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A Grizzly Murder?! How to Avoid Mistakes with 7 Pairs of Confusing Words

Updated on December 16, 2015

Which one?

An alternate or alternative route? Be discreet or discrete? Lay down or lie down? These are just a few of the confusing pairs of English words often used incorrectly in otherwise good quality writing. Not using them properly can make your work less credible and confuse the reader. Read about 7 pairs of the most often confused words found in writing.

Being aware of the differences and learning to use these words correctly can take your writing to a whole new level, producing clear, concise, and less confusing prose.

Grisly Vs Grizzly

A grizzly murder - this is an error often found in poorly-edited murder mysteries. Unless someone is being murdered by a large, bad-tempered bear (or is murdering a bear), there should be no grizzly murders. Grisly means "causing horror or disgust", while the definition of grizzly is "any North American subspecies of brown bear, including the mainland grizzly" (Thanks,

More grisly murders-coming up
More grisly murders-coming up | Source

Lie Vs Lay

This is a tough one because the past tense forms are confusing: I lie down, but yesterday I lay down, and I have lain down before (which, let’s be honest, no one uses much anymore). On the other hand, the forms for lay are slightly different: I lay the plate down, I laid the plate down, I have laid the plate down.

The best way to get your grammar brain around these two words are to consider how they are used. With lie, a person performs this act himself or herself. “ I lie in bed late any time I can.” With lay, it is always someone else performing the action with another object. I always lay the newspaper on the hall table. The hen laid two eggs yesterday. Just remember that any form of lay needs an object.

Also remember that the past tense of lie is lay and cannot be used in the present tense. You can lie out in the sun every day, but you can’t lay out in the sun every day. However, if you lay in the sun yesterday, you may have gotten a nice suntan.

Who’s vs whose

In this case, punctuation may be the culprit. Who’s is a contracted form of "who is" (and less commonly, "who has") while whose is a possessive form. Who’s that knocking on my front door makes sense, but Whose knocking on my door doesn’t. Whose always has a stated or understood subject:

Whose shoes are those?

Or someone may ask, “Whose it it?” while holding the object up.

Lose Vs Loose

Lose can only be used as a verb. This means to be deprived of or fail to keep possession. My favorite team continues to lose this season. I lost my glasses yesterday. He is losing his mind.

On the other hand, loose is an adjective to describe items that are not tight. It can also be a verb to mean release (Mr. Burns told Smithers to loose the hounds), but is not commonly used. If you need to use it as a verb, loosen is the best choice - I had to loosen my belt after a big dinner.

If you lose a lot of weight, your pants may be loose.


Compliment Vs Complement

As homophones, both words sound the same but have very different meanings.

A compliment is a nice remark given to someone. My friend gave me a compliment; she told me my new outfit was pretty.

It can also be used as verb. My friend complimented me on my new outfit.

Complement can also be a noun or a verb. A complement is a noun that means a full set of something. There is a full complement of packers at the company now. If something complements another item, this means they go well together. The sauce nicely complements the steak. It can also be used as a noun with this meaning - The sauce is a nice complement to the steak.

This was a difficult one for me to remember, but thanks to a tip from, I think I've got it. Remember this sentence:

I like to give compliments. When you think it, emphasize the I to remember the flattering remark is spelled with an i.


Alternate Vs Alternative

An alternate is a person or object that takes the place of something else; it acts as a substitute.

The council has elected four representatives and two alternates.

The alternate will fill in for the competitor who was injured.

An alternative is a second possibility or option but doesn't take the place of the first.

Many people choose to follow an alternative lifestyle.

There is an alternative route which avoids the highway.

We have no alternative - we have to stick to the original plan.

Just to make it more difficult, alternate can be an adjective meaning every other or another.

They meet on alternate Thursdays.

The novel describes an alternate universe.

It can also be a verb meaning do or perform in turn.

The government alternated between Democratic and Republican.

Many students these days alternate work with education.

An alternative beauty pageant

Discreet Vs Discrete

Discreet means careful, private about something or on the down low.

The private investigator made discreet inquiries about how the mayor's public funds had been used.

The restaurant has an intimate atmosphere, with tables spaced to allow discreet conversations to take place.

Discrete means distinct or separate.

The process can be broken down into a number of discrete stages.

The police agreed that the crimes were not connected but a series of discrete events.

Sssh discreet


Got it?

Here's your chance to see if you can understand how each word in the pair is used correctly:

Ready? | Source

How did you do?

My results:

See results

Need more?

Here's hoping that you are now able to understand how these confusing pairs work and that you have no alternative but to use them correctly. If you see them in someone else's writing, discreetly correct them. Good luck and good writing!


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    • ghalkett profile imageAUTHOR

      Genevieve Halkett 

      2 years ago from Dayton, Ohio

      Thanks! The lie/lay usage is a tough one ; mine used to be the alternate/alternative question.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      2 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Wonderful article. To the point with a humorous undertone. I took the test and miss they lie/lay question. For some reason that has always been a tough one for me.

    • ghalkett profile imageAUTHOR

      Genevieve Halkett 

      2 years ago from Dayton, Ohio

      Yes, I get where Shaw was coming from, but I agree - I don't think it's that hard to catch on to the differences. I find the regional uses in the U.S. to sometimes be more problematic.

      Glad you liked it! BTW, I mentioned the use of "lay" in the past tense--although Americans pretty much have made it common usage to use "lay in the sun" for present tense. Working on another one--my pet peeves of wrongly used words...stay tuned.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Genevieve, sailed through with guns blazing! Great stuff this. Must do it again some time. What's said about UK/US English being two separate languages is a myth. It's usage that can vary. There's one instance mentioned above where we generally use slightly different phrasing.

      We tend to use 'stand-in' or 'substitute' instead of 'a discrete', unless you're in court or academic surroundings.

      Secondly you can say 'I lay in the sun...' when you refer to the past.

      And briefly, funeral directors (morticians over yonder ) 'lay people out' and you can be 'laid out' by a funeral director, a boxer or a coroner.

      We keep learning.


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