Confusing Words

Confusing WordsEven if English is your first language, there are some confusing words that defy spell-check and cost you essay marks. I can only imagine how irritating and confusing these tricky pairs or triplets must be for someone who is writing in English as a second language.

Here is a list of words and examples of their uses that the adults in my ESL writing classes have found useful:

Accept = Receive. e.g., “He will accept that criticism.”

Except = All but. e.g., “Everyone came except Larry.”

Affect = Influence. e.g., “How does this affect me?”

Effect = Consequence. e.g., “What effect will too much sun have on your skin?”

Breath = Inhalation. e.g., “Take a big breath.”

Breathe = The act of inhaling. e.g., “Breathe slowly.”

Compliment = Praise. e.g., “He gave me a nice compliment.” And, “The beverages are complimentary” (i.e., with our compliments).

Complement = Completing. e.g., “The complementary pages explain his thesis.”

Continual = Occurring over a long time. e.g., “His continual help is appreciated.”

Continuous = An action that never pauses. e.g., “I am tired of her continuous complaining.”

Conscience = A sense of right and wrong. e.g., “He was guided by his conscience to make a good choice.”

Conscious = Aware of. e.g., “He was conscious of his inappropriate attire at the fancy party.”

Desert = A hot dry place. e.g., “The camel is a desert animal.”

Dessert = A course in a meal. e.g., “She served apple pie for dessert.” (It helps to remember that, when it comes to desserts, you always want a second. Hence the extra “s.”)

Hear = What happens when you listen. e.g., “I cannot hear what you are saying.”

Here = Direction (here and there). e.g., “Here is my essay.”

Imply = Hint or suggest. e.g., “He implied that his friend was smart.”

Infer = Arrive at an opinion. e.g., “From the boy’s speech he inferred that the speaker was intelligent.”

Its = Belonging to it. e.g., “The dog chased its tail.”

It’s = It is or it has. e.g., “It’s time to go.” or “It’s been a pleasure.”

Lead = A type of metal. e.g., “This is a lead pipe.”

Lead = To guide. e.g., “Lead the way.”

Led = Past tense of to lead. e.g., “He led the way.”

Lie = A falsehood, or the act of telling a falsehood. e.g., “Do not lie about your mistake.” And, “It’s a sin to tell a lie.”

Lie = Recline. e.g., “Lie down until you feel better.”

Lye = A caustic substance. e.g., “Lye is used to make soap.”

Lay = To place something. e.g., “Lay the book on the table.”

Lose = To misplace. e.g., “Don’t lose your lunch money.”

Loose = Not tight or contained. e.g., “She wore a loose dress.” And, “The animal was loose in the field.”

Principal = A school leader. e.g., “He is the principal of our school.”

Principal = Main. e.g., “Lemon is the principal ingredient of that drink.”

Principle = A general or fundamental truth. e.g., “The experiment explores the principle of gravity.”

Stationary = Not moving. e.g., “That toy is stationary.”

Stationery = Writing paper. e.g., “She used monogrammed stationery.”

Than = Used with comparisons. e.g., “He is taller than I.”

Then = At that time, next. e.g., “He did not know what to do then.”

Their = The possessive of they. e.g., “The boys ate their lunch.”

There = Direction (here and there). e.g., “There goes my mother.”

They’re = They are. e.g., “They’re going to be late.”

Through = Into, out of, by means of. e.g., “He went through the door.”

Threw = Tossed. e.g., “He threw the ball as hard as he could.”

Thorough = Careful, complete. e.g., “She did a thorough job of editing her paper.”

Though = However, nevertheless. e.g., “Though he is smart, he does not do well in school.”

To = Toward. e.g., “I went to school.”

Too = Also, excessively. e.g., “He has too much to say.”

Two = A number more than one. e.g., “Two girls sang a duet.”

Who = Use when referring to a person or persons. e.g., “Jane, who is my cousin, arrives today.”

Which = Use when referring to thing(s), NOT people. e.g., “Which book do you want?

That = Used to refer to things or a group or class of people. e.g., “He wants the book that I borrowed.” And, “That book is his.”

Whom = Object of who. e.g., “Whom did he ask to edit his essay?”

While this list could never be all-inclusive, we’ve found that it is a quick reference and a great writing guide. Happy writing!


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