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Commonly Confused Words and Their Definitions

Updated on July 10, 2018
CaitBooth profile image

Caitlyn didn't always like school, but that doesn't mean she didn't learn a thing or two.

Bear vs Bare

The word "bear" has quite a few different meanings to it, as seen below. "Bear" can mean the mammal, such as a grizzly bear, dealing with something difficult, yielding something, or going in a certain direction. Bare, on the other hand, has fewer diverse meanings.

Bear: to carry; to put up with. Any one of a group of large and heavy animals that have thick hair and sharp claws and that can stand on two legs like a person. To be carrying something. To be called by a name or title. To support. Turn and proceed in a direction. Be acceptable or stand up to.

Bare: naked; to uncover. Can also mean basic or without detail.


"I cannot bear this guilt any longer. I have to confess."

"Did you see that bear down by the river?"

"Be sure to bear right and then continue until you get to the old schoolhouse."

"He came bearing gifts for the children."

"He will always bear the title King of Kings."


"The forest appeared bare after the leaves fell off of the trees."

"She squealed when she saw that he was indeed bare while swimming in the lake."

"Your stories are always so bare."

Compliment vs Complement

These words are confused quite regularly because of how close they are in spelling. So, do the people "complement" or "compliment" each other? Does that shirt "compliment" or "complement" his eyes?

Compliment: to praise or express approval; an admiring remark

Complement: to add to so as to improve; an addition that improves something; completes something


"She accepted his compliment with a giggle."


"It's difficult to find complementary colors sometimes, but the room won't look right if they clash."

An easy way to keep this one straight is to remember that "complement" and "complete" both start with "comple-".

Weather vs Whether

Despite having different definitions and spellings, these two words are commonly confused with each other in writing.

Weather: the state of the atmosphere at any given time; to wear away at something; to withstand a difficulty

Whether: expressing a doubt between two alternatives; expressing an inquiry; indicating that a statement applies whichever of the alternatives mentioned is the case.


"Look at the weather report on Channel 9. I need to know if it will rain tomorrow or not."

"She was able to weather the storm and come out stronger than she'd ever been."


"I don't know whether to use 'then' or 'than' in this sentence."

"Can you go see whether or not the dinner is done yet?"

"Whether you want to go or not is beside the point because you have to."'

Fun Fact: A "wether" is a castrated ram

Elicit vs Illicit

This confusion most likely comes from not knowing how to correctly spell "elicit".

Elicit: to draw out a reply or reaction

Illicit: not allowed by law or rules


"In order to elicit a response from the sleeping bear, the zookeeper prodded him with a poker stick."


"How could you bring these illicit drugs into my house?"

Just remember: "Illicit" and "Illegal" both start with "I".

Loose vs Lose

"Loose" and "lose" are the bane of nearly every English teacher's existence. Students often confuse these two words because of their similar spelling and close pronunciation. "Loose" is pronounced with an "s" sound, while "lose" is usually pronounced with a "z" sound.

Loose: to unfasten; to set free

Lose: to be deprived of; to be unable to find


"Can you tie the horse loose, please?"


"How can you lose a horse, you idiot!"

Stationary vs Stationery

This may not be a commonly known thing because not many people write letters anymore, but there is a difference between standing still and writing materials when it comes to spelling.

Stationary: not moving

Stationery: writing materials


"When she performed the table cloth trick, the stacked glasses and plates remained stationary, much to the relief of her parents."


"When making her invitations, she had to purchase stationery from the office supplies store in town."

Principle vs Principal

Another case of similar spelling of two words that sound the same. (Bonus: What is it called when two words aren't spelled the same, but sound the same?)

Principle: a fundamental rule or belief

Principal: most important; the head of a school


"You have to stick to your principles, or people will take advantage of you."


"The principal declared that it was Spirit Week."

And easy way to remember the difference is to remember that principal has "pal" in the word, and while the principal may not have been a friend to many students, this is generally used in reference to people.

Palate vs Palette

Palate: the roof of the mouth

Palette: a board for mixing colors


"Lift the palate while singing in order to open the air ways."


"The artist's palette is often a mess of mingled colors once the masterpiece is finished."

There is another word these two get mixed up with, and that is "pallet". Most people probably recognize this word, which can either be a straw mattress or a portable wood platform used to transport goods that can also be stacked and stored.

Ensure vs Insure

The issue that comes into play here is a lack of knowing how "ensure" is supposed to be spelled. Because it sounds like it is spelled with an "i", people often write it as "insure", but that word has a totally different definition.

Ensure: to make certain that something will happen

Insure: to provide compensation if a person dies or property is damaged


"In order to ensure the party went off without a hitch, she made herself head of the committee."


"Be sure to insure your car in case of any accidents that may happen."

Lead vs Led

Though these two words are pronounced exactly the same, their definitions are totally different.

Lead: A metallic element; also used metaphorically to mean "hurry up"

Led: past tense form of the word "lead", which means to show someone the way


"Come on, Marty! Get the lead out before they catch us!"


"The King led his people through a long, cold winter."

Then vs Than

These two words are much like there, their, and they're, except they have a slight difference in pronunciation. Mistakes made with these words are often caused by spelling error, but sometimes they are used interchangeably, even though their definitions are quite different.

Then: at that time; at the time in question. After that; next; afterward. In that case; therefore.

Than: introducing the second element in a comparison. Used in expressions introducing an exception or contrast. Used in expressions indicating one thing happening immediately after another.

Basically, "then" is about a time in the future, while "than" is used when making comparisons.


"I will see you then."

"First he went to the store, then he went to the market." *This one is where a lot of people use "than" by mistake*

"As long as you pay the bail, then you should be out in no time."


"It's so much hotter here than it is up north."

Which Word Pair Is Most Difficult For You?

See results

© 2018 Caitlyn Booth


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    • profile image

      reluctant history 

      22 months ago

      Great article, thank you!


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