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10 Commonly Misused Words in Writing

by Marianne Stenger
Posted: June 10, 2015

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The English language has more words than other language in the world, so it’s not surprising that many of these words look and sound similar.

Words that sound alike but have a different meaning are known as homonyms, and since changing just one or two letters in these words can alter the whole meaning of a sentence, it’s vital for writers to be aware of how and when to use them.

A basic spelling and grammar check won’t generally catch these errors, so here are some of the most commonly misused words you should be familiar with.

1. Affect vs. Effect

The word “affect” means to influence, while the word “effect” is usually used to describe the result of something. For instance, you can be “affected by a tragedy” but the tragedy’s “effects” on you may not be outwardly visible. The word “effect” can also be used as a verb, for instance, you can “effect change.”

2. Accept vs. Except

The word “accept” means to receive or agree to something. For example, you can accept a challenge or accept a package. To “except” something, however, means to exclude it. You can “accept” all the packages “except” the one addressed to your neighbour.

3. Breath vs. Breathe

When spoken out loud, it’s easy enough to spot the difference between these two words, but when writing them, the difference may be less obvious. The word “breath” refers to the air coming and going from your lungs, while the word “breathe” refers to the physical act of inhaling and exhaling.

4. Beside vs. Besides

It’s just one letter, but it can make all the difference. The word “beside” means next to something, while the word “besides” means in addition to something. For example, you might be standing “beside” your friend Jim, but you probably have other friends “besides” him.

5. Compliment vs. Complement

A “compliment” is a statement that praises something, while “complement” means to complete or enhance something. For example, you can pay your friend a “compliment” by telling her how nice she looks, and you might notice that her shoes “complement” her dress.

6. Clinch vs. Clench

To “clench” means to close, grasp or grip something tightly, while to “clinch” means to make something certain or final. You may “clench” your fists hopefully before you finally “clinch” the deal.

7. Disinterested vs. Uninterested

The words “disinterested” and “uninterested” are often thought to mean the same thing, but despite their similarity they can’t be used interchangeably. “Uninterested” means a lack of interest in something, for example, a student might be “uninterested” in algebra. “Disinterested” means not influenced by personal feelings, concerns or opinions or in other words impartial. For example, when solving a dispute, you might want to bring in a “disinterested” third party.

8. Denote vs. Connote

To “denote” means to indicate define exactly, while “connote” means to imply or suggest something. For example, when proofreading something you can “denote” errors with a red line, and you might suggest using a word like “childlike” to “connote” a feeling of innocence.

9. Emigrate vs. Immigrate

Although these words are similar in meaning, “Emigrate” means to leave one country to live in another, while “Immigrate” means to enter another country and settle there. For example, you may “emigrate from Australia” and “immigrate” to the United Kingdom.

10. Elicit vs. Illicit

The word “elicit” means to draw forth or bring out, while the word “illicit” means something illegal or unlawful. You can “elicit” a response from your neighbour about his “illicit” activities.


Marianne Stenger

Marianne is a London-based freelance Writer and Journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central.

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