In this study guide, we take a look at the most commonly confused words in English. Even native speakers make mistakes with these words because they sound the same, but have different spellings! There are also some differences between British and American English. Click on the links to see full articles on each word pair. You can also download this guide as a free pdf to study offline. Let’s jump right in…
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Effect is a noun (a word that names objects, people and ideas). It means ‘something that happens as the result of a cause’ – e.g. What is the effect of traffic pollution on global warming?
Affect is a verb (a word that we use for actions). It means ‘to cause change in something or someone’ – e.g. The coach said that too many games affected his team’s performance.
The common error is to confuse the verb with the noun and use either the noun when you need the verb or the verb when you need the noun.
There refers to a location or introduces something or someone with the verb to be –e.g. The castle is on top of that hill over there (location) or Customers complain that there were not enough colours in the store’s summer clothing range.
They’re means they are – e.g. Victoria and Zack told Ethan they’re going to the cinema.
Their shows possession (that there is a connection between things or people) – e.g. After the long training session, the students told the PE teacher that their legs were tired.
The confusion happens when someone doesn’t understand what the function of the word is. For example, they might use their to talk about two or more people doing something or feeling a certain way (instead of they’re) or there to talk about something belonging to someone (instead of their).
Which and that refer to something we have already introduced in a sentence. That adds key information about the thing, whereas which adds extra information that doesn’t affect the sentence’s main meaning when we remove it – e.g. The house that Verana lives in is red, which is an unusual colour.
Errors happen when people use which for key information or that for extra details:
The confusion between practise and practice comes from using the verb practise instead of the noun practice (or vice versa). To practise means ‘to repeat something in order to improve’ – e.g. Shane practises his tennis skills five times a week. A practice is similar but refers to ‘the periods of time regularly spent on an activity in order to improve,’ it is an event not an action – e.g. Shane goes to tennis practice five times a week.
Further confusion comes from the fact that in British English we use the /s/ form (practise), but in US English they only use the /c/ form for both the verb and the noun (practice). Here are examples of correct and incorrect use of the British rule:
It’s is a shortening of it is or it has. The apostrophe (’) represents the missing letters – e.g. It’s (It is) easy to learn English or It’s (It has) rained for five days in a row. Its refers to something belonging to something. The something is either a thing or an animal – e.g. The dog was sad – its food bowl was empty. The bowl belongs to the dog.
Errors occur when people use it’s to talk about a possessive relationship (something belonging to something) or using its to shorten it is or it has.
Anyway means ‘in any case’ – e.g. The project is difficult, but the team will attempt to complete it anyway. Its meaning is similar to nonetheless or nevertheless. Any way is a two-word phrase that means ‘by any means possible’ – e.g. The taxi driver will see if there is any way she can pick you up before 6am.
Mistakes happen when people use any way to mean nonetheless, nevertheless or in any case, or when people use anyway to mean in any way possible:
Lay and lie are both verbs (actions) that are similar but also different. Whereas lie means ‘to move into a horizontal position’ – e.g. Kayleigh wants to lie on her bed, lay means ‘put something onto a surface with care’ – e.g. Harold lays his uniform on the table before he goes to sleep.
The key difference is that people or things can lie by themselves. A person or thing needs to lay something. Someone lies somewhere, but someone lays something (somewhere). Remembering these patterns helps prevent you making the wrong choice:
The other main issue relates to the present form of lay being the same word as the past form of lie. Confusing, right?
In US English, they only use the word inquiry for both meanings of the word in British English. These are inquiry, which means ‘an official investigation’ – e.g. FIFA wants to launch an inquiry into racism in football and enquiry, which means ‘a question about something’ – e.g. Shelley called the cinema to make an enquiry about what was on at the cinema.
In British English, errors occur when someone uses enquiry to talk about an official investigation or inquiry for a more general question.
Advice is a noun that means ‘an opinion that provides a recommendation, suggestion or information’ – e.g. Linda always gives her son advice on his homework. Advise is a verb (action) that means ‘to provide someone with a recommendation, suggestion or information’ – e.g. Erkhan will advise his staff to finish early because they have a lot of work the following day.
Mistakes happen when people confuse the verb with the noun (and vice versa):
Lead and led are two forms of the same verb. The main meaning of lead is ‘to guide a situation in order to achieve an objective.’ – e.g. The manager leads the brainstorming meetings every week. Led has the same meaning but in the past – e.g. The manager led the team meeting last week.
Some confusion occurs over when to use the base form of lead and the past and participle forms (led):
This mistake often occurs because lead sometimes sounds like led as a noun (a thing or idea). For example, the metal lead (/led/) sounds exactly the same as the verb led (/led/).
Further and farther are both adverbs (words that describe actions) – e.g. Simon thought that if he ran any further, he would be sick. They are also the comparative of the word far, which means to be distant from something – e.g. Vitali thought the mountain was farther away than the village. Both as adverbs and comparatives, further and farther mean ‘to a greater distance or greater degree’.
In British English, there is no difference in usage between these two words when they are uses as adverbs. However, in American English, they use farther for physical distances and further for other degrees of difference:
In British English, mistakes occur when people confuse the adverbs with the comparatives. Comparatives are adjectives that describe a noun, whereas adverbs describe verbs. In both British and American English, we need to use further only for comparatives:
Too and also both mean ‘in addition’. The difference is their position in the sentence. For adding information, also goes before the main verb – e.g. Maito wanted to fix the roof. She also wanted to cut the grass. Too goes at the end – e.g. Maito wanted to fix the roof. She wanted to cut the grass too.
We can also use also and too to add emphasis – e.g. Chiara speaks French. She also speaks German. Or Chiara speaks French. She speaks German too.
In both cases, word position is key for correct usage:
An instance when we only use too is when it comes before an adjective (describing word) for emphasis – e.g. It’s too cold. In this case, we cannot use also.
Also, in the example above, means ‘in addition’ – that learning Arabic was difficult in addition to learning something else. Too means that Arabic was so difficult that Graham could not learn it.
Just and only are adverbs that change the meaning of a word or phrase. We can use both to mean ‘no more than or a small quantity of something – e.g. Lillian only eats three pieces of fruit a day or Alec just runs five minutes a day.
However, sometimes just and only can have different meanings in a sentence. This can cause mistakes: For example, just can describe a recently finished action:
However, if we use only in the same sentence:
The meaning changes to: the children finished their homework but still have another task to complete.
In British English, while and whilst are the same: they are both conjunctions (words that connect different ideas). The meaning of these two words is ‘at the same time’ – e.g. The Health and Safety Inspector said it was a bad idea to eat while/whilst operating the machinery.
They can also replace other words, such as although or whereas – e.g. While/whilst spending money on a new pair of shoes can make you happy, it can also empty your bank account!
In US English, they never use whilst – it’s seen as old fashioned. In addition, in the UK, we use whilst to be more formal.
At the same time:
Alternative to whereas/although:
At the same time:
Alternative to whereas/although:
Something that may also cause confusion is the use of while as a different type of word to a conjunction, such as a noun or verb. In these cases, in both British and American English, we can only use while (not whilst!).
As you can see, many of the errors come from confusing different types of words – e.g. nouns being confused for verbs (think advice vs. advise or affect vs. effect) or the same type of words having a different meaning in some cases, such as just vs. only or also vs. too.
There are also quite a few differences between how words are used in American and British English, such as practice and practise or further and farther, as well as confusion caused by the pronunciation of words – e.g. lead (/liːd/), lead (/led/) and lead (/led/).
The list above is a great resource for finding simple advice to help you avoid mistakes with confusing words. However, this list does not cover all the words that English language learners and native speakers have problems with. There are many others, such as assure and ensure or lose and loose…