Using the correct word is about conveying what you mean clearly and accurately. Using words in the wrong context can reflect poorly on your professional reputation. While there are not specific rules for remembering misused and confused words, you can create associations that help you distinguish one word from another. In the list below, you’ll find a few tricks I use to recall the differences.
15 Commonly Misused and Confused Words
1. “a while” vs. “awhile”
- Use a while as two separate words when it represents an amount of time, a noun. For example: It has been snowing for a while. You might also find yourself using these words in expressions such as a while ago or a while back.
- Awhile as one word is the adverb form. Think of it as meaning “for a time”. For example: The party’s been going on awhile. In this instance, awhile could be replaced with another adverb and still make sense. For example: The party’s been going on secretively.
2. “among” vs. “between”
- Use among when referencing three or more separate things. For example: She was among a crowd outside the theater.
- Use between to describe a relationship between only two things. For example: He sat between his mother and sister. I remember that between is about two things because there are two E’s between the w and the n in the word between.
3. “beside” vs. “besides”
- Beside means at the side of. For example: The dog sat beside the door.
- Besides means in addition to. For example: She had other responsibilities besides homework. To remember the difference, besides has an additional letter (s) at the end of it, so that’s the word that means in addition to.
4. “bring/brought” vs. “take/took”
- Bring/brought means to carry toward. For example: She brought cookies to his house.
- Take/took means to carry away. For example: They took a ball from the garage. You can remember the difference here by thinking about takeout or takeaway food. (It’s not called bring-away food!)
5. “character” vs. “reputation”
- Character is what a person actually is. For example: It was out of character for him to yell at the students.
- Reputation is what other people think a person is. For example: The candidate’s reputation was tarnished by a recent scandal.
6. “client” vs. “customer”
- A client is someone who uses the services offered by a professional.
- A customer is someone who buys something.
7. “complement” vs. “compliment”
- Complement can be used as a verb meaning to complete by supplementing or adding to, or as a noun to mean a thing that completes. For example: The color of the couch complemented the paint in the picture.
- Compliment means to praise or can be used as a noun meaning praise. For example: The saleswoman complimented the customer’s skirt. Think of compliment with an “i” as something I receive.
8. “emigrate” vs. “immigrate”
- Emigrate means to leave a country. My trick here is to remember that emigrate starts with an e, like exit and escape, which are synonyms for leave.
- Immigrate means to enter a country.
9. “flair” vs. “flare”
- Flair with an i means talent, so remember: I have flair.
- Flare as a noun means a light; as a verb it means to start suddenly.
10. “jail” vs. “prison”
- Jail is where suspects and people convicted of misdemeanors are kept. There are city and county jails.
- Prison is where felons are kept. There are government and federal prisons.
11. “lightening” vs. “lightning”
- Lightening is the action of making something less heavy or dark. Lightening has the word ten in the middle of it, and you can lighten a color by ten shades.
- Lightning is a flash of light in the sky.
12. “opaque” vs. “translucent” vs. “transparent”
- If something is opaque, it cannot be seen through.
- If something is translucent, it can be seen through but not very clearly. It’s something that allows some light through.
- If something is transparent, it can be seen through clearly. When these words are listed in alphabetical order, remember that the further down in the alphabet the word is, it represents something that is increasingly easier to see through.
13. “principal” vs. “principle”
- Principal is used as a noun to mean someone or something first in rank. The principal at school is your pal. It can also be used as an adjective to describe something as the most important.
- Principle is the correct word to use when talking about a basic rule or guide.
14. “re-cover” vs. “recover”
- Re-cover means to cover again. As a general rule, re- (with a hyphen) suggests that an action is being done another time.
- Recover without a hyphen means to regain health or possession of something.
15. “your” vs. “you’re”
- Your is the possessive form of you. For example: This is your jacket.
- You’re is the contraction for you are. For example: You’re going to the party. While these words may be easy to remember, they are commonly misused when typing, especially because word processors don’t consider them a mistake when used in the wrong context. Always edit your content to catch silly misuses of the word.