws that were visible when she looked at the diamond through a loupe." It can never be used as a verb, and the other spelling is not synonymous with its meaning.
 

lose vs. loose -  I often see these words incorrectly substituted for each other.

     Lose is a verb with a number of meanings, and the "S" in it is pronounced as a "Z" ("luze"). It can be the opposite of winning: "I hope we don't lose this game!" It can also mean to misplace something, or to go off course: "John always loses his keys." “Mary has such a bad sense of direction, I fear she will lose her way.” Or it can be used in the sense of no longer having possession of something:  “I am about to lose my patience!”

       Loose is an adjective that usually means unrestrained, and is pronounced with a soft "S" ("luse"). The sound of the S is the only difference in the way these words are pronounced, but they are not at all interchangeable: "When Sherry left the gate open, her dog got loose and was wandering around the neighborhood." "Veronica has the reputation of being a loose woman." “Since he gained all that weight, Tom needs a looser pair of pants.” When used as a verb, to loose something means to set it free:  “Loose the hounds!”
 

lux vs. luxe - These words have quite different meanings, even though they are pronounced identically.

     Lux is a physics term for a unit of measurement of illumination: "The object was exactly one lux from the light source."

     Luxe, on the other hand, is an adjective describing something elegant or luxurious: "Sandy's hotel room was really luxe." "Jeannine got a luxe new mink coat for her anniversary."

M

 

manner vs. manor - Because these two words are pronounced the same, they are often confused in writing. But their meanings are very much different.
     A manner is a way of doing things; a methodology or fashion of doing something: "Jackie has a very odd manner." "Make sure you get your homework completed in a timely manner." In plural, it often refers to etiquette: "Salina has very good manners."

     A manor is a type of English country estate owned by the nobility, going back to feudal times: "Natalie is very much to the manor born." Unless that household is one filled with clocks where everybody in it is always on time, there's no such thing as a "timely manor," as I saw in a wire service news article!

 

me vs. I - Perhaps, when we were young, it was drummed into our heads too much to say "Johnny and I", but the truth is that it’s sometimes proper to say "Johnny and me". To see when this is the case, try restating the sentence individually, such as "Johnny went to class" and "I went to class". These are correct, so the combined version would be "Johnny and I went to class". But check this out: "Susan talked to Johnny" and "Susan talked to me", so "Susan talked to Johnny and me" is the correct version here.


media - Traditionally, this word is plural, and the singular version of it is "medium": "Television and radio are generally known as the broadcast media." "Yellow pages are known as a directional advertising medium."

     In recent years, the word "media" has been used singularly to refer to the press in general:  "The media tends to take any issue and hype it."

     When making "medium" plural, simply adding an "s" makes it refer to people who channel spirits, not to broadcast and print outlets:  "There were three mediums at last night's séance."

     The word "media" should not be used to refer to a single type of media outlet.  Similarly, there is no such word as "medias."
 

median vs. medium - This is an error I see often in print, with people using the latter term for the middle of a roadway. Perhaps it’s that the words sound so similar that causes people to get them confused. Or perhaps it’s because of their both referring to things in the middle...but the implications of them are slightly different.

     Median is the word for the strip of grass or pavement in the middle of a divided highway: “That drunk driver almost came completely across the median!” In math or statistics, it refers to the middle number in a series: “In the numbers from 0 to 10, 5 is the median.” It can also refer to a line within a triangle in geometry: “In an equilateral triangle, the median bisects it into two mirror-image triangles of equal area.”

     Medium, when used as a noun, means something or someone in the middle, often for conducting force or energy. It is also the singular version of the word “media”: “Which is the best advertising medium to reach your target audience?” “Harold spoke to his dead wife through a medium.” “Jeanne takes T-shirts in a size medium.”



meet vs. mete - These two words sound exactly alike, but mean something quite different. To meet is to come together with or be introduced to something or someone: "Let's meet in the middle on this one." "Brett is dying to meet that new girl in class." "I don't think the two ends of your belt are going to meet since you've gained so much weight."
    To mete is to deal out something by measure, or to allot it. It is usually followed by the word "out": "The relief workers had to mete out supplies in order not to run out too quickly." "The agency will mete out punishment selectively to further their own agenda."

 

metal vs. mettle - Both of these words refer to what something is made of, but in physical versus spiritual ways. And with their being pronounced exactly the same, they’re often confused.

     Metal as a noun means any of the elements or compounds such as gold, silver, copper, iron, brass, etc.: “That metal bridge is starting to rust.” “Dorian is installing a metal railing on her front stairs.” “His sword failed because it was made of an inferior metal.”

    Mettle refers to a person’s inner strength, disposition, courage, temperament, or toughness: “Hector is a man of great mettle.” “You’d better be on your mettle if you’re going to win this next match.”

moot vs. mute - Similarities in the meaning of these words and their pronunciation can cause them to get confused. But not only are they pronounced differently, they have different meanings.

     Moot means still undecided, hypothetical, or of no real meaning:  “That is a moot point.”

     Mute means silent, or unable to speak:  “During the interrogation, the soldier remained mute.” It is also pronounced differently, as though there were a "Y" in it: myute.

N

 

naught vs. not - These two words sound almost exactly alike, except that the first one is a little more drawn out - the vowel sound in it is more like "aw" whereas the latter one is more like "ah". This similarity may be why people sometimes confuse them in writing.
     Naught is most often used as a noun to mean "nothing": "Cassie's efforts were all for naught." In British English, it is also used to mean "zero": "Trevor beat him at tennis, three sets to naught."
     Not is an adverb used to express the negative or opposite of something: "Delilah's parents told her not to go there." "I am not doing that!" "Have you not had time to get that report done yet?" "That's a cute dress...not!"

O

 

onto vs. on to - Think of the single word onto as meaning "on top of". If you want to use it, substitute "on top of" for it in the sentence; if it makes sense that way, you're using the right word. For example, "The cat jumped onto the table" is correct because you could also say "The cat jumped on top of the table." But in this sentence, you'd need to use the separate words: "Susie has moved on to another major in college." You're not trying to say that she's moved on top of another major, but that she has changed majors. She has "moved on" - where?  To another major. So in the second example, the "on" is more related to "moved" than to "to", and the two-word version is appropriate.
 

or vs. are - I found this error in an e-mail from a social networking site that urged me to “upgrade are be purged.” I elected to be purged.     

     Are is a conjugation of the verb “to be”:  “John and Sally are cute together.” “You are getting on my nerves!”

     Or is a conjunction that connects things, usually in comparison to each other: “Do you want chicken or beef?” “Upgrade or be purged.”  “It’s time to fish or cut bait.”
 

our vs. are - Although many people pronounce these words the same, they shouldn't be - nor do they mean anywhere near the same thing!

     Are is a conjugation of the verb "to be": "Where are we?" "You are a beautiful woman." "They are going to Europe on vacation." When pronounced, it should sound exactly like the letter "R".

     Our, on the other hand, is what's known as a "possessive pronominal adjective" (check the dictionary if you don't believe me):  "That is our dog." "Our family celebrates Hanukkah instead of Christmas."  When pronouncing the word, it should sound exactly like the word "hour". Too many people sloppily pronounce it like the letter "R" and carry this over into misspelling it.

P

 

pared vs. paired - Only one letter makes a big difference! Pared is the past tense of "to pare", which means to peel or whittle away:  "Jeremy just pared this deal down to the basics." "Laurie carefully pared the apple for Kevin." “We need to pare down our expenses in light of this latest budget cutback.”

    Paired means grouped or teamed into twos: "Noah paired off the animals as they boarded the ark." "The teacher paired up the students for the dance class." "Nathaniel and Linda resented being paired for the science project."
 

parish vs. perish - This was an error I found in a chatroom posting made by someone who was supposed to be a professional writer. Sure, we all get in a hurry at times, but this is a pretty basic difference!

     A parish is a district within a church or government: "Our parish priest is from Ireland." "Louisiana doesn't have counties, but parishes instead."

     To perish is to die or to be wiped out: "As a university professor, you must publish or perish." "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoso believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
 

passed vs. past - These may sound the same when spoken, but they are different parts of speech with different implications.

      Passed is a verb.  Use it to show the action of something going by: "Joe whistled as he passed the pretty girl." "Too much time has passed for that ploy to work any more." "Nancy passed second grade." "Timmy passed me right at the end of the race."

      Past can be more than one part of speech. When used as an adjective, it describes nouns: "In times past, that was considered vulgar."  "In a past life, I was a princess." Past can also be used as a noun, referring to a time that has gone by: "That's all in the past now."  "Jeannine has a sordid past." "Tom's past finally caught up with him."
 

pastime vs. past time - I’ve seen these used incorrectly in both singular and plural versions.

     A pastime is an activity, something you do to make the time go by: "Molly's favorite pastime is collecting stamps." “That is one of our favorite pastimes.”

    Past time means time that has already gone by, or times past: "The quaint village reminded Joe of a past time."  “Going by the old neighborhood pub brought to mind past times.”

peace vs. piece - The instance where I saw these words interchanged was in the phrase “...of mind”. Their meaning is quite different there!     

     Peace of mind is something someone would like to have: “Mort’s new raise gave him more peace of mind where his finances were concerned.” “Buying the extended warranty on Suzie’s car gave her parents more peace of mind.”

     Something you wouldn’t want is a piece of someone’s mind: “That shop clerk made me so mad, I gave the store manager a piece of my mind!”  If I see him hit his dog one more time, I’m going to give him a piece of my mind!” Note that these sentences both have someone who owns that piece of their mind, whereas peace of mind can exist as its own concept, without someone owning it.
 

peak vs. peek - A peak is the pinnacle of something, the top: “This is the peak of snobbishness.” “Their unhappiness reached a peak when their son was killed.”

     A peek is a little look: “We got a sneak peek at the new concert hall.” “Oh, come on, can’t I have just a little peek?”
 

peak vs. pique - The peak of something is the top, apex or pinnacle: "Dave likes to climb the highest peak of any mountain range." "At its peak, their relationship suddenly became stormy." As a verb, it means to reach this highest point: "Ted's career started to peak when he got his last promotion."

     Pique, on the other hand, comes from the French word for "sting", and often means to arouse or provoke something:  "Jean began to pique my interest with her unusual behavior." Often, people will mistakenly substitute "peak" for "pique" in this sense.  Don't do it!
 

pedal vs. petal - Upon seeing this error in the write-up for a meditation workshop, I had to laugh! Yes, exercise can be a stress-reliever, but I don't think the workshop presenter was planning to show her class how to bicycle their way to inner peace. A misuse I saw in the newspaper was applying parts of a flower to steel in an effort to make a car go really fast; that one also yielded a few chuckles.

     A pedal is something you'd find on a bicycle: "John injured himself when his foot slipped off the pedal of his bike." The word can also be used as a verb: "Maria wants to pedal her way across America this summer." And it's the one used in this common expression, in which it refers to what you step on to give gas to the engine in a vehicle:  "Put the pedal to the metal; we're in a hurry!"

     A petal is found on a flower: "Linda tried to find out if her boyfriend loved her by plucking the petals off a daisy." "A bug has eaten an entire petal off my prize-winning flower!"
 

perspective vs. prospective - I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw this error on the front page of the Metro section in our local daily newspaper! This is another example of words that sound similar, but mean completely different things.

     Perspective is usually used as a noun. It sometimes means outlook or point of view: "Jim's illness has given him a new perspective on life." "Laura saw the issue from a different perspective." It can also be used to describe the perception of relative size, position or distance of things:  "Let's put this whole thing in perspective."

     Prospective is always used as an adjective. It is synonymous with "potential" or "likely": "Meg sees her current beau as a prospective husband." "Karen was happy to meet with the building's prospective buyer."
 

phenomena vs. phenomenon - These are often misused in published material, but they are not interchangeable. The first is the plural version of the second. If you are referring to more than one phenomenon, you are talking about phenomena. Here are some examples:  "Albert noted several phenomena during his research." "The Northern Lights are a phenomenon seen close to the North Pole."  (Note that even though "Northern Lights" is plural, it is the name of a singular thing, so it calls for use of the singular word.) Ah, don't you love the English language?
 

pole vs. poll - Although these are pronounced exactly alike, they have very different meanings.

     A pole is, most simply (but not exclusively), a long stick. It can be employed in any number of ways. It may be used to hold up a tent:  "That pole doesn't look very stable to me." or to hold up a flag: "The scouts ran the colors up the pole." or to catch a fish: "Jimmy caught a whopper, and on just that little cane pole! or to refer to the ends of the axis running through the middle of the earth: "They're going on an expedition to the South Pole." It's also used to refer to the inside position on a racetrack, likely due to its proximity to the pole marking the starting point: "Attaboy Charlie is in the pole position for the third race." When capitalized, it also refers to someone from Poland: "To many Americans, Lech Walesa is probably the most famous Pole."

     A poll can have several meanings, but is most commonly used in relation to voting. It may refer to the place where the votes are gathered: "Terry is going to be a poll worker for the next election." or to a survey designed to gauge opinions: "The president is leading in the latest poll." One would never refer to someone in a race as sitting in the "poll" position...unless it was a curious filly who planned to survey the other horses before the race! And unless you have a politically astute feline, a cat wouldn’t scratch on a “poll”, but a “pole”.
 

pore vs. poor - Perhaps this was just due to sloppy spelling or a typo, but nevertheless it was an error I found in something published. If you’re using Facebook for business, be aware that people are paying attention to your grammar and spelling, to take a little extra care with your posts.

     Pore is often a noun; it’s something you have in your skin, through which sweat and oil are emitted: “When he finished the race, Jim was sweating from every pore.” It can also be a verb, where it means to study or linger over something at great length: “Trudy pored over the statements, trying to find the error in them.”

     Poor is an adjective that means lacking in something: “Michelle is a poor student.” “Hot dogs are a poor substitute for steak!” “Larry was too poor to afford a ticket.”
 

potable - This word means "drinkable". Use it this way: "The reclaimed water used for watering landscape plants is not potable."  Do not confuse this word with portable, which means "able to be carried." There is no "R" in potable.
 

predominate vs. predominant - To confuse these two is just plain sloppy! While they have the same root, they are completely different parts of speech.

     Predominate is a verb, and it means to be predominant, which is an adjective. Both have to do with winning, being the leader, most influential or superior: “Let’s allow common sense to predominate.” “That candidate has been predominant in the primaries.”
 

principal vs. principle - We all learned that little reminder in school, "the principal of the school is your pal." But the "pal" version of this word has several other meanings. In finance, it's the amount of a loan. To a builder, it's a main end rafter on a roof. It can even refer to one of the people involved in a duel! So, how do you keep its meaning straight? The "pal" word mainly has to do with the top person or thing, so expand the school-time reminder to something like, "we all want to be pals with the top dog - the principal". The word comes from the Old French word for "prince", if that helps you to remember.

     Principle, on the other hand, originated from the Middle English word for "beginning", and its various meanings back this up. It should be used if you are referring to a concept, law or rule - the beginning, or foundation, of the way things are. Here are some examples of correct usage to help you out: "Joe repaid the principal of his loan, plus interest." "Sarah is the principal cellist in the orchestra." "George is a man of high moral principles." "It's not the outcome, it's the principle of the thing."

Q

 

queue vs. cue - Although these two words are pronounced exactly the same, their vastly different spellings should be a clue that they mean completely different things.

     Cue, when used as a noun, usually means a signal to do something: “Sam took Monica's silence as a cue to kiss her.” “Natalie thought she was prepared for the play, but she missed her cue to enter in the final scene.” It can also be used as a verb to mean giving someone such a signal: “Can you cue the sopranos to enter on that measure?”

     A queue, however, is a line or waiting order for someting: “When Harry arrived at the DMV, there was already a queue that extended out the door.” (This is more often used by British English speakers than by Americans.) “Our news segment went into a queue to be used when they needed a filler.”

 

quiet vs. quite - Whenever I encounter this error, I'd like to think that it's a simple typo, the mere transposition of two letters by quickly typing fingers. But I fear it's not. These words are not pronounced the same, nor do they mean anything near the same thing.
     Quiet is usually an adjective used to refer to things that are silent, calm, or at low volume: "You certainly are quiet today." "Babs likes to have a little quiet time in the morning." "Will you kids please be quiet?!" "John and Betsy live a quiet life in the country." "All Quiet on the Western Front." It can also be used as a verb meaning to make quiet: "Margie had a cup of herbal tea to quiet her nerves." "Sal tried to quiet the barking dog with a treat."
     Quite is an adverb that communicates a degree of something, usually completeness of it: "Laura was quite upset when she learned of her husband's affair." "Mary was not quite done with her essay when the bell rang." "'Are you comfortable in your room?' 'Yes, quite.'"

 

R

 

raise vs. raze - These two words sound exactly alike, but have opposite meanings.

     Raise means to lift up or build: "The Amish all pitched in together to raise the barn." "Would you raise that window?" "That style of music can always raise my spirits."

     Raze means to tear down:  "The contractors will raze that dilapidated building tomorrow."
 

rang vs. rung vs. ring - Although these are all forms of the verb "to ring", they are different tenses of the verb, and each should be used in its own appropriate way. Here's the difference:

     Rang is the past tense of the verb: "Henry rang the bell to start the school day." "I rang the doorbell, but nobody came to the door."     

     Rung is the past perfect tense of the verb. Use it in conjunction with "to have": "I have rung the handbells in the choir for six years." "Have you rung the starting bell yet?" "John has rung the closing bell." When used with "will have", it becomes the future perfect tense:  "Jimmy will have rung that bell for three years next week!"

    Ring, when used as a verb, is the present tense: "You ring that handbell very well." Add an "s" for third person: "Jim rings the bells every day."

     Totally confused? Try studying a foreign language. It will make you more aware of verb tenses than you ever thought imaginable!
 

rapport - This is the correct word to use when you're talking about establishing a positive relationship with someone. The word is not "report" or "repore" (the latter of which is not even a word). When spoken, the "T" at the end is silent, which probably leads to some of the misspellings. The word would be used like this: "Mary hoped this meeting would enable her to establish good rapport with the client." "Joey was able to avoid being expelled in spite of his behavior because we had good rapport with the principal."
 

read - This word can be pronounced two different ways, but is spelled the same in both the present and past tenses. Even the worst grammarians among us know that "red" is a color, and the past tense of "read" is still spelled with an A in it! Here are some examples, if you need them: "John will read to the children this morning." (Pronounced like "reed".) "Last week, Sally read to them." (Pronounced like "red", but still spelled the same as the present tense.)
 

reek vs. wreak - Although pronounced exactly the same, these words have very different meanings.

     Reek is a verb meaning to stink: “John reeks of fish after his early-morning trip.” “That new fragrance she is wearing positively reeks.”     

     To wreak is to bring about or inflict, and it’s often used in conjunction with the noun havoc: “That storm is going to wreak havoc on our city!”
 

remiss vs. amiss - Both words are used as adjectives, but they have different meanings. When something is wrong or out of place, it is amiss: "When she saw the broken window, Laura knew something must be amiss."

     If you neglect to do something you should have done, or are careless about something, you are remiss: "Manuel was remiss in neglecting to mention the other contestants." "The council members were remiss when they failed to vote on the issue."
 

renown and renowned - Renown is a noun that means fame or popular acclaim, as in "His band had great renown." Renowned is the adjective form of the word, as in "He had a renowned band." There is no "K" in the middle of either word; "reknown" is not a word.
 

role vs. roll - I found this error in an actual headline of the local newspaper. Careless, careless!

     A role is a noun that is synonymous with "part": "Playing Hamlet is said to be the role of a lifetime." "Drug abuse played a role in the subject's death."

     Roll, however, may be a noun or a verb, and has many meanings. As a noun, it can be a small loaf of bread: "Jerry likes a dinner roll with his meal." It can also be a movement: "The pilot steered the jet into a roll." It can be a list: "The teacher began class by calling the roll." "When the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there." There are many others. As a verb, it most often means to turn: "Joe told his dog to roll over." "Cynthia elected to roll over her investment." "Can you roll that tire over here?" Check your dictionary for the numerous other uses of this versatile word...however, those many uses don't include being a synonym for role!
 

run vs. rung - When I saw this error, I couldn’t figure out what image the erroneous sentence would have evoked...but it was amusing trying! I’m hoping it was just a typographical error.

     When used as a noun, run usually means an act of running: “Jim had a good run this morning.” “Sally and I are going on a run a little later if you’d like to join us.” It could also refer to the pace of movement of the runner: “The horse sped from a canter into a full run.” It can also mean the span of time of an event: “John’s and my partnership had a good run, but we’re finally calling it quits.”

     The noun version of rung typically means a step or crossbar on a ladder, in either a literal or figurative sense: “Larry found himself back on the bottom rung, career-wise, after his foolish mistake.” "When Nina lost her footing, she was on the third rung of the stepladder." 

S

 

sabal vs. sable - I saw this error on the sign for an apartment complex here in Florida. Obviously, it was designed by non-Floridians...or at least by non-botanists or non-zoologists!

     The palm trees seen all over Florida, especially along the beaches, are a species of the palmetto palm called Sabal Palm. "The sabal palm is known for its salt tolerance." You may find that some dictionaries, written or electronic (like the ones used for spellchecking), do not include this word, but it is a valid word. Sabal palms are the source of the hearts of palm you can find in cans at your grocery store.

     A sable is an Asian mammal that resembles a ferret or weasel, related to the marten and prized for its beautiful, lush fur. "Sandra received a new sable coat for Christmas!"

     Sorry, apartment complex owners, but there is no such thing as a "sable palm"...although the concept does set the imagination to work, at least for us grammar nerds!


scene vs. seen - Sometimes the errors made by professional journalists still astound me, and this was one.

     Scene is a noun, and is usually a locale or something you look at: "That's a lovely scene in your photo." "Joe really made a scene when he was drunk last night." "Captain Rodriguez was the first one on the crime scene." It can also mean a section of a movie or a play: "Act one, scene two was very moving."    

     Seen, on the other hand, is the past perfect tense of the verb "to see." It's what the journalist in question meant when I spotted the error in print, although he used the other spelling by mistake. Amazingly, I’ve also encountered them used incorrectly the other way. Here are some examples of how this word should be used: "After the storm, the top of the old shipwreck could be seen above the water." "Have you seen Mary today?" "Grandma has seen many interesting things in her lifetime."

     Spellcheck won't catch this one because they're both valid words. So it's up to you to make sure you use the right one to convey what you mean.
 

Segway(TM) vs. segue - Surprisingly, I found this in a booklet published by two professional writers, with a target market of other writers!  (Did they really think nobody would catch it?)

     A Segway is the registered trademark name for one of those little two-wheeled vehicles on which you stand up and steer by leaning one way or another: "Our police force has a new patrol on Segways." "John has really gotten obnoxious since he bought that Segway."

     To segue (which, incidentally, is pronounced exactly the same as the other one) is to move seamlessly from one thing to another: "We can just segue right into our next topic from that." It can also be used as a noun in this same capacity: "Joan's misstatement is a great segue into our next news story."

seize vs. cease - Both of these are verbs.

     To seize something is to grab or take possession of it forcefully or suddenly: "Seize him!" "The IRS is about to seize all of Tom's assets." It can also mean to grasp a concept: "The team really seized that idea and ran with it." It can also mean to take control of someone: "Fear seized Mary as she saw that her attacker had a gun." With machinery, it can mean to suddenly stop moving: "The engine seized up because it was out of oil."

     To cease means to stop: "The generals have called for a cease-fire." "All talking will cease immediately."

sell vs. sale - I think the confusion with these two sometimes occurs because of the way many southerners pronounce these words; it's exactly the opposite of how they're spelled.

     Sell is a verb; it's what vendors do at a sale, which is a noun. Here are examples of correct usage: "Jimmy plans to sell his old jalopy at the antique car sale." "I bought this pair of shoes on sale!" "We are having a garage sale this Saturday." "How did you ever sell that old sofa?" "If Larry doesn't sell something soon, he's going to be fired." "They arrested him in relation to the sale of drugs at a party." "The only reason he went to the party was to sell drugs."
 

sense vs. since - Sense can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it has a variety of meanings, most having to do with perceiving something, responding to stimuli, reasoning or meaning: "Ari had a sense that something was wrong." "Losing his sense of smell had caused Gene to become disoriented." "That boy ain't got sense enough to come in out of the rain!" "In what sense do you mean that?" "Lola's argument made perfect sense." As a verb, it also has to do with perceiving or detecting something: "I sense that you're trying to tell me something." "This alarm can sense any motion in the room."

    Since, on the other hand, can be an adverb, a conjunction or a preposition. When used as an adverb, it has to do with comparing the present time to an earlier one: "John has been here since Tuesday." "Terry and June met last month and have been inseparable ever since."  As a conjunction, it can still refer to time: "It has been a year since Jonah left." "She has been depressed ever since her husband died." It can also be a synonym for "because": "Since Jim has no money, he can't go to the movies with us." As a preposition, "since" is once again referring to time: "Jeannie has been gone since three o'clock." "George has been much happier since his promotion." "Well, since my baby left me..."
 

sensual vs. sensuous - The difference between these two is easy to remember this way: sensual is the same as sexual. Sensuous means involving one or more of the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). That's not to say that something sensual can't also be sensuous, but something can be sensuous without also being sensual! Got it? Here are a couple of examples to help you out: "The aroma, taste and texture of the ice cream filled Jennie with sensuous delight." However, "Mary was offended by the sensual nature of the e-mail she received from her co-worker."
 

sight vs. site - There is a trend, in informal writing today, to spell words that should be spelled with an "-ight" with "-ite" instead, presumably because they look cuter or friendlier. Please resist this temptation! In the case of these two words, each has a different meaning, and using one instead of the other would muddle your intent for the reader.

     So, which should you use? Although both are nouns, sight has to do with vision: "Richard saw quite a sight when he entered the room without knocking." "The sight on my rifle seems to be a bit off." "You should have your sight checked every year." "James bought that new car sight unseen."

    Site has to do with a location, which is extended to mean electronic locations on the web: "That's the site of our new mall." "Sally has just brought her new site online."
 

site vs. cite - To cite something usually means to quote from it or offer it as proof: "John cited the reference work in his paper." "The judge can cite the Jones vs. Smith case as a legal precedent for his decision." Note that "cite" is a verb.

     A site means a location or place: "This is a lovely site." "That was the site of the most deadly Civil War battle." Note that "site" is a noun.
 

snugly vs. snuggly - Here’s another pairing with similar but distinctly different meanings.

     Snugly is an adverb that comes from the adjective “snug” and means securely, tightly: “That shirt fits a bit too snugly.”  “Tim tucked the stolen money snugly into the hidden compartment.”

     Snuggly comes from the verb “snuggle” and means warm, secure and cuddly: “This new blanket is so snuggly!” "It's nice when your kitty feels all snuggly on a cold winter evening!"
 

sole vs. soul - A soul is something a living thing possesses that is synonymous with its spirit: "Even though Martha was gone, they felt that her soul lived on in the music she had written." As an adjective, it can be used to refer to traditional Southern food: "Last night we went out for some soul food." The same goes for music or culture with roots in southern black America: "Do you like good music?  That sweet soul music?"

     When used as a noun, a sole is the bottom of the foot or shoe: "Jerry had worn a hole in the sole of his shoe from dancing." As an adjective, it means the same thing as "only": "Lucinda was the sole survivor of the plane crash."
 

stationary vs. stationery - This one was suggested by a couple of fans of this site, and I finally was able to find a usage error of this nature in a publication. Although they're pronounced exactly the same, these two words are different parts of speech with very different meanings.

     Stationary is usually used as an adjective that means not moving or changing. "Lisa is really losing weight from riding on her stationary bike." "Our sales figures have been stationary through the third quarter." The word can be used as a noun, but in that sense it means a thing or person that is stationary.

     Stationery is always a noun. It's what you write on when you send letters, and what you put them in when you're ready to mail them.  "Ron's secretary is ordering new company stationery; do you need any?" "Jody received some lovely stationery for her birthday."

     I shudder to think of how quickly a "stationery bicycle" would collapse if one tried to sit on it!
 

stead vs. steed - I couldn't believe it when I found this error published in a local monthly magazine; while both are nouns, these words aren't even pronounced the same! And they certainly don't mean anything remotely similar. While spellcheck wouldn't have caught the error, it should never have passed the scrutiny of the magazine's editor, especially in the opening paragraph of a story.

     Stead is pronounced with a short e sound, like "sted". The word "instead" is related to it. It means a place or position: "Mandy was sent to the conference in John's stead." It can also mean service or use: "Bernadette's law school education served her in good stead."     

     A steed is another name for a horse, and is pronounced with a long E sound: "Billy mounted his trusty steed and rode off into the sunset."

T

 

tack vs. tact - It could be that the confusion over these two words has something to do with the practice of modern urban slang to drop the final consonant of words. However, they don't mean anything near the same thing. I found the wrong term being used in our local newspaper, which never fails to deliver a handful of errors on an almost daily basis.

     Let's start with the latter of the two. Tact is a skill for handling a situation with grace and delicacy to avoid offending someone: "Give that assignment to Joan. She's known for her tact in handling difficult people."

     Tack has several meanings. It's the thing you use to hold something on a bulletin board, and can be used as a noun or a verb in that capacity: "Here's a tack to post that new schedule." "Tack that notice up on the bulletin board." It can also refer to the act of attaching something, especially by sewing it: "I need to tack up the hem on this skirt." If you've ever refinished a piece of furniture, you've probably used a tack cloth to remove excess sawdust before painting or staining it; in that context, it refers to stickiness of the cloth. In sailing, to tack is to take a zigzag course, usually when sailing in the opposite direction of the wind: "We'll have to tack to get back to port now that the wind has changed." The word can also be used as a noun for this meaning. The context in which I saw it misused in the newspaper had to do with this sense, as it applied to taking a different approach or direction: "I think it's time to take a different tack on this project."  (The reporter had used "tact" instead.) There are several other nautical meanings of tack, and it also refers to the gear used for riding a horse.
than vs. then - Than is a word indicating comparison between two things, whereas then indicates something that follows something else. Here are examples of correct usage: "It's better to give than to receive." "Julie looks better today than she did last week." "Laura likes strawberries better than blueberries." "We're going to the gas station first, then to the grocery store." "Harry did his English homework, then worked on his science project." "When you have finished your dinner, then you can have dessert."
 

there vs. their vs. they're - Sure, they all sound alike, but that's where the similarity ends.

     There is most often a place, as in "over there".  (This is not its only meaning, but seems to be the most common one when confusing it with the other spellings.) This sentence is also a correct use of the word: "There are many ways to cook chicken."

    Their is the possessive form of the pronoun "they", as in "Their house is nice." This is always its meaning, and it should never be substituted for the other two. Check the dictionary if you have any doubt which is correct.

    They're is a contraction of the two words "they are". To make sure you're using it correctly, try rewording the sentence with the separate words to see if it still makes sense. "They're going to the Riviera on vacation." This can be reworded to, "They are going to the Riviera on vacation," and still make sense. To avoid the appearance of being an illiterate, do not use one of the other similar-sounding words as a substitute for this one.
 

threw vs. through - I keep thinking I've seen all the silly mistakes that can be made by supposedly professional writers, but they keep surprising me!

    Threw is the past tense of the verb "to throw": "Jason threw a fantastic pitch!" "That proposal really threw me for a loop."    

     Through, however, is primarily used as a preposition: "Alice saw all kinds of strange things after she went through the looking-glass."  "Jeff and Mary really went through a lot last summer." It can also be used as an adjective: "Are you through?" "Seventh is a through street." or an adverb:  "Nadine got soaked through by that thunderstorm."
 

timber vs. timbre - Timber is something you yell in the forest when you've just cut down a tree. It's also the word for trees or forest land: "Ralph just inherited 200 acres of timber."

    Timbre means the particular sound of an instrument or voice that enables you to distinguish it from others: "Jesse had loved the timbre of the violin since childhood." It's another French derivation, as you can tell by its "-re" spelling.

    Watch your spelling! Obviously, the two words are not interchangeable, but since both are valid words, spellcheck won't catch the error.
 

titles - Titles for people such as mayors, governors, judges, etc. should be capitalized only when being used in conjunction with, or substituted for, their names: "I think that Judge Marcus is presiding today." "Will you be joining us for lunch, Mr. Mayor?" "The main character in 'Gunsmoke' was Marshall Dillon."

     However, when used as a generic term for the position, these same titles should not be capitalized. A good rule to remember is that if they are preceded by "the" or "a", they're not capitalized: "The judge will be in his chambers this afternoon." "The president of our club spoke at the luncheon." "We need to elect a mayor who will lead this city with integrity."
 

to, too, two - More sound-alikes with completely different usages.

     To is a preposition that can mean "toward", among many other things, as in "I’m going to class."

    Too means more than enough, as in "She is just too tall!" (Remember it by thinking that the word "too" has too many O’s.) Too can also mean "also", as in "me, too!".

     Two is the spelled-out version of the numeral 2, as in "I had two desserts today at lunch." Consult a dictionary for more detailed descriptions if you’re unsure which to use.
 

tow vs. toe - Where I saw these words misused was in the expression "toe the line". Since use of the other word's meaning could also have been understandable, it prompted a little research into the expression's origin. It comes from track and field, where runners line up their toes on a starting line before running a race, and dates from the early 1800s. So, here are some examples:

     Tow can be a verb that means to pull or drag something along by a rope or chain: "James needs to tow that old clunker away."  "That's such a small tugboat to be able to tow such large barges."  It can also be a noun that refers to the object being towed or the act of towing something: "Jeff just left to go out and pick up a tow." "My car's broken down; can you give me a tow?" The rope used to tow something is commonly referred to as a “tow line”, so perhaps this is where the confusion originates.

     As most commonly used, a toe is one of the digits at the end of one's feet: "Nancy stubbed her toe in the dark last night." As used in the expression that sparked this narrative, it's a verb meaning to touch with the toes. There are other, more obscure, meanings; check your trusty dictionary to find them.

     The same rules apply to the plural versions of these words, toes and tows.

U

 

undo vs. undue - Although these words are pronounced almost the same, one is a verb and the other is an adjective.

       To undo something is to reverse what was done: "John could not undo the damage that had already been done." "Frieda wanted to undo the last task completed on her computer."

     Something that is undue is unwarranted or excessive: "The criticism heaped on the president was undue." "He lavished an undue amount of attention on that woman."
 

unique - Unique means "one of a kind", so there's no such thing as "very unique", "more unique" or "most unique"; it's either unique, or it isn't. Something can, however, be "truly" or "certainly" unique, which would mean "genuinely one of a kind". Here's a couple of examples of correct usage: "Julie's outfit today is certainly unique." "Harvey has a truly unique personality."
 

upmost vs. utmost - These two words differ by only one letter and their meanings are very similar. Their difference in implication is often in a literal versus a figurative sense, but some writers use the first word interchangeably with the second.

     Upmost is an adjective commonly used to describe the highest thing, physically. It is another word for “uppermost”: “Jen was able to climb to the upmost peak of that ridge.” But it can also refer to conceptual things, although this is more often done in British English than in American: “He has my upmost trust.” “Give your boss your upmost respect.”

     Utmost is also an adjective. It is often used to describe the greatest degree of something: “This project is of the utmost importance.” “It is of utmost urgency that I speak with the president now.” Utmost can also be used to refer to the farthest-away point: “Key West is on the utmost island in the Florida Keys.”

V

 

vertebra vs. vertebrae - Because these words stem from Latin, the plural is irregular and the source of much confusion.  I've heard it in speech even more often than having seen it in print.

     A vertebra is the singular form of the word. The A at the end of the word is pronounced like "uh". It refers to one of the bones in your spinal column: "Johnny cracked his L4 vertebra when he fell."

    The plural form of this term is vertebrae. It is pronounced with a long A sound at the end, and refers to more than one of the bones in your backbone: "The disk giving you a problem is between your C3 and C4 vertebrae."


vertebrae vs. vertebrates - Vertebrae is defined above; it means more than one vertebra, the bones that make up your spine: “Broken vertebrae have caused Minnie to be in a wheelchair.”

     A vertebrate is an animal that has a spine, as opposed to an invertebrate, which doesn’t have one: “All mammals are vertebrates.”

W

 

ware vs. wear - These two are probably confusing because they sound exactly alike. But they mean different things.

     Ware is usually used in the plural: “The peddler sold his wares.” But as a suffix, it’s often singular: “That new software is much better than the old.” “Will you put the silverware on the table?” “That is the nicest glassware I have ever seen.”

     Wear has many meanings, but most often has to do with something people (or, increasingly, pets) put on their bodies: “I just don’t know what to wear today.” “Sally wears her heart on her sleeve.” “You wear that jacket well.” This carries over to when it is used as a suffix: “Jim got a job selling footwear.”  “That store has the best outerwear at the mall.” Wear can also be used to refer to the repeated use of something: "That old sweatshirt is worse for wear." "Stan got a lot of good wear out of that suit." "I swear, I just don't think this old car will ever wear out!"
 

weak vs. week - Although these words sound exactly alike, they mean completely different things. Ah, the difference one letter can make!     

     Weak means lacking in strength: “This coffee is weak.” “That is a pretty weak argument.” “If I weren’t so weak from hunger, I would walk over there.”

     A week is a period of seven days: “I will see you next week.” “Which week in August are you going on vacation?” “If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to knock you into next week!”
 

were vs. we’re - This one I attribute to poor pronunciation, as people are increasingly pronouncing both of these words the same. But they’re vastly different.

     Were is the past plural conjugation of the verb “to be”: “We were in St. Tropez last year.” “My keys were sitting right there on the table.” “Where were you last night?” It is pronounced like “wur”.

     We’re is the contraction of “we are”.  It is properly pronounced like “weer”.  People tend to sloppily pronounce it the same as the other one...but that doesn’t mean they can get by with spelling them the same. That little apostrophe makes all the difference in meaning.  We’re is in the present tense, while were is in the past: “We’re the youngest family on the block.” “I think we’re driving in circles.”
 

wet vs. whet - These probably get confused because they can both have to do with eating and drinking.

     One of the meanings of wet, when used as a verb, is in the phrase "to wet one’s whistle”, which means to get something to drink. In the phrase, it’s being used in the sense of getting something damp, namely your throat.

     But don’t confuse it with the verb to whet, as used in the phrase "to whet one’s appetite”. That phrase means to heighten the appetite, as the verb’s meaning is to sharpen or hone something: “This latest clue is really whetting my curiosity.” “You need to whet that knife before slicing this roast.”
 

while vs. will - I didn't think people confused these two words. They aren't pronounced the same and are never interchangeable. But after spotting an error in the sub-headline of an article in our local newspaper's Metro section, I'm not so sure. This particular error, I fear, was the result of sloppy editing, as the correct word was used in the very first sentence of the story. Why the editor chose the other one for the subhead is beyond me!

     While is most commonly used as a conjunction to mean "during the time of..." or "at the same time as..." or "on the one hand..." or "on the other hand...". It can also be used as a noun or a verb in other contexts. Here are some examples of correct usage as a conjunction: "While Jimmy was in Scotland, he tried eating haggis, but couldn't stomach it." "Trixie can balance a ball on her nose while standing on her hind legs." "While it's true that the defendant has no alibi, he did not commit this crime." "Katrina's left eye is blue, while her right one is green."

     Will has numerous uses and meanings (however, none make it synonymous with "while"). It can be a noun: "That cat has a very strong will." "We are going next Tuesday for the reading of Father's will." "Where there's a will, there's a way." "They were all filled with good will during the holiday season." "The will of the people has been revealed in the latest election results." The word can also be a verb: "Do as you will." "I will survive." "When will we get there?" "Boys will be boys." "You will do as I say." "Will you join me?" "Grandma will go on and on about the old days if you get her started."
 

whit vs. wit - These two really have nothing to do with each other, aside from sounding somewhat alike. So why would a blogger use the latter for the former?

     A whit is a tiny speck, a little bit: “That wouldn’t bother me one whit.” “Jenny doesn’t have a whit of patience left.”

     Wit is usually used to mean humor, especially that involving cleverness, since it also means understanding or intelligence:  “Sam has a keen wit.”  “That’s a witty comment.” "Jane could barely keep her wits about her."
 

who's vs. whose - Who's is a contraction of the words "who is", while whose is the possessive form of the pronoun "who". To determine which is the correct word to use, try substituting "who is" for the word and see if your sentence makes sense. If so, use the version with the apostrophe. Correct usages include these: "Whose jacket is this?" "Who's going on the field trip to the zoo?" "Who's your daddy?" "Whose turn is it next?" Yes, it flies in the face of all you ever learned about using an apostrophe and an "s" to make something possessive, but that's the way it is.
 

wonder vs wander - I know everybody’s typing with their thumbs on tiny keyboards or touch screens these days, but this can’t always be from typos. But after seeing the former of these used for the latter on two British news websites, I think people genuinely don’t know the difference. So here it is:      To wonder is to ponder something, to speculate or doubt: “I wonder what Sally is up to today?”  “Sammy couldn’t help but wonder if Joan really loved him.”  It can also refer to awe or amazement:  “I think that’s the eighth wonder of the world!”      To wander is to ramble around without real direction or purpose, or to drift away:  “John decided to wander around Europe for a while after college, before finding a job.”  “These long meetings make my mind wander.”  “If you don’t pay closer attention, you’re going to wander off the hiking path!”
 

worse vs. worst - Hopefully, everyone knows that worse means "more bad" and that worst means "most bad". The confusion seems to come in the common phrase, "the worst that can happen..." You're trying to say "the most bad thing that can happen," so should never use "worse" in this phrase. However, in the phrase, "Worse things could happen," the "more bad" version is appropriate. There’s also the expression, “when worse comes to worst” that’s often said incorrectly as “when worse comes to worse”. But does the latter of those make any sense? (No, it does not.)

Y

 

you’re vs. your - I think this is one of the biggest pet peeves of just about every grammarian, and people use these two words incorrectly all the time.

     You’re is a contraction of the words "you are", as in "You’re insane!" Other correct examples: "You're going on the class trip, aren't you?" "You're almost finished!" "I think you're nice."

     Your is the possessive form of the pronoun "you", as in "Your dog just bit me!" Other correct examples: "Which color is your favorite?" "Let's go to your house."

     If you’re not sure which is correct, read your sentence out loud, substituting "you are" for the word in question. If it’s correct with the two words, then use the contraction (the one with the apostrophe).

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