The words listed below are frequently confused, by both native and non-native speakers. As a non-native speaker you are unlikely to need to use all the words listed, but some of them will be used practically every time you speak English.
abdicate and abrogate.To abdicate is to resign from the throne, or to cast off a responsibility. To abrogate is to repeal a law or abolish an arrangement.
Standard use: Edward VIII abdicated from the throne of the United Kingdom.
Standard use: Henry VIII abrogated Welsh customary law.
Non-standard use: John abrogated all responsibility for the catering arrangements (should be "abdicated")
accept and except. Although they sound similar, except is a preposition that means "apart from", while accept is a verb that means "agree with", "take in", or "receive". Except is also occasionally used as a verb, meaning to take out or to leave out.
Standard use: We accept all major credit cards, except Diners Club.
Standard use: Men are fools... present company excepted! (Which means, "present company excluded")
Non-standard use: I had trouble making friends with them; I never felt excepted.
Non-standard use: We all went swimming, accept for Jack.
acute and chronic. Acute means "sharp", as an acute illness is one that rapidly worsens and reaches a crisis. A chronic illness may also be a severe one, but it is long-lasting or lingering.
Standard use: She was treated with epinephrine during an acute asthma attack.
Standard use: It is not a terminal illness, but it does cause chronic pain.
Non-standard use: I have suffered from acute asthma for twenty years.
Non-standard use: I just started feeling this chronic pain in my back.
adverse and averse. Adverse means unfavorable, contrary or hostile. Averse means having a strong feeling of opposition, antipathy, or repugnance.
Standard use: They sailed despite adverse weather conditions.
Standard use: He was averse to taking his medicine.
Non-standard use: He is not adverse to having a drink now and then.
affect and effect. The verb affect means "to influence something", and the noun effect means "the result of". Effect can also be a verb that means "to cause [something] to be", while affect as a noun has technical meanings in psychology, music, and aesthetic theory: an emotion or subjectively experienced feeling. A device to remember when trying to decide which is the right choice: If something affects you it usually has an effect on you.
Standard use: This poem affected me so much that I cried.
Standard use: Temperature has an effect on reaction spontaneity.
Standard use: The dynamite effected the wall's collapse.
Standard use: He seemed completely devoid of affect.
Non-standard use: The rain effected our plans for the day.
Non-standard use: We tried appeasing the rain gods, but to no affect.
aggravate and mitigate. Aggravate means "to make worse". Mitigate means "to make less bad". "Mitigating factor" refers to something that affects someone's case by lessening the degree of blame, not anything that has any effect at all.
allusion, illusion, and hallucination. An allusion is an indirect or metaphorical reference to something; an illusion is a false picture of something that is there; a hallucination is the seeing of something that is not there.
anticipate.to act in advance of an expected event, and expect: to regard as likely.
appraise and apprise. To appraise is to assess or value something; to apprise is to teach or inform.
Standard use: His performance was appraised very positively.
Standard use: I lost no time in apprising her of the situation.
Non-standard use: Has he been appraised of the fact?
assume. To suppose to be true, especially without proof, and presume: to take for granted as being true in the absence of proof to the contrary.
Standard use: They had assumed that they were alone, so they were surprised when they heard a third voice join their song.
Standard use: Doctor Livingstone, I presume?
assure, ensure, and insure. To assure is to intend to give the listener confidence, to ensure is to make certain of, and to insure is to purchase insurance.
Standard use: I assure you that I will have your car washed by the time you return.
Standard use: When you mow the lawn, ensure there are no foreign objects in the grass.
Standard use: I plan to purchase the collision policy when I insure my car.
cache and cachet. A cache is a storage place from which items may be quickly retrieved. A cachet is a seal or mark, such as a wax seal on an envelope or a mark of authenticity on a product. Note that cachet is usually used figuratively to mean "marked by excellence, distinction or superiority".
Standard use: The pirates buried a cache of jewels near the coast.
Standard use: Living in New York City definitely has a certain cachet.
Non-standard use: If your web browser is running slowly, try emptying the cachet.
complementary and complimentary. Things or people that go together well are complementary (i.e., they complete each other), whereas complimentary refers to a bonus gift or giving someone praise.
Standard use: Orange and blue are complementary colors.
Standard use: This sales item comes with a complimentary gift.
Standard use: Jane was very complimentary about your new home.
Similarly, a complement is an accessory, while a compliment is a statement of admiration.
contiguous, continual, and continuous. Contiguous means "touching" or "adjoining in space"; continual means "repeated in rapid succession"; continuous means "uninterrupted" (in time or space).
Standard use: Alaska is not one of the forty-eight contiguous states.
Standard use: The field was surrounded by a continuous fence.
Standard use: The continuous murmur of the stream.
Standard use: His continual interruptions are very irritating.
contingent and contingency. As a noun, a contingent is a representative group; a contingency is a possible event.
Standard use: The explorers were prepared for every contingency.
Standard use: He was a member of the California contingent at the convention.
Non-standard use: He was greeted by a contingency from the school board.
crotch and crutch. A crotch is an area where something branches or forks off in 2 directions, or the area on a person's body where the legs fork from the trunk (commonly referred to as 'groin'). A crutch is a device that assists motion, especially one that sits under the armpit, or something that supports, often used negatively to indicate that it is not needed and causes an unhealthful dependency.
diffuse and defuse. To diffuse is to disperse randomly, whereas to defuse is to remove the fuse from a bomb, or in general to render a situation less dangerous. Diffuse can also be used as an adjective, meaning "not concentrated".
Standard use: The situation was defused when Sandy explained that he was gay, and had no interest in Frank's wife.
Standard use: The smell of gasoline slowly diffused into the still air of the hall.
Standard use: The spotlights were turned off, leaving the stage lit by the diffuse glow of the lanterns.
disassemble and dissemble. To disassemble means "to dismantle" (e.g. to take a machine code program apart to see how it works); to dissemble means "to tell lies".
disburse and disperse. Disburse means "to give out", especially money. Disperse means "to scatter".
discreet and discrete. Discrete means "having separate parts", as opposed to contiguous. Discreet means "circumspect".
disinterested and uninterested. To be disinterested in something means to not be biased about something (i.e. to have no personal stake in a particular side of an issue). To be uninterested means to not be interested in or intrigued by something.
Standard use: As their good friend, I tried to mediate their argument in a disinterested manner so as not to anger either.
Standard use: Though his initial reaction suggested otherwise, he maintains that he remains uninterested in the business proposition.
Non-standard use: The key to attracting a member of the opposite sex is to balance between giving attention to him or her and appearing disinterested.
dissect and bisect. Bisect means "to cut into two"; dissect means "to cut apart", both literally and figuratively. Disect is an old word meaning "to separate by cutting".
Standard use: We dissected the eye of a bull in biology class today.
Standard use: She dissected Smith's dissertation, pointing out scores of errors.
Standard use: The Americas are bisected by the Panama canal.
Non-standard use: We bisected the eye of a bull in biology class today.
economic and economical. Economic means "having to do with the economy". Economical means "financially prudent, frugal" and also figuratively in the sense "sparing use" (of time, language, etc.)
Standard use: Buying in bulk can often be the most economical choice.
Standard use: The actor should be economical in his use of movement.
Standard use: He attended the School of Economic and Business Sciences.
Non-standard use: Leading economical indicators suggest that a recession may be on the horizon.
Non-standard use: The actor should be economic in his use of movement.
e.g. and i.e. The abbreviation e.g. stands for the Latin exempli gratia "for example", and should be used when the example(s) given are just one or a few of many. The abbreviation i.e. stands for the Latin id est "that is", and is used to give the only example(s) or to otherwise qualify the statement just made.
Standard use: A Briton is a British citizen, e.g. John Lennon.
Standard use: Tolkien's The Hobbit is named after its protagonist, i.e., Bilbo Baggins.
emigration and immigration. Emigration is the process of leaving a country; immigration is the process of arriving in a country—in both cases, indefinitely.
Standard use: Ethnic communities, such as Little Italy, were created by people emigrating from their home countries.
eminent, preeminent and imminent. Eminent, originally meaning "emerging", means "illustrious or highly-regarded". Preeminent means "most highly-regarded". Imminent means "about to occur".
Standard use: The eminent doctor Jones testified on behalf of the defence.
Standard use: Rumours that war was imminent soon spread through the population.
exacerbate and exasperate. Exacerbate means "to make worse". Exasperate means "to exhaust", usually someone's patience.
Standard use: Treatment by untrained personnel can exacerbate injuries.
Standard use: Do not let Jack talk to the state trooper; he is tactless and will just exasperate her.
flounder and founder. To flounder is to be clumsy, confused, indecisive or to flop around like a fish out of water. A flounder is also a type of flatfish. To founder is to fill with water and sink.
Standard use: The ship is damaged and may founder.
Standard use: She was floundering on the balance beam.
Non-standard use: The ship is damaged and may flounder.
flout and flaunt. One flouts a rule or law by flagrantly ignoring it. One flaunts something by showing it off.
Standard use: If you have it, flaunt it.
Standard use: He continually flouted the speed limit.
Non-standard use: If you have it, flout it.
Non-standard use: He continually flaunted the speed limit.
hay and straw. Hay is a grassy plant used as animal fodder. Straw is the dry stalk of a cereal plant (e.g., barley, oats, rice, rye), after the grain or seed has been removed; it is used to line an animal's stall or for insulation.
hang. To hang something or someone in the present tense, one uses the same form. In the past, however, pictures are hung and criminals are hanged.
hangar and hanger. The aeroplane is in the hangar; the coat is on the hanger.
historic and historical. In strict usage, historic describes an event of importance—one that shaped history or is likely to do so. Historical merely describes something that happened in the past.
Standard use: The president made a historic announcement. (The announcement was of historical importance.)
Non-standard use: The office kept an archive of historic records. (The records are not necessarily of historical importance—they are simply records from the past.)
hoard and horde. A hoard is a store or accumulation of things. A horde is a large group of people.
Standard use: A horde of shoppers lined up to be the first to buy the new gizmo.
Standard use: He has a hoard of discontinued rare cards.
Non-standard use: Do not horde the candy, share it.
Non-standard use: The hoard charged when the horns sounded.
imply and infer. Something is implied if it is a suggestion intended by the person speaking, whereas a conclusion is inferred if it is reached by the person listening.
Standard use: When Tony told me he had no money, he was implying that I should give him some.
Standard use: When Tony told me he had no money, I inferred that I should give him some.
Non-standard use: When Tony told me he had no money, he was inferring that I should give him some.
inherent and inherit. A part inherent in X is logically inseparable from X. To inherit is a verb, meaning "pass down a generation".
Standard use: Risk is inherent in the stock market.
Standard use: The next president inherits a legacy of mistrust and fear.
Non-standard use: There is violence inherit in the system.
it's and its. It's is a contraction that replaces it is or it has (see apostrophe). Its is the possessive determiner corresponding to it, meaning "belonging to it".
Standard use: It's time to eat! (it is time)
Standard use: It's been nice getting to meet you. (it has been)
Standard use: My cell phone has poor reception because its antenna is broken.
Non-standard use: Its good to be the king.
Non-standard use: The bicycle tire had lost all of it's pressure.
irony. Something is ironic if it is the opposite of what is appropriate, expected, or fitting.
Standard use: It is ironic that the center for the handicapped has no wheelchair ramp.
Standard use: It is ironic that Alanis Morissette wrote a song called "Ironic" with many examples, not one of which is actually ironic.
Non-standard use: It is ironic that George W Bush is right-handed and Republican while Bill Clinton is left-handed and Democratic.
Non-standard use: It is raining on our wedding day! Is it not ironic?
isle and aisle. An isle is an island. An aisle is corridor through which one may pass from one place to another.
Standard use: He came from a small isle in the Caribbean.
Standard use: The coffee is down the third aisle on the left.
lay (lay, laid, laid, laying) and lie (lie, lay, lain, lying) are often, and incorrectly, used synonymously.
Lay is a transitive verb, meaning that it takes an object. "To lay something" means to place something.
Lie, on the other hand, is intransitive and means to recline (and also to tell untruths, but in this case the verb is regular and causes no confusion).
The confusion caused by these verbs is not helped by the fact that the past tense of lie is lay. An easy rule of thumb is to replace the words with sit and set. If sit makes sense (e.g. sit down) then lie should be used (lie down). If the sentence works with set (e.g. set the book on the table) then lay should be used (lay the book on the table).
To lie can also mean "to not tell the truth" - but in that case, the past tense is lied.
Standard use: I lay my husband's work clothes out for him every morning.
Standard use: You shouldn't lie down immediately after eating a large meal. Yesterday, I lay on my bed for half an hour after dinner, and got indigestion!
Standard use: You lied to me, there is no hidden chamber!
Non-standard use: Is this bed comfortable when you lay on it? (Should be lie)
Non-standard use: Yesterday I lied down in my office during the lunch hour. (Should be lay)
Non-standard use: There was no reason for him to have laid there. (Should be "have lain down" and "him lying there")
Non-standard use: Lie the baby down, and change his nappy (Should be lay, as lie is intransitive)
Non-standard use: "It could be easy for those guys to lay down. After I left, they could have just laid down."
Non-standard use: I am going to lay out in the sun and work on my tan. (Should be lie in.)
Non-standard use: Sorry, I lay about our appointment yesterday. (Should be lied)
levee and levy. A levee is a structure built along a river to raise the height of its banks, thereby preventing nearby land from flooding. To levy is to impose a tax, fine or charge.
Standard use: The Netherlands is well known for its elaborate system of levees.
Standard use: This statute allows the state to levy a 3% tax.
Non-standard use: Recent storms have weakened the levy.
literally. A term used to emphasize that a statement is not metaphorical, figurative or hyperbolic. It is also commonly misused as an intensifier for metaphorical, figurative or hyperbolic statements.
Standard use: The mayor is literally a convicted thief.
Non-standard use: The mayor is literally robbing us blind with this new tax.
loathe and loath or loth. Loathe is a verb meaning "to strongly dislike", and loath or loth means "unwilling" or "reluctant".
Standard use: I loathe arrogant people.
Standard use: I was loath to concede defeat.
lose and loose. Lose can mean "fail to win", "misplace", or "cease to be in possession". Loose can mean the opposite of tight, or the opposite of tighten. Lose is often misspelled as loose.
Standard use: We cannot afford to lose customers to our competitors.
Standard use: A screw is loose and I need a wrench to tighten it.
Non-standard use: If the team cannot score any points, they will loose the game.
me, myself, and I. In a traditional prescriptive grammar, I is used only as a subject, me is used only as an object, and myself is used only as a reflexive object, that is to say when the subject is "I" and the object would otherwise be "me". Myself is often used incorrectly. Like the other reflexive pronouns, myself should be used only when both the subject and object of the verb are the speaker, or as an emphatic pronoun (intensifier).
Standard use: Jim and I took the train.
Standard use: He lent the books to Jim and me.
Acceptable use: That is me in the picture. (This is typical in informal English.)
Standard use: (intensifying): I myself have seen instances of that type.
Standard use: (reflexive): I hurt myself. I did it to myself. I played by myself. I want to enjoy myself.
Non-standard use: Jim and me went into town.
Non-standard use: Me and Jim went into town.
Non-standard use: As for myself, I prefer the red. (Just use me)
Non-standard use: He is an American like myself. (Just use me)
Non-standard use: He gave the paper to Jim and myself. (Just use me)
Non-standard use: My wife and myself do not like the development. (Just use I)
novice and novitiate. A novice is a prospective or trainee member of a religious order. The novitiate is the state of being a novice, or the time for which one is a novice. However, a novice monk or nun is often incorrectly described as "a novitiate" (perhaps confused with "initiate").
of and have. In some dialects of spoken English, of and the contracted form of have, 've, sound alike. However, in standard written English, they are not interchangeable.
Standard use: Susan would have stopped to eat, but she was running late.
Standard use: You could have warned me!
Non-standard use: I should of known that the store would be closed. (Should be "I should've known")
overestimate and underestimate. There is frequent confusion between things that cannot and should not be over/underestimated, though the meanings are opposite.
Standard use: The damage caused by pollution cannot be overestimated (i.e. it is so big that no estimate can be excessive)
Standard use: The damage caused by pollution should not be underestimated (i.e. it is wrong to regard it as minor)
past and passed. Past refers to events that have previously occurred, while passed is the past tense of "to pass", whether in a congressional action or a physical occurrence.
Standard use: Congress passed the bill limiting the powers of the President.
Standard use: History is mainly concerned with the events of the past.
Non-standard use: He past my house on his way to the store.
perspective and prospective. " Perspective" is a view with correct visual angles, example: parallel railway tracks converging in the distance. "Prospective" is a future possibility or expectation.
perspicuity and perspicacity. If something is perspicuous, it is easily understood; its meaning is obvious. If you are perspicacious, you are quick to understand or have good insight.
Standard use: I admired her perspicacity; she just seemed to get it so much better than I.
Standard use: He expressed the idea so perspicuously that anyone could understand.
Non-standard use: She spoke in a perspicacious way.
peruse means "to read or examine very carefully" but is sometimes used erroneously when the exact opposite is meant: "to read superficially," "to glance over quickly," "to skim."
photogenic and photographic. The former is to be used to mean someone's likeness is particularly amenable to being well photographed. The latter is anything pertaining to photography whether it is technical e.g. photographic chemical or equipment, or generic e.g. photographic journals.
prescribe and proscribe. To prescribe something is to command or recommend it. To proscribe somebody or something is to outlaw him, her or it.
progeny and prodigy. Progeny are offspring or things that follow something else. A prodigy is a genius or a marvelous example of something.
redundant. Redundant does not mean "useless" or "unable to perform its function". It means that there is an excess of something, that something is "surplus to requirements" and no longer needed, or that it is obsolete.
Standard use: A new medicine that cures all illnesses has made antibiotics redundant. (Antibiotics could be used but are no longer needed)
Standard use: The week before Christmas, the company made seventy-five workers redundant.
Non-standard use: Over-use of antibiotics risks making them redundant. (This should be: over-use of antibiotics risks making them ineffective)
regimen and regiment. A regimen is a system of order, and may often refer to the systematic dosing of medication. A regiment is a military unit
Standard use: The sick soldier was removed from his regiment.
Standard use: The sick soldier was ordered to complete a regimen of amoxicillin.
reign and rein. A reign refers to the rule of a monarch. Reins are the straps used to control the movements of an animal (typically a horse). Thus, to "take the reins" means to assume control, and to have "free rein" means to be free of constraints.
Non-standard use: ...the Suns gave Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum free reign of practices...
Non-standard use: Bobby Jindal, a whiz kid takes the reigns of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospital
sensual and sensuous. Both words mean, "to do with the senses". Sensual is more often applied to a pleasure or experience or to a person's character; sensuous to someone or something of enticing appearance.
Standard use: Don Juan is the most sensual character in fiction.
Standard use: Ascetics believe in avoiding all sensual pleasures.
Standard use: Marilyn Monroe looks extremely sensuous in this film.
set and sit. When used as a verb, to set means "to place" or "to adjust to a value", whereas to sit means, "to be seated".
Standard use: Set the pot upon the stove.
Standard use: Set the temperature-control to 100 °C.
Non-standard use: Set down over there.
Non-standard use: Sit the pot on the stove.
Standard use: Sit on the chair.
shrink and shirk. To shirk means "to consistently avoid", "to neglect", "to be too afraid to engage".
To shrink means "to contract", "to become physically smaller in size"; also, to shrink away means, "to suddenly jerk away from something in horror".
However, to shrink from may also mean, "to hesitate or show reluctance toward".
Standard use: I will not shirk discussion.
Standard use: I will not shrink from discussion.
Standard use: She shrank away from me.
Non-standard use: I will not shrink discussion.
Non-standard use: I will not shirk from discussion.
sight, site, and cite. A sight is something seen; a site is a place. To cite is to quote or list as a source.
Standard use: You are a sight for sore eyes.
Standard use: I found a list of the sights of Rome on a tourist site.
Standard use: Please cite the sources you used in your essay.
Standard use: You must travel to the site of the dig to see the dinosaur bones.
Standard use: It is necessary to have line-of-sight if you want to use semaphore.
Non-standard use: One must be careful on a construction sight.
Non-standard use: I will site the book in which I saw the statistics.
Non-standard use: I could not fire because I did not have line-of-site to the target.
than and then. Than is a grammatical particle and preposition associated with comparatives, whereas then is an adverb and a noun. In certain dialects, the two words are usually homophones because they are function words with reduced vowels, and this may cause speakers to confuse them.
Standard use: I like pizza more than lasagne.
Standard use: We ate dinner, then went to the movies.
Non-standard use: You are a better person then I am.
there's, where's, etc. A common spoken mistake is using a singular contraction when it should be plural in words like there's and where's. This stems from the fact that there're and where're are more difficult to enunciate and are often avoided for that reason in colloquial speech.
Non-standard use: Where's the cars? (Should be Where're - Where are)
Non-standard use: There's many types of cars. (Should be There're - There are)
to, too. Too means "in excess" or "also". To is a preposition or is a part of a verb in the infinitive. At the end of a sentence to may also refer to a dropped verb in the infinitive.
venal and venial. These words are sometimes confused; venal means "corrupt", "able to be bribed", or "for sale"; venial means "pardonable, not serious".
Standard use: According to Catholic doctrine, eating meat on a Friday is a venial sin, but murder is a mortal sin.
Standard use: All ages have examples of venal politicians.
warranty and warrantee. A warranty is a legal assurance that some object can perform some specified task or meets certain quality standards. A warrantee is the person who benefits from a warranty. The verb form is warrant. Confusion here can stem from guarantee and the less common guaranty, which have similar meanings.
Standard use: Most new cars come with at least a three-year warranty.
Standard use: I guarantee that you will make a return on your investment.
Non-standard use: Your mobile phone has stopped working? Maybe you need to claim under the warrantee.
whose and who's. Whose is an interrogative word (Whose is this?) or a relative pronoun (The people whose house you admired); who's is a contraction for "who is" or "who has".
won't and wont. Won't is a contraction for "will not", while wont is a word meaning "accustomed" or "inclined to" (as an adjective) or "habit or custom" (as a noun).
Standard use: He won't let me drive his car.
Standard use: He spent the morning reading, as he was wont to do.
Standard use: He took a walk in the evening, as was his wont.
Non-standard use: I wont need to go to the supermarket after all.
you're and your. While they sound the same in many dialects, in standard written English they have separate meanings. You're is a contraction for "you are", and your is a possessive pronoun meaning "belonging to you". When in doubt, just see whether the word in question can logically be expanded to "you are".
Standard use: When driving, always wear your seatbelt.
Standard use: If you're going out, please be home by ten o'clock.
Non-standard use: You're mother called this morning.
Non-standard use: Your the first person to notice my new haircut today!