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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:
 

  1. 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.
     
  2. 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.
     
  3. 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

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All-Topics Index


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 writingcenter@nps.edu if we are missing something!

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A

abbreviations

abstracts

academic writing

acronyms

active voice

apostrophes

argument

article usage

assignments, understanding them

audience

 

B

body paragraphs

brainstorming

building better sentences tips

 

C

citations

citation styles

clarity

clustering

coaching sessions, about

colons

commas, FANBOYS

commas, introductory

commas, list

commas, nonessential elements

commas, Oxford

commonly confused words 

compare-and-contrast papers 

concision

conclusions

conjunctive adverbs

coordinating conjunctions

copyright and fair use

critical thinking  

 

D

dangling modifiers

dashes

dependent marker words

double submission of coursework

drafting

 

E

edit your own work

editing – outside editors

exclamation points

executive summary

 

F

FANBOYS

FAQs

footnotes

free-writing

 

G

gerunds

grammar

group writing

 

H

hyphens

 

I

ibid.

introductions

 

J

Joining the Academic Conversation

 

L

LaTeX

library liaisons 

literature reviews 

logic and analysis 

 

M

memos

methodologies

 

N

note-taking

numbers

 

O

organization

outlining

Oxford comma

 

P

paragraph development 

parallelism

paraphrasing

parts of speech

passive voice

periods

persuasion

phrases and clauses

plagiarism, how to avoid through citations

plain language

polishing

prepositional phrases 

prepositions

pronouns

punctuation

purpose of research

 

Q

questions

quotation marks 

quoting

 

R

reading with intent

redundancies                                                                

reference software

reflection papers 

research

research questions

reverse outlining 

revising passive voice into active voice

revision

roadmaps                                            

run-on sentences 

 

S

self-citing

semi-colons

subjects, grammatical

significance

so-what?

spelling

standard essay structure

STEM/technical writing 

style

subject/verb agreement

 

T

technical writing

that vs. which

thesis writing

thesis advisors

thesis process overview

thesis process tips

thesis proposals – common elements                                                     

thesis statements

tone, professional

topic sentences 

transitions

types of papers

 

U

United States or U.S.?

 

V

verbs and verb tense

 

W

which vs. that

Why write?

writer’s block 

writing process