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Frequently Confused, Misused, and Mistaken Words

Updated on March 10, 2018
DzyMsLizzy profile image

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


Submit a Comment
  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    6 years ago from Oakley, CA

    @ Dolores Monet - Thank you; I'm glad you found the article helpful. Here's a mnemonic (memory trick) that may help you. "Affect" is the recipient. It is passive. So, remember that "affect" and "passive" both have the letter "a" in the word. Effect does not. I hope that helps.

    @ Peggy W - My father's stubborn refusal to have a TV was based on his opinion that, "The commercials insult your intelligence." Well, he was correct, and it has only gotten worse over the years! My dad finally broke down and got his first TV after he retired, when he had become physically unable to do as much as he was accustomed to.

    As far as the schools, and teaching? They are failing our students. They seem to only 'teach to the test' anymore, disregarding the basics such as grammar, vocabulary and spelling, as well as analytical thinking. So sad.

    Thanks so much for your insightful comment.

  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 

    6 years ago from Houston, Texas

    Although we did have a black and white television set when we were young, we did not watch that much TV. We did a lot of reading in our family. For non-English speaking writers I can understand some of the confusion with the spelling and misunderstanding of the meaning of words. Back when I was an elementary student we had spelling tests where we would also learn the meaning of words. I wonder if the same emphasis is spent today teaching students the same thing?

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    6 years ago from East Coast, United States

    This was a helpful list, Mslizzy. Affect vs effect has tormented me for years. I don't know how many times I've read and reread the correct usage but it just won't stick.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    9 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, again Loi-Renee ;)

    Good point, but I do think that would be best left to insert into the tags, and not the article. However, I'm not sure it's necessary, because most of the time, when you search for something, most search engines do give you things with alternate spellings including completely irrelevant items. Or, using our example from above, if you typed in "color," it might ask "Did you mean colour?"

    Thanks for stopping by again with further input. ;)

  • Loi-Renee profile image


    9 years ago from Jamaica

    Hello again my dear Ms Dizzy :)

    I just noticed something.- Using the two different spellings could attract online readers that use either type of spelling. SEO and all that.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    9 years ago from Oakley, CA

    @ Danareva--Thank you so much for the compliment and your thoughtful comment. You are so very correct in saying that writing is a craft which must constantly be honed.

    @ Loi-Renee--ah, we meet again! ;-) You make an excellent point about British vs. American English. I don't count British spellings as misspelled; however, you are correct in pointing out that consistency is required. Choose one or the other and stick with it throughout the same work. It is distracting to read, e.g., "color" in one paragraph, and "colour" on the next page.

    Your well-thought-out comments are always appreciated. Many thanks.

  • Loi-Renee profile image


    9 years ago from Jamaica

    Great information Ms Lizzy. Another problem people might have (like myself) is confusing the British and the American spellings for various words. While they are not worlds apart, it can get confusing to see both types of spellings in the same piece.

  • Danareva profile image

    Dana De Greff 

    9 years ago from Miami

    Thank you for this hub! I, too, strive to check typos and spelling and word meaning in my writing. It looks and sounds better and is much more professional! Writitng is a craft, and we need to practice every day! Thanks for this useful and high quality hub!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    9 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello again, Twilight Lawns--

    Thank you very much for the compliment. I appreciate your input.

  • Twilight Lawns profile image

    Twilight Lawns 

    9 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

    DzyMsLizzy, I stand reprimanded.

    Of course you said that.

    Actually, I have a friend on HP, Nellieanna (read her if you love the English Language as much as I) to whom I have started to show my hubs, pre-publishing, because I make far too many typos, and I "read" what I think I have written, rather than what appears on the page.

    But may I say that I liked the hub. It was elegantly put together and amusing... What else could one want?

    Ah yes! Informative... and it was that too.

    (I was tempted to write "and it was that to", or "and it was that two", and even played with the idea of writing, "and it was that 2" - but thought better of it).

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    9 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Twilight Lawns,

    Thanks for stopping by and adding to the discussion. Yes, I was somewhat surprised, but then again, not so much. Even newspapers no longer bother to proof read their articles any more. It is disheartening.

    I realize that "persecute" and "prosecute" are simply wrong choices--malapropisms, as you say, but if you'll notice, that's part of the title--"Confused, Misused and Mistaken Words." Where I referred to homophones, I also noted, " most cases..." obviously not all of the examples fit that category, but they do fall under the title category.

    Thanks again for your comment.

  • Twilight Lawns profile image

    Twilight Lawns 

    9 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

    You sounded surprised that there were poor spellings and bad understanding of words on Hub Pages. When I first discovered the site. I was amazed that there were so many people who use HP and think that they can write, when they are certainly confused about that.

    Everybody makes typos (and I more than many), but there are a hell of a lot here who neither understand the English Language nor seem to care if it is torn about.

    And punctuation? Horrors!

    By the way, the confusion between "persecute" and "prosecute" doesn't depend on misspelling of homophones, but on simple, old fashioned malapropisms.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    9 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Christine, you are, indeed, a rascal of the first water! ;-)

  • Christine B. profile image

    Christine B. 

    9 years ago from Medina, Ohio

    I know that.... that's why I did it. Tee-Hee... we're such rascals, aren't we? :o)

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    9 years ago from Oakley, CA

    @ Christine--Thanks very much for the high praise. I can't very well tout editing without running afoul of Hub Pages' edict against 'self promotion,' now, can I? Thanks for the plug--hee hee..and thanks for the votes.

    @ Suzy--Hi there, and thanks for stopping by and adding to the mix. "A cult" and "occult." Good one. The phonetics of that reminded me of a mistake I heard way back in junior high. A kid was asked to use the word, "occurred" in a sentence, and he said, "We left the milk out all night and in the morning, it had occurred on it." Naturally, he meant "a curd." OY!

    Thanks for adding to the discussion, and triggering my memory of another boo-boo.

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    Oh yes! Affect and Effect....and as has been mentioned. Their there and they're....

    I'm not the greatest speller and I often have a dyslexic moment when in a hurry. But I KNOW my word definitions!

    Oh! Another one that gets my teeth grinding, 'a cult' and 'occult'. More of an issue in spoken settings, but I have seen in written form, 'she joined an occult'.....ahhhhhh....

  • Christine B. profile image

    Christine B. 

    9 years ago from Medina, Ohio

    Great Hub, Lizzy!!! You know how much I appreciate your word knowledge... you should have mentioned what a great editor you are! I'm keeping this list handy for future reference, and am looking forward to your next lesson. :o) Voted Up and Useful!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    9 years ago from Oakley, CA

    @ tammyswallow--Hello, there, and thank you for the comment. Gee--maybe I should have made it a quiz. LOL I'm glad you found the piece useful.

    @ Becky Katz--Greetings, Oh, yes--that's another one--I believe I may have addressed it in an earlier diatribe on this topic, in a hub called "Advice on Giving Advice." My other pet peeve--also in the other hub--is the "then/than" mixup. Grrr! Then is for time; than is for comparison. Thanks very much for your added input.

  • Becky Katz profile image

    Becky Katz 

    9 years ago from Hereford, AZ

    My pet peeve is the misuse of their/there/they're. People use them as if they were inter-changable and yet they have very different meanings and usages. Their for people, there for place, they're for they are. If people could just hang onto that, it would stop the confusion.

  • tammyswallow profile image


    9 years ago from North Carolina

    Whew, that was a rigourous quiz. It is amazing how quickly we forget these things. This is beneficial to all of us as writers. Well done!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    9 years ago from Oakley, CA

    @ cclitgirl--Hi there.. hahaha...great minds think alike, they say-- ;-) I'll be sure to have a look-see at your hub as well.

    I have no doubt that text messaging and online chat abbreviations will change the language. For example, I envision "prolly" as the next evolution of "probably," I've seen it so often! Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving some additional thoughts.

    @ perfectperception--Thank you very much--I'm pleased that you enjoyed the article.

  • perfectperception profile image


    9 years ago from USA

    I am loving your info and plan to chefck cclitgirl now. voted up

  • cclitgirl profile image

    Cynthia Calhoun 

    9 years ago from Western NC

    Phew! I've started a hub about using words like "its" and "it's" correctly, haha. I was thinking you beat me to it. But, actually it's even better: your hub will be a NICE complement to the one I'm writing. THANK YOU! Look for your link in one of my upcoming hubs. ;) I, too, have mega pet-peeves about correct English. Some are even saying that with the advent of text messaging and the internet, it's changing our language on a meta (not mega) scale. Hmmm.


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