Commonly Confused Words
Here’s some good council for you: one of the premiere tenants of polished writing is to be conscience of commonly confused words.
It’s not just an ascetic consideration: ignoring this principal can negatively effect readers’ perceptions of your document, even to the point that they might become disinterested—maybe even give it a wide birth.
By contrast, while accurate diction won’t insure that readers will agree with you, if you hone in on the precise terms you want, then, for all intensive purposes, your writing will be more likely to illicit a positive reaction from readers.
Notice anything a little . . . off there?
English is full of homophones—words that sound alike but mean different things—and other words and expressions that are a hair’s breadth (not hare’s breath) from each other in sound and spelling—so much so that they can be hard to tell apart.
Often, these types of errors—variously called eggcorns, mondegreens, and malapropisms—arise from hearing or mishearing a word or expression and not seeing it in print, with the result that we’re sometimes not even aware that the correct word exists!
The best way to avoid these kinds of slips is to study up a bit on commonly confused words and get a sense of the vocabulary available to you. The links below offer a good start; here are some other tips:
- Spellcheck can’t help: commonly confused words are all real words! The grammar checker sometimes gets things right, but it can’t replace your precious brain—or anyone else’s; soliciting human feedback from a GWC coach or other knowledgeable reader is invaluable in this regard.
- If you notice an error in diction, use your word processor’s Find function to check for other spots where the same error might have crept in.
- The dictionary isn’t training wheels: it’s more the actual wheels, a fundamental component of getting your discussion where it needs to go. Keep one handy and consult it often. The autocomplete feature of electronic dictionaries can reveal similar words you didn’t know existed—but then, so can browsing one of those old two-ton tomes.
There was something off there
The opening paragraphs did indeed contain many errors in usage. The following list points out the errors, with the correct word or phrase following the colon:
- Council: counsel
- Premiere: premier
- Tenants: tenets
- Conscience: conscious
- Ascetic: aesthetic
- Principal: principle
- Effect: affect
- Disinterested: uninterested
- Birth: berth
- Insure: ensure
- Hone: home
- For all intensive purposes: for all intents and purposes
- Illicit: elicit
Ultimately, while these kinds of substitutions might not completely obscure your meaning, they can cause readers to question your knowledge and attention to detail more broadly, whether fairly or unfairly—so it's best to nail down your usage and give them no such opportunity.
More Information on Commonly Confused Words
- Video (2:39): "Commonly confused words," Oxford Dictionaries
- Podcast: "Spoonerisms, Mondegreens, Eggcorns, and Malapropisms," Grammar Girl
- Blog with examples: "31 Commonly Confused Words," Oxford Dictionaries
- Glossary: "Commonly Confused Words," Scribendi
The following index makes searching for a specific topic easier and links to the appropriate place in the sequenced material. We think we have most of them, but please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if we are missing something!