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Frequently Confused, Misused, and Mistaken Words

Updated on March 10, 2018
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Words, wordplay, reading, and writing have been favorites of Liz's since early childhood. She enjoys exploring science and science fiction.

Genuine Antique Schoolbell


The School Bell Has Rung

Sit down, sit up straight, hands folded atop your desk, eyes forward and pay attention.

That’s how school used to begin; in my day, at any rate. Personally, I don’t care if you are sitting up straight, eating or chewing gum. You can even be in your pajamas. I won’t tell, I promise--but I kind of would like everyone to pay attention.

I grew up reading because my dad refused to have a TV in the house, so words, language and spelling became second-nature to me. Therefore, when I see incorrect usage and wrong words, it grates on my nerves, sets my teeth on edge, and as my dad used to say, “it wrinkles my bones!” It’s akin to fingernails on a chalkboard—it makes me cringe.

In this age of “teaching to a test," Twitter and text-messaging acronyms, it seems there are few people left who know how to write correctly or choose the right word. More and more often I see, even among some fellow authors here on this site, misspelled and mistaken words.

I am sure that most of these errors are honest mistakes, and there is no point scolding people for something they did not realize was wrong. As I often point out, if you believe you know the right answer, you are not going to ask for instruction. People only ask if they are unsure.

With that in mind, then, I have compiled a list of the most commonly confused words. In most cases, the problem is that they are homonyms/homophones—words that sound alike, (or very similar), but have different spellings and meanings, such as “sail” and “sale” (included below).

Here We Go:

I’ve grouped the offenders in the pairs usually mistaken for each other according to their sound-alike qualities, and offered the definitions of each so you can readily see why the spelling makes a huge difference in the meaning.

I've placed them more-or-less in alphabetical order, with a couple of exceptions where the similar-sounding words do not actually begin with the same letter.

First Half of the Alphabet

It is easy to see why this first pair gets confused and misused so often. Not only do they have similar sounds, but related meanings. Yet, they are not identical meanings, so the difference is important.

Affect: To cause to happen, as, “How will the rain affect the hills?”

Effect: The result of something that affects another, as, “The effect of so much rain was major flooding." Contrasted as partnered words, "Many people were affected by the effects of the rain.

This next pair is one I see confused quite often.

Altar: A raised platform, stand, table or other structure used in religious ceremonies for various offerings to a deity.

Alter: To change, re-design or otherwise make a difference in an object or regulation

Be very careful of this next pair—the difference in spelling is only the reversal of the final two letters, but the meanings are a universe apart! Beware auto-correct systems, or as I call them, "auto-foul-up."

Angel: A supernatural being, whether good or evil, often portrayed as having wings

Angle: A shape made by two straight lines meeting at any given point; the point at which the lines intersect

I cannot believe how often I see these next two confused, and it is truly a serious error, with high potential for embarrassment. These are words with a very subtle difference in pronunciation, but in print, the difference is readily apparent, and that is where the embarrassment is likely.


Balling can also refer, innocently, to the action of rolling something into a ball, such as, "She was balling up all the dirty laundry to fit into the basket."

However, this is probably a less-frequent usage than the 'naughty' one.

Balling: Oh, my! (as actor George Takei would say). In most circles, in the USA, anyway, this refers to an activity usually confined to the bedroom.

Bawling: Crying, sobbing woefully out of distress. For example: "When my cat died, I was bawling my eyes out."

(And it is in exactly this type of usage that I so often see the incorrect and X-rated spelling/meaning above. Just the other day on Face Book, someone said of the loss of a pet, "I balled all night!" Oh really? Well, that's just TMI {too much information!} ) LOL

Bare: Unadorned; naked, as in “..stripped to the bare essentials” or, wearing no clothing.

Bear: A large, dangerous furred mammal found in the woods. Also, to tolerate or manage, as in “to bear a burden.”

Brake: To stop or attempt to stop something in motion—to apply the brake

Break: To destroy by smashing into pieces, “did you break the glass?” Also, a rest period—“It’s break time—who wants coffee?”

Use of both in a sentence: If you fail to apply the brakes in time, you are liable to break something; probably many things.

Collage: (pronounced “Ko-lahzh”) An artwork consisting of many different pieces of colored paper, photos, or other material assembled to make a picture or an abstract form

College: An institution of higher learning, following high school

Hoard: To collect without particular purpose or aim, just to have the things, as a hoarder of magazines (or any other physical items)

Horde: A crowd, often implying an unruly mob

Second Half of the Alphabet

Passed: To go by, as in “I passed by the bakery, but did not enter.” Can also apply to time, as in “I passed the time by doing a crossword puzzle.”

Past: Time already gone by, as, “In the past, I used to hate broccoli; now I like it.”

This is not interchangeable with the passage of time as in the above example of passing time with a distracting activity.

Next, we have a trio:

Peak: the highest point of a land mass, such as a mountaintop; the highest level of effort, as “he ran the race at his peak performance”

Peek: a quick glimpse or sighting, often a stolen or forbidden sight, such as “a peek through the keyhole.”

Pique: curiosity, as in “it piqued my interest.” Also, resentment, anger, as “she left in a fit of pique.”

Persecute: To harass or bother, to torment (often to the death), a person or people for their views, race, gender, or other superficial reason. “The Romans persecuted the early Christians, as the Christians would later persecute the Pagans.”

Prosecute: To charge with and punish a wrongdoing under the code of law. “Shoplifters will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Sail: Can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it refers to the very large piece of cloth hoisted up the mast to propel a sailboat via wind power. As a verb, it refers to the action of sailing, e.g., to sail on the breeze.

Sale: Merchandise offered for purchase is for sale. Also, an event featuring special pricing, "These shoes were on sale."

Stake: A peg of wood or metal driven into the ground either as a support point for a temporary structure or to mark a layout for construction.

Also, an interest in, whether monetary or of time and energy, “I don’t want to turn my back on that company; I have a stake in it.”

In the case of a wooden stake, however, you can add in vampire slaying. (ha ha!)

Steak: A cut of meat

And finally, we come to--the most infamous trio--the daily doom of so many! This set is pointed out so often, in so many places, that I find it incredulous that so many people still do not "get it." Even though they sound virtually identical--in print, the similarities end--and the wrong usage makes the writer appear careless at best, uneducated at worst.

Their: It belongs to them! "That is their book, please don't take it."

There: A place, a location. "Europe? I've never been there."

They're: A contraction for 'they are.' "They're not here right now."

Not one of these is interchangeable or a substitute for any of the others. Each has its own meaning. The sentence below illustrates the differences:

"They're going to go over there to put their book on the table."

Today's List Is Finished

There are many more, but these are the ones I’ve collected for now.

Please pass this along to anyone you know who needs a refresher course in these usages.

© 2012 Liz Elias


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