Commonly Misused Words and Phrases

*Why should you bother to read this handout?

The transition from spoken to written language can often be a bumpy one because the way we talk tends to be a lot less formal than the way we write. When we try to translate spoken ideas into writing, it is often hard to remember correct grammar. Also, we hear incorrect grammar used so often that correct grammar might sound odd or even wrong to us.

Homonyms can present an especially difficult problem because they sound alike, but the different spellings mean different things. Changing one letter in a word could alter the whole meaning of a sentence. Common phrases are also likely to be written incorrectly because in speech words are often shortened or slurred together so that not all of the letters are pronounced, making it easy to inadvertently leave these letters out when writing.

Knowing which word to use or how to write a phrase correctly can make a big difference in your writing. It is easier for readers to take a piece of writing more seriously when the grammar is correct. This handout contains a list of commonly confused homonyms and problem phrases, as well as a few hints to help you remember the grammar rules.

Words that sound alike (homonyms):

We have selected the ones we see in the Writing Center most often. For a complete list of homonyms you may click here.

Accept, Except:

Accept is a verb meaning to receive. Except is usually a preposition meaning excluding. I will accept all the packages except that one. Except is also a verb meaning to exclude. Please except that item from the list.

Affect, Effect:

Affect is usually a verb meaning to influence.  Effect is usually a noun meaning result. The drug did not affect the disease, and it had several adverse side effects. Effect can also be a verb meaning to bring about. Only the president can effect such a dramatic change.

Allusion, Illusion:

An Allusion is an indirect reference. An illusion is a misconception or false impression. Did you catch my allusion to Shakespeare? Mirrors give the room an illusion of depth.

Capital, Capitol:

Capital refers to a city, capitol to a building where lawmakers meet. Capital also refers to wealth or resources. The capitol has undergone extensive renovations. The residents of the state capital protested the development plans.

Climactic, Climatic:

Climactic is derived from climax, the point of greatest intensity in a series or progression of events. Climatic is derived from climate; it refers to meteorological conditions. The climactic period in the dinosaurs' reign was reached just before severe climatic conditions brought on the ice age.

Elicit, Illicit:

Elicit is a verb meaning to bring out or to evoke. Illicit is an adjective meaning unlawful. The reporter was unable to elicit information from the police about illicit drug traffic.

Emigrate from, Immigrate to:

Emigrate means to leave one country or region to settle in another. In 1900, my grandfather emigrated from Russia. Immigrate means to enter another country and reside there. Many Mexicans immigrate to the U.S. to find work.

Hints:

Emigrate begins with the letter E, as does Exit. When you emigrate, you exit a country.

Immigrate begins with the letter I, as does In. When you immigrate, you go into a country

Principle, Principal:

Principal is a noun meaning the head of a school or an organization or a sum of money. Principle is a noun meaning a basic truth or law. The principal taught us many important life principles.

Hint:

To recognize the spelling of Principal first think of yourself as a greedy opportunist. You definitely would want to be a pal of anyone who is in a position of power or anything to do with money. This principal has pal in it.

Than, Then:

Than is a conjunction used in comparisons; then is an adverb denoting time. That pizza is more than I can eat. Tom laughed, and then we recognized him.

Hints:

Than is used to compare; both words have the letter a in them.

Then tells when; both are spelled the same, except for the first letter.

There, Their, They're:

There is an adverb specifying place; it is also an expletive. Adverb:   Sylvia is lying there unconscious. Expletive: There are two plums left. Their is a possessive pronoun. They're is a contraction of they are. Fred and Jane finally washed their car. They're later than usual today.

Hints:

If you are using there to tell the reader where, both words have h-e-r-e. Here is also a place.

If you are using their as a possessive pronoun, you are telling the reader what
"they own. Their has h-e-i-r, which also means heir, as in someone who inherits something. Both words have to do with ownership.

They're is a contraction of they are. Sound out they are in the sentence and see if it works. If it does not, it must be one of the previous versions.

To, Too, Two:

To is a preposition; too is an adverb; two is a number.  Too many of your shots slice to the left, but the last two were right on the mark.

Hints:

If you are trying to spell out the number, it is always t-w-o.   Two has a w which is the first letter in word. The opposite of word is number.

Too is usually used as  also when adding or including some additional information. Whenever you want to include something else, think of it as adding;  therefore you
also need to add an extra  o.

Your, You're:

Your is a possessive pronoun; you're is a contraction of you are. You're going to catch a cold if you don't wear your coat.

Hints:

Sound out you are in the sentence. If it works in the sentence it can be written as
you're. If it sounds awkward, it is probably supposed to be   Your.

EXAMPLE: You're shoes are muddy. "You are shoes are muddy" does not work, so
it should be written as: Your shoes are muddy.

Words that don't sound alike but confuse us anyway:

Lie, Lay:

Lie is an intransitive verb meaning to recline or rest on a surface. Its principal parts are lie, lay, lain. Lay is a transitive verb meaning to put or place. Its principal parts are lay, laid.

Hint: Chickens lay eggs. I lie down when I am tired.

Set, Sit:

Set is a transitive verb meaning to put or to place. Its principal parts are set, set, set. Sit is an intransitive verb meaning to be seated. Its principal parts are sit, sat, sat. She set the dough in a warm corner of the kitchen. The cat sat in the warmest part of the room.

Who, Which, That:

Do not use which to refer to persons. Use who instead. That, though generally used to refer to things, may be used to refer to a group or class of people. I just saw a boy who was wearing a yellow banana costume. I have to go to math next, which is my hardest class. Where is the book that I was reading?

Problem phrases:

Supposed to: Do not omit the d. Suppose to is incorrect.

Used to: Same as above. Do not write use to.

Toward: There is no s at the end of the word.

Anyway: Also has no ending s. Anyways is nonstandard.

Couldn't care less: Be sure to make it negative. (Not I could care less.)

All walks of life: Not woks of life. This phrase does not apply to oriental cooking.

Chest of drawers: Not chester drawers.

For all intents and purposes: Not intensive purposes.

 

Source: A Writer's Reference, Diana Hacker

Other Resources:

    Commonly Confused Words

       Common Errors in English

        Words and Expressions