Commonly misused and confused words
Updated: Mar 24
I have a confession to make. Last week I dropped a bit of an editorial clanger. I’m told it happens to the best of us including, ahem, trained editorial professionals.
I emailed a friend on Shrove Tuesday and dropped into conversation I was planning to ‘forego’ my main meal to head straight to the main event – multiple pancakes, maple syrup, banana and vanilla ice cream. Nothing wrong with that you might think (unless you’re my nutritionist) but here’s the thing; I should’ve written ‘forgo’, not ‘forego’.
Oops. I don’t think my friend noticed. If she did she was too polite to pull me up on it.
This highlights perfectly that you can’t always rely on spell checker to pick up these sorts of errors. Spell checker only highlights wrongly spelt words, not wrongly used ones that are spelt correctly!
It prompted me to think about other words that trip us up and have us reaching for the dictionary, Google or turning to a colleague for help. Words like ‘affect’ and ‘effect’, or ‘complimentary’ and ‘complementary’? They sound alike but have quite different meanings. Who’d have thought a teeny weeny ‘a’ or ‘e’ could cause so much confusion?
So, following on from my little slip up, I have compiled a list of commonly confused words which I hope will be of use. If nothing else you’ll be able to impress your colleagues next time someone yells across the office: ‘remind me, is office stationery spelt with an ‘a’ or an ‘e’?’
(Please note: these words follow British English spelling – if you’re writing in American English that’s another blog post entirely).
Spellings and meanings of some regular tripper-uppers:
Accept and except a. Accept – to receive (‘please accept my apologies’) b. Except – not including (‘she achieved all A grades except for a B in Science’)
Affect and effect a. Affect – make a difference to (‘the weather will affect our weekend plans’) b. Effect – result or influencer (‘the beneficial effects of exercise are well known’)
Allude and elude a. Allude – to hint at (‘we can only allude to some of these ideas’) b. Elude – to escape (‘he tried to elude capture’)
Complimentary and complementary a. Complimentary – to say nice things about someone or to offer something free of charge or as an act of courtesy (‘you’re being very complimentary today’) b. Complementary – to go nicely with (‘good spelling and good grammar are complementary skills’)
Forego and forgo a. Forego – to precede (‘his reputation will forego him’) b. Forgo – to go without (‘I will forgo the main meal and head straight for dessert)
Forward and foreword a. Forward – to move onwards or ahead (‘Sarah is looking forward to the disco’) b. Foreword – a short introduction to a book (‘John wrote a charming foreword for David’s book’)
Licence and license a. Licence – noun (‘before learning to drive you must apply for a provisional licence’ or ‘you must have a TV licence’) b. License – verb (‘the DVLA license you to drive’ or ‘the TVLA license you to watch TV’)
Practise and practice a. Practise – verb, to perform an activity or skill repeatedly (‘let’s practise the new dance routine’) b. Practice – noun, the use of an idea or method and it can also mean an office belonging to a doctor or lawyer (‘Richard went to the doctor’s practice to collect his prescription’)
Precede and proceed a. Precede – to come before (‘take your time to read the books that precede this one’) b. Proceed – to go forward (‘following the staff meeting you may proceed with the next steps’)
Stationery and stationary a. Stationery – writing materials (‘I need to place a stationery order today’) b. Stationary – unmoving (‘the woman’s car was stationary’)
Back to basics
There are a few other words where people can come a cropper. These words are used far more frequently in everyday communication and given that you’d expect people not to confuse them. But it’s easily done:
Your and you’re a. Your – belonging to you (‘I like your new hair cut’) b. You’re – a contraction of ‘you are’ (‘you’re so funny’)
Too, to and two a. Too – also or excessively (‘she was too impatient’) b. To – toward and until (‘let’s go to the beach) c. Two – a number, more than one (‘Jane has two brothers’)
They’re, their and there a. They’re – a contraction of ‘they are’ (‘they’re having a drink) b. Their – shows possession (‘that’s their house) c. There – represents a place (‘ring me when you get there’)
Are and our a. Are – is from the verb ‘to be’ (‘we are about to catch a train’) b. Our – of or belonging to us (‘our car is parked over there’)
Who’s and whose a. Who’s – a contraction of either ‘who is’ or ‘who has’ (‘who’s coming to the cinema?’) b. Whose – belong to whom (‘whose exam results were the best?’)
If there’s a word that repeatedly trips you up just remember to be mindful of it in your written communications. It’s worth reiterating your computer spell checker won’t always be much help on occasions like this. If the word is spelt incorrectly spell checker will let you know, but it can’t generally notify you of the misuse of a correctly spelt word.
In the meantime, I’ll forgo the pancakes and maple syrup for a while and hopefully won’t find them quite as distracting next time they’re on the menu.