Writers often confuse words that sound the same or similarly in written English. The following sections explain the differences in spelling and meaning for the most commonly confused and misused paronyms and homophones in the English language.
Paronyms are words with the similar sounds but different meanings. In written English, writers often mistake one paronym for another.
accept – verb – to take or receive what is offered
except – preposition – excluding
except – verb – to leave out, to exclude
The store accepts all major credit cards except American Express.
advice – noun – recommendation regarding a decision or course of conduct
advise – verb – to give advise to, to offer counsel
After my father advised me on the matter, I took his advice into consideration.
affect – verb – to influence, to have an effect on
affect – noun – influence
effect – verb – to cause to come into being, to bring about
effect – noun – result or outcome of a cause
The effect of the tornado affected the decision to evacuate the county.
allusion – noun – an indirect reference, a hint
illusion – noun – a distortion of the senses, anything that seems to be something that it is not
Your allusion to the illusion in the movie is most transparent.
assure – verb – to give confidence to
ensure – verb – to guarantee
insure – verb – to provide for compensation if some specified risk occurs
I assure you that the company will ensure to insure your most valuable possessions.
choose – verb – to pick, to elect, to decide
chose – verb – simple past tense form of to choose
choice – noun – an option, a decision
I chose to choose the ethical choice.
complement – noun – something that completes
complement – verb – to complete
compliment – noun – an expression of praise, congratulations, or encouragement
compliment – verb – to express a favorable opinion
The compliment from my boss complemented the celebratory party.
decent – adjective – fair, good enough, okay
descent – noun – a way down, a drop to a lower position
dissent – verb – to disagree, to differ from
The experienced hiker dissented to taking the decent descent down the mountain.
desert – noun – a barren area of land with little to no precipitation
dessert – noun – a sweet confection served at the end of a meal
We shall gorge on desserts once we leave this godforsaken desert!
diffuse – verb – to spread over
defuse – verb – to make less danger
The SWAT team defused the bomb while the police diffused the crowd.
elicit – verb – to draw out, to bring out, to evoke
illicit – adjective – unlawful, breaking social norms
The interrogator will elicit the truth about any illicit activities.
loose – adjective – unattached, not joined
lose – verb – to cause something to cease to be in one’s possession, to not win
A loose wheel caused the driver to lose the race.
prescribe – verb – to order to do something
proscribe – verb – to forbid, to order to not do something
The doctor prescribed a new medication and proscribed grapefruit juice.
than – conjunction, preposition – used in comparisons
then – adverb – at that time, next
Then select a cover larger than the couch.
Homophones are words with the same sound but different meanings. In written English, writers often mistake one homophone for another.
ad – noun – clipping of advertisement, a marketing solicitation
add – verb – to join or unite
The secretary added another ad campaign to her to-do list.
aid – verb – to help, to assist
aide – noun – an assistant
My aide will aid you with the delivery schedule.
ail – verb – to cause to suffer, to hurt, to be ill, to suffer
ale – noun – an intoxicating liquor, beer
Drinking too much ale in the evening ails me in the morning.
ate – verb – simple past tense form of to eat
eight – determiner – numeral 8
The children ate eight cookies each.
capital – noun – city, money and wealth
capitol – building in which any legislature meets
The school children took a trip to the capitol building in the state capital.
cite – verb – to quote, to reference
site – noun – a place
sight – noun – the ability to see, something seen
The mere sight of the beautiful site caused me to cite Shakespeare.
for – preposition
four – determiner – numeral 4
For four hours the pastor babbled in front of his congregation.
hear – verb – to perceive with the ear
here – noun, pronoun
Did you hear the sound over here?
its – possessive determiner, possessive pronoun
it’s – contraction of it is, it has
It’s the cat that broke its tail.
knew – verb – simple past tense form of to know
new – adjective – recent, additional, not old, current
I knew the new neighbors as a child.
know – verb – to be certain or sure about, to be acquainted or familiar with
no – interjection, determiner
His depravity knows no bounds.
peace – noun – a state of tranquility or harmony, a state free of oppressive and unpleasant thoughts and emotions
piece – noun – a part of a larger whole
Finding the missing piece of the puzzle brought me peace of mind.
principal – noun – head of a school or an organization
principal – adjective – primary, most important
principle – adjective – fundamental assumption, moral rule or aspect, rule or law of nature
The principal alphabetic principle places A before B.
their – possessive determiner
there – noun, pronoun
they’re – contraction of they are
They’re going over there where their car is parked.
to – preposition
too – adverb – also
two – determiner – spelling of the numeral 2
The two women went to the mall too.
witch – noun – a woman who practices magic, an unpleasant woman
which – interrogative determiner, indefinite pronoun
Which witch broke her cauldron?
who’s – contraction of who is, who has
whose – possessive determiner, interrogative determiner
Who’s the idiot whose glass left a ring on my coffee table?
your – possessive determiner
you’re – contraction of you are
You’re your own worst enemy.
By learning the differences in spelling and meaning of the most commonly used paronyms and homophones in the English language, writers can prevent embarrassingly mistakes.