Avoid the top 40 Most Misused or Mixed-up Words
If you think bad writing is only a problem for recent immigrants (for whom English is a second language) and grade school children, think again. A parking lot sign read: “Customer Parking Only. All Others Will Be Toad.” (It should read Towed.) Another neon sign at a car dealership read: “We Bye Used Cars.” (Well, if business is good, perhaps do they say ‘bye’ to a lot of cars. But the sign probably should read: “Buy”.) And a Days Inn roadside sign advertised “Free Wife Available”. It should say “Wifi”. (Hopefully, they aren’t giving away free wives.) While amusing, consider that companies paid money to have these signs professionally printed. No one at the company or at the sign printer caught the mistakes. Many people surely read these signs and yet the signs weren’t removed or corrected, which suggests that perhaps no one caught these mistakes. These signs point to the trouble many people have writing well. Social media, newspapers, signage, advertisements, email solicitations and other written and published works are littered with examples of bad writing.
Why are such writing mistakes so common? One reason words or phrases are mixed up is because they sound eerily similar. Other times, the word is being mispronounced, misspelled or misused. Libary instead of Library. Granite instead of granted. Pacifically instead of specifically. Strickly instead of strictly. Supposably instead of supposedly. Some even quote expressions or common phrases incorrectly, such as “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes.” Sometimes, it is not a case of mistaking one word for the other, but rather not knowing when to use each, such as in who versus whom. (More about that later.)
The real problem is that when words are misused or mixed-up, it completely changes the meaning of what is being expressed. Communication depends on vocabulary. The larger a person’s vocabulary, the better that person is able to express a precise thought. It’s not enough to have heard a word. The word must be used in the correct context. Here are some of the most commonly misused, abused and confused words in English.
Words Often Mixed-up
- Accept and except – To accept is to receive. Except is to exclude.
- Advice and advise – Advice, a noun, is an opinion about what could or should be done about a situation or problem, Advise, a verb, means to give advice.
- Affect and effect – Affect means ‘to act upon or have an influence on. It can also mean to make a show of; to put on a pretense of; to feign. Effect means to bring about or create; to effect a change; result; consequence; outcome. The easiest way to remember is that if it is being used as a noun, use effect, but if it’s being used as a verb, use affect.
- All ready and already – All ready means completely prepared. Already means at a specified time; so soon.
- All right and alright – All right means safe, reliable, good. Alright is commonly used in written dialogue and informal writing, but all right is the only acceptable form in edited writing. Basically, it is not all right to use alright in place of all right in standard English.
- All together and altogether – All together means all in one place or all at the same time. Altogether means completely or entirely.
- Allude and elude – Allude is to refer to something in an indirect manner. Elude means to evade or escape from.
- Allusion and illusion – Allusion is a passing reference or indirect mention. Illusion is a deceptive appearance or impression; an erroneous mental representation.
- Anyone and any one – Anyone means any person but not particular individuals. Any one is specific but unidentified things or individuals.
- A part and apart – Apart means separated or separately. A part means a piece or segment of something.
- Adverse and averse – These are often confused because they are both expressing negatives but they are not synonymous. Adverse is something harmful. Averse is a strong feeling of dislike.
- Beside and besides –Beside is a preposition which means either next to or compared to. Besides is also a preposition but means except or in addition to.
- Capitol and capital – Capitol is a building that houses a government’s legislative branch. When capitol is capitalized, it refers to the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Capital can mean the wealth owned or employed in business by an individual, firm, corporation, etc. It can mean highly important. It can also mean uppercase letter. The definition of capital that gives most trouble is the city or town that is the official seat of government in a country or state.
- Carrier and courier – A carrier is a company that ships items. A courier is a person that delivers items, usually documents and usually short distances.
- Clothes and close – Clothes means clothing in general. Close means to move so that an opening or passage is obstructed; make shut.
- Compliment and complement – Compliment is to express admiration or praise. Complement means two separate items that look better or function better together.
- Criteria and criterion – Something that is used as a reason for making a judgment. Criteria is plural, and criterion is singular.
- Decent and descent – Decent describes people and things that are polite and respectable, and passable or adequate. Descent refers to an act or instance of going downward, a way down, hereditary lineage, or a sudden visit or attack.
- Desperate and disparate – Desperate means showing extreme urgency or intensity especially because of great need or desire. Disparate means fundamentally different or distinct in quality or kind; different in every way.
- Discrete and discreet – Discrete means individual or detached. Discreet means on the down low, under the radar and careful.
- Disinterested and uninterested – Disinterested traditionally means having no stake in the matter. Uninterested traditionally means not engaged, bored, or unconcerned.
- Elicit and illicit – Elicit means to obtain. Illicit means illegal or contrary to accepted morality.
- Emigrate and immigrate – Emigrate – to move out of a country; Immigrate – to enter a country to live there
- Enquire and inquire – Here is the one time where two words can actually be used interchangeably. They are just different spellings of the same word. Where the two are used for the same purposes, inquire is the more common form.
- Except and expect – Except is usually used as a preposition or conjunction and means not including. Expect is used when we believe something is likely to happen, or someone is likely to do or be something in particular.
- Farther and further – These words are often mixed-up, especially since both deal with related concepts. Farther refers to length or distance. Further means to a greater degree, additional, or additionally.
- Fiscal and physical – These two get mixed up only because they sound so similar, but they really have no relation. Fiscal has to do with financial matters as related to the public treasury or government revenue. Physical involves the body as distinguished from the mind or spirit. It also relates to matter and energy.
- Impunity and immunity – These two words are mixed-up in part because they sound alike, but also because in some context, their meanings are related. Impunity is the ability to act without negative consequences. Immunity has various meanings including the ability to resist a disease and unresponsiveness to influence. But immunity can also mean legally granted freedom from prosecution and exemption from obligation imposed by others. In that context, it bears some relationship to impunity. No wonder they are mixed-up so often.
- Imply and infer – It is really bad to mix these words up since imply and infer are something of opposites. To imply is to express something indirectly; to hint at something. Infer is to make an educated guess.
- Into and in to – Using “into” and “in to” interchangeably is a common grammar faux pas. Into is a preposition that indicates movement or transformation. But when written separately, in to is an adverb followed by a preposition. For example, “Tune in to our Monday Morning with Madison essay next week for more solid work-life advice.”
- Insure, ensure and assure – These three words are often used interchangeably but they really should not be. Although insure, ensure, and assure all mean to make a person or thing more sure, there are differences. Insure should be restricted to providing or obtaining insurance to indemnify or guarantee someone or something against a loss. Ensure can be used in all other senses, especially to make certain. Ensure can also imply a guarantee. Assure, on the other hand, means to make a promise or convince. It also implies the removal of doubt and suspense within someone’s mind.
- Liable and libel – These words should never be mixed up. Liable means legally responsible for something or likely to do or be something. Libel, on the other hand, can be used as a noun or verb. As a noun, it refers to a false publication that damages a person’s reputation. As a verb, it means to defame someone by publishing a libel.
- Lose and loose – Lose means to suffer a loss, to be deprived of, to part with, or to fail to keep possession of. Loose means something not tight; not closely constrained or constricted.
- Precede and proceed – Not only do they sound alike, these words also have similar definitions, encompassing an idea of forward movement. This leads to some confusion. But they should not be used interchangeably. They are not synonyms. Precede is to go before. Proceed means to move ahead, to continue.
- President and precedent – President refers to the leader of an organization. A precedent is something that sets a standard for future events.
- Since and sense – Since is synonymous with because and also means from then until now. Sense means to feel or is synonymous with intelligence.
- Then and than – Then and than are among the 100 most frequently used words in the English language. Then indicates time or consequence. Than is used to indicate comparison.
- Since and sense
- Then and than
- Who and whom – This one trips up many folks. Here is a simple he/him method to decide whether who or whom is correct.
He = who Him = whom
For example: Who/Whom wrote the email? He wrote the email. Therefore, who is correct. Who/Whom should I take to the meeting? Should I take him to the meeting? Therefore, whom is correct.
Hopefully, this will help avoid some of the more commonly mistaken words in writing. While these tips won’t make a terrible writer into a good one — only practice does that — it can help correct some of the usual errors made by many writers. These simple improvements can have a profound impact in how others view your written work and thus professionalism. Write on!
Quote of the Week
“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” Jack Kerouac
© 2016, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.