• Jasna Ganibegovic

Commonly Confused Words (and how to choose the right ones!)

In my last post, we briefly touched on word use and words that are commonly confused by both humans and machines. Spell checkers typically can’t tell the difference between these words, and many human readers or writers can’t either.

Whether you’ve just started to pick up the language or you’ve spoken it all your life, I’m sure you’ll agree that sometimes English can just be plain frustrating. Dutch author and teacher Gerard Nolst Trenité wrote a poem — “The Chaos” — all the way back in 1922 to show readers the irregularities and inconsitancies of the English language. The opening stanza is included below:

Dearest creature in creation

Studying English pronunciation,

I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

The poem goes on to explore 800 of the most confusing words in terms of pronunciation, demonstrating just how vexing the English language can be. From words that are spelled similarly or sound the same to words that differ just slightly in meaning, it can feel like guesswork when trying to find the appropriate word for the situation.

Below, I’ve broken down just a few of the pairs of words that are commonly confused in the English language and created a couple of easy tips to help you choose the right words.

Affect and Effect

These thorny words have confused even the most advanced English learners and speakers for years, but there is actually a simple trick to help you remember how to use them.

The simplest way to think about affect and effect is in terms of action and end. The effect of something is the end result, or a noun; affecting something is verb, or an action.

  • Her lack of sleep is affecting her concentration.

  • Lack of sleep had an effect on her concentration

Lay and Lie

Don’t know whether you should lay or lie down? Don’t worry — most people don’t either.

Looking at the definitions of both, however, gets us closer to our answer. Lay means “to place (something or someone) down in a flat position,” while lie means “to be in a flat position on a surface.” Lay is transitive — it needs to have a thing or person being placed — whereas lie gives the subject some agency.

So, next time you want to go for a quick kip, you can say with confidence that you are going to lie down.

Farther and Further

In American English and in other countries across the world, both these terms are used to

refer to distance. Farther typically represents physical distance, while further is used to convey metaphorical or physical distance. If you have a further point, you are elaborating on or extending your argument.

However, in Australian English, the answer is simple: further is almost always the correct choice for either meaning.

Fewer and Less

Fewer is used to discuss countable things —people, dollars, specific objects— and is usually used for plural nouns. Fewer students may enrol in a class, fewer people may show up to a gathering than expected, or there may be fewer jobs (but less employment).

Less, on the other hand, should only be used with singular nouns and quantities. You do less work in the evening, less money than you need, and often have less time to spend relaxing.

If you can count it, use fewer. Otherwise, less is the best bet.

That and Which

Whether you should use that or which depends on the clause that follows it: if it is a restrictive clause that identifies a specific person, object or condition, that should be used.

  • She bought a book that would tell her about the history of the city.

If it is a non-restrictive clause — additional information about something that has already been identified — which is used. It should generally be preceded by a comma.

  • Her house, which she had built with her husband twenty years ago, was just around the corner.

Essentially, if the part of the sentence can be removed, which is correct; otherwise, you should be using that.

Insuring and Ensuring

Even though some style guides claim the two are interchangeable, the debate of insuring vs. ensuring (with assuring often thrown into the mix) has been contested for years.

Ensuring means to make sure or guarantee that something happens. Insuring, on the other hand, typically refers to the process of taking out a financial insurance policy, or protecting oneself from financial loss.

Than and Then

Than is usually used in terms of comparison; you can have less or more of something than someone else. Then, on the other hand, is related to time; something happens, and then something else.

  • She had more books on the shelf than her sister.

  • He looked through the papers then handed them back without a word.

Disinterested and Uninterested

Though they may sound like they mean the same thing, there is a subtle difference. If you are disinterested, you are completely detached or neutral towards something. Uninterested, on the other hand, carries a negative connotation: if you are uninterested, you are bored or reluctant towards being involved with something.

  • The judges maintained a look of disinterest.

  • The students seemed uninterested in the teacher’s topic.

While misusing these words in everyday speech or communication isn’t such a big deal, using the wrong word in an important piece of writing such as an official document, academic work or creative piece can obscure your meaning and confuse the reader instead of connecting with them.

To eliminate the chance of these and other commonly confused words in your writing, a thorough proof read can do wonders. Editors who specialise in proofreading and copyediting are trained to keep an eye out for these commonly confused words and can help you make sure that you always say exactly what you mean.

Interested in finding out more about commonly confused words or how your writing can be improved? Feel free to reach out!