All native English speakers are familiar with this problem: words and phrases that appear similar in spelling, pronunciation or meaning, but that actually have distinct definitions. This, of course, can cause some confusion when writing. After all, it’s not always easy keeping track of the right words for the context we want, and even the most proficient writers make mistakes. But nobody’s perfect, right?
To help you avoid some common (and a few uncommon) grammar pitfalls, here are 25 examples of words and phrases you may be getting mixed up in your writing. Almost all of these items were taken from The Hodges Harbrace Handbook, an excellent resource for beginning and advanced writers alike. Be sure to check it out if you can! Write wisely!
It’s easy to confuse these words because they sound so similar, but they have very different definitions. “Accept” is a verb that means “to receive with consent”; “except” is a preposition that means “other than”. “Except” is also a verb meaning “to exclude”.
I accept all apologies, except those that aren’t heartfelt.
These words are so easy to mix up that I always stop and double-check if I’m using the right one before I move on. “Affect” is a verb meaning “to make a difference to”; “effect” is a noun meaning “result of a cause”. As a verb, “effect” means “to cause”.
The effect that book had on my friend’s life did not affect my opinion of it.
Here’s an example of two words that seem similar in meaning, but that aren’t usually interchangeable because their uses depend on context. Generally speaking, “between” is exclusively for referring to two entities, while three or more should be referred to using “among”.
Between the two of us, I don’t see any love among the three band members.
4) anymore/any more
Who among us hasn’t once mistakenly inserted a space where it wasn’t necessary (or omitted one where it was)? I’m sure we’ve all had our doubts about the difference between “anymore” and “any more”. As one word, “anymore” means “any longer”, while as two, “any more” is used with a negative to mean “no more”.
Do not give me any more problems, or I won’t have the patience to deal with you anymore.
Did anyone else’s parents use to answer the question “Can I?” with “You can, but you may not”? No? Just mine? OK, then. Basically, by answering sarcastically, my parents were teaching us the proper way to ask if we were allowed to do something, as “can” refers to ability while “may” refers to permission.
You can drive 80 miles an hour, but you may not go over the speed limit.
Here’s a pair of homophones that are especially easy to get confused because they only differ by one letter. “Coarse” is an adjective that means “rough”, but “course” is a noun that means “route” or “plan of study” (or a verb that means “move without obstruction”).
We’ll need a new course of action if we want to make this coarse piece smooth.
This is another pair of words that sound alike and differ by one letter. Don’t let these verbs confuse you, though. “Complement” means “to complete”, and “compliment” means “to express praise”. Be sure to check which letter you’re using!
I had to compliment her on how well her piece was able to complement mine.
This mistake is a little less common, but still possible to make due to similar spelling. “Elicit” is a verb meaning “to evoke a response”, and “illicit” is an adjective meaning “illegal”.
She was quick to elicit objections from her peers by talking about her boyfriend’s illicit actions.
I’ve actually never made this mistake myself because I’m not too familiar with the word “eminent”, but I still think it’s worth mentioning. Though both are adjectives, “eminent” means “distinguished”, and “imminent” means “about to happen”.
For such an eminent artist, worldwide success was imminent.
10) everyday/every day
Oh, those darn spaces, always confusing us! Here’s another mistake we have to watch for, because a single space does change the meaning behind the words! “Everyday” as one word means “commonplace” or “routine”, but “every day” as two words means “each day”.
Every day, I have to help my sister deal with her everyday problems.
This one might not be very common, but it’s still an important mistake to note, because even though these two adjectives seem similar, they have opposite meanings. “Explicit” means “stated clearly”, while “implicit” means “expressed indirectly”. Make sure you’re not saying the opposite of what you mean!
By using explicit details, the director makes the message of the movie implicit.
These adverbs may seem interchangeable, but which one you should use actually depends on context. Both are comparatives of “far”, but “farther” is used to refer to geographic distance, while “further” is used to mean “more”.
We’ll need further assistance if we’re to travel farther tomorrow than we did today.
I added this example to the list because it’s common for writers to go straight for “less” when indicating lower amounts. Like the cases of “among”/”between” and “farther”/”further”, however, context is important. Though both words mean the same thing, “fewer” is for nouns that can be counted, while “less” is for nouns that can’t.
Since I started outlining my novel, I have fewer blank notebook pages and much less free space on my desk.
Colloquial speech has made it very common for people to mix up the proper uses of “good” and “well”. I can attest to this from personal experience; knowing the difference between “good” and “well” doesn’t keep me from answering “How are you?” with “Good”. But even though they mean the same thing, there’s a difference: “good” is an adjective and “well” is an adverb. Make sure you aren’t confusing them!
A good writer knows how to tell stories well.
What’s a list of common grammar mistakes without a few examples of “contraction confusion”? We’ve all been guilty of this error before, but it’s understandable when one apostrophe makes all the difference. “Its” is the possessive form of “it”, and “it’s” is the contraction of “it is”. Careful with that apostrophe!
It’s easy for students to struggle with English and its many grammar rules.
This is one mistake I always have to take extra care not to make, because the past tense of one is the present tense of the other! The main difference between these verbs is that one takes an object while the other doesn’t. “Lay” means “to put (something) down”; “lie” means “to rest”.
I have to lay my things on the desk before I can lie down.
This is a tough mistake to make, but I’m fairly certain I’ve seen it happen before. Like the previous example, the difference between these verbs is that one is transitive and the other is intransitive. “Raise” means “to lift (something) up”, while “rise” means “to ascend”.
The teacher made me raise my hand and ask permission before I could rise from my chair.
18) sometime/some time
Yes, it’s another case involving a space (sorry for the lame rhyme). Whether you write it as one word or two will alter the meaning of the sentence. “Sometime” as one word means “at an unspecified time”, and “some time” as two words indicates a span of time.
Sometime next month, we’ll be able to spend some time together.
These are two words that I constantly mix up by accident, to the point where I always read the sentence at least three times to make sure I used the right one before moving on. “Than” is a conjunction and preposition used in comparisons; “then” is an adverb indicating a time sequence. Always be sure to double-check!
Back then, he used to say he’d rather listen to underground rock than mainstream pop music.
Here it is: the famous trio! You didn’t think I’d leave this one out, did you? Self-proclaimed “Internet grammar police” love picking on people for this mistake, and although I sympathize with those who commit the error once in a while, I can’t forgive those who insist on interchanging these words without any respect for the English language. “Their” is the possessive form of “they”; “there” is an adverb referring to location; and “they’re” is the contraction of “they are”. Be careful with your word choice!
They’re going there to retrieve their test scores.
Here’s another famous word trio. When one letter makes all the difference, it’s very easy to mix these words up. “To” is a preposition and infinitive marker; “too” is an adverb meaning “also” or “excessively”; and “two” is a number.
Two mistakes in your essay are still too many if you hope to ace this test.
This one may seem unlikely, but I swear I’ve seen writers mix up these words before. “Weather” is a noun referring to the state of the atmosphere (and sometimes a verb meaning “to wear away”); “whether” is a conjunction indicating a choice between alternatives. Make sure you’re using the right word!
Whether or not you believe in climate change, you can’t deny that the weather has been strange lately.
We all know that person who insists on correcting us when we use “who” incorrectly (my family does for sure, because it’s me). Which word you use depends on voice: “who” is used as a subject, while “whom” is used as an object. When in doubt, try rewording the phrase with “he/she” (subject) or “him/her” (object).
To whom it may concern, I’m the one who let the birds out of the cage.
Speaking of “who”, here’s another pair of homophones that are easy to confuse. Even I sometimes have to go back and fix the mistake. “Whose” is the possessive form of “who”, and “who’s” is the contraction of “who is”.
Whose fault is it if we can’t figure out who’s responsible for this mess?
And now for the final pair of easily confused words: the famous “your” and “you’re”. Friends fans, remember that moment when Ross is fighting with Rachel over the letter she wrote him, and points out her grammar error for good measure? Yes, he was drawing attention to a mistake that many people are guilty of making at least once in their writing. But we all know which word is which: “your” is the possessive form of “you”, and “you’re” is the contraction of “you are”. The trick is making sure we’re using the right one!
You’re not going anywhere until your homework is done!
These are just some of the many examples of easily confused words in the English language. Yes, an innocent mistake now and then is forgivable; our grammar is so complex that even native speakers struggle with it from time to time. Still, as writers, we should take care to avoid these mistakes as much as possible. If nothing else, we should be setting a good example for all other English speakers!
What about you? Have you ever confused any of these words and phrases before? What other examples would you add to this list?