Pretty much everyone talks. And pretty much everyone writes, whether it’s a novel, a report, or an email. Probably you have realized that one of the limitations of spellcheck is that it doesn’t notice missed words or stray extraneous words. Perhaps more problematic is that it doesn’t do away with word confusions.

Although you might get by with some of these in conversation, even verbally, a speaker misusing these words is like fingernails on a chalkboard! And word confusion calls into question the speaker/writer’s intelligence, education, and/or attention.

For each of the following word pairs, read the following sentences using each word correctly.

Spoken and Written Word Confusion

They may behave similarly, but they’re actually quite different on the inside!
  • Farther/Further (“farther” has “far” in it and only refers to distances)
    • Don’t go any farther—there’s a cliff ahead!
    • We’ll discuss this further at next month’s meeting.
  • Who/Whom (remember the M—if you can substitute “him” or “them” for the word in question, use “whom”)
    • Who is coming to the party tonight?
    • You gave the award to whom?
  • Anxious/Eager (anxious is akin to nervous, much less pleasant than eager)
    • I’m anxious about catching a cold before the concert.
    • My dog eagerly awaits breakfast every morning.
  • Between/Among (between distinguishes separate items; among refers to elements within a group)
    • The difference between an amateur and a professional musician might make your ears bleed.
    • The disease spread among the flowers and wiped out all the roses.
  • Bemuse/Amuse (to “bemuse” is to bewilder; to “amuse” is to entertain)
    • The conflicting signs completely bemused the lost tourist.
    • She can amuse herself for hours with a few crayons.
  • Sit/Set (to “sit” is an action of one’s body; to “set” is to act on an object)
    • The dog sits for treats.
    • I set the candle in the candle holder when I set the table for dinner.
  • Can/May (even the Oxford English Dictionary has admitted that, in informal settings, “can” is acceptable when asking permission, but technically/ formally “can” is a matter of ability while “may” is matter of permission)
    • The parrot can imitate the dog barking.
    • You may keep any fossils you may find in the sand.
  • Accept/Except (“except” has an X for all the things it excludes)
    • My landlord accepts pumpkin pie in lieu of rent every fall.
    • He liked everything about the shirt except the size, shape, cut, color, style, fabric, and price.
  • Affect/Effect (“affect” is a verb; “effect” is a noun)
    • The arrow affected the aardvark.
    • The effect was extraordinary.
  • Adverse/Averse (“adverse” is a modifier meaning negative, while “averse” is a feeling)
    • The medication had adverse side effects.
    • I’m not averse to a little risk with my pizza.
  • Elicit/Illicit (“elicit” is a verb; “illicit” is an adjective)
    • The professor tried to elicit some kind of response from the class.
    • The student’s illicit behavior resulted in his expulsion.
  • Advice/Advise (“advice” is a noun; “advise” is a verb)
    • My advice to you is to start drinking heavily. ~Animal House
    • I’ve advised my client not to answer that question, Your Honor.
  • Eminent/Imminent (“imminent” is very similar to “immediate”)
    • The eminent researcher commands respect in her field.
    • I’m afraid your demise is imminent.
  • Fewer/Less (“fewer” is a number; “less” is an amount)
    • My mother made fewer deviled eggs for last month’s potluck.
    • My father made less potato salad for this month’s potluck.
  • If/Whether (use “whether” when showing that two alternatives are possible)
    • If you leave the door open, the dog might run out.
    • Let me know whether or not you’re going to come next week.
  • Imply/Infer (Sherlock Holmes infers information from what clients imply)
    • My dog yawned, implying that she was tired.
    • I inferred that it was time for everyone to go to bed.
  • Nauseous/Nauseated (something “nauseous” causes a feeling of nausea)
    • I was so nauseous that no one would sit near me on the bus.
    • I felt nauseated after drinking a gallon of water in one sitting.
  • Morale/Moral (“morale” is a way of expressing enthusiasm, and it has an e)
    • Reducing working hours instantly raised staff morale.
    • The doctor recommended a treatment in keeping with her moral code.
  • Precede/Proceed (pre means before; pro means forward)
    • A loud rumbling noise preceded the earthquake.
    • Everyone, please proceed to the designated earthquake safety zones.
  • That/Which (if you can change the meaning of the sentence by removing the words that follow, use “that”)
    • Dogs that learn how to dance are always fun at parties.
    • Boxes of books, which can be very heavy, are not fun when moving house.

Triple Word Confusion

A triple threat!
  • Apt/Liable/Likely
    • “Apt” suggests that the subject has a natural tendency to the outcome
      • The cookies are apt to run out before the party even starts.
    • “Liable” has a negative connotation for the subject
      • He’s liable to fail the class if he shows up drunk for the final exam.
    • “Likely” is more neutral
      • They’re likely to be early for the appointment.
  • Lie/Lay/Lie
    • In the present tense, “lay” requires an object and “lie” does not
      • I lay the book on the table as I take off my shoes.
      • I lie on the sofa when I have a headache.
    • In the past tense, “lie” becomes “lay”
      • Last week, I had a headache, so I lay on the sofa all afternoon.
    • To tell an untruth is also to lie.
      • Father, I cannot tell a lie; I chopped down the cherry tree. ~George Washington (apocryphally)
  • Raise/Rear/Rise (determine what is being moved and who is doing the moving)
    • Use “rise” when the subject is lifting itself
      • My dog rises early every morning and loudly demands breakfast.
    • Use “raise” when one thing lifts another
      • If we all work together, we can raise this barn before the rain comes.
    • Use “rear” to mean caring for children
      • Often royal nannies rear the noble princes and princesses, rather than their parents.

Written Word Confusion

They might look similar, but they behave very differently!
Don’t mix them up!
  • Mantel/Mantle (“mantel” can only refer to the structure above a fireplace)
    • My grandmother has pictures of all her grand-dogs displayed on her mantel.
    • The storm last night left the lawn covered in a mantle of fresh snow.
  • Stationary/Stationery (“stationary” has an a because it is an adjective)
    • I ride my stationary bike every day, but I never seem to get anywhere.
    • The boss just ordered new stationery with the company logo on the letterhead.
  • Complement/Compliment (“complement” a thing to make it complete)
    • My doctor suggested I take a multivitamin to complement my prescriptions.
    • The teacher complimented the student on her lovely handwriting.
  • Principal/Principle (a principal is either an adjective or a pal)
    • Principal Trunchbull was the principal bully at Matilda’s school.
    • My dog has no principles; she’ll do anything for a treat.

Try your hand at creating the sentences. Check your sentences against a dictionary. Learn the differences. Even one misuse from this list is likely to elicit eye-rolls from at least some (more knowledgeable) people.

There are plenty of resources online to help you figure out which word you should be using in a given situation. One of my favorites in Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips. The Merriam Webster Dictionary and Cambridge Dictionary also have helpful guides to avoiding word confusion.

If you have pet peeves about word confusions, let me know!

Bottom line: Make sure you’re saying what you mean!


Carat and Carrot and Caret and Karat
Pi Pie!

Today I feel like playing with words! Considering the history of the English language, it’s no wonder there are so many strange juxtapositions in our syllables. An easy illustration is lay and lei: one from Proto-Germanic and one from Hawaiian.

English is not the only language with homophones and homographs, of course. German, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mandarin are notorious for wordplay based on homophones and homonyms. The language with the most homonyms might be Rotokas, spoken by the people of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. There are only 150 possible syllables, so each syllable gets a lot of use!


I’ll start with homophones, words that sound the same but are different in meaning or spelling. I’ve chosen words that are both! Here, in no particular order are some examples. (This is by no means an exhaustive list. Check here or here for many more examples!)

Colonel and Kernel

Can you use all the variations in a single sentence that makes sense?

Ewe and Yew
Fairy/ Faerie and Ferry
Key and Quay

There are many pairs of homophones (some estimate as many as 6,000!), but some syllables work extra hard and mean three or more different things. Again, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list.

Bawled and Balled and Bald
Furze and Furs and Firs

Some homophones are dependent on the speaker’s accent. Words that sound the same in Johannesburg may be entirely different in Toronto.

Floor and Flower and Flour

If you really want to go crazy, consider raise, rays, rase, rehs, res, réis, and raze.

  • Rase is a verb meaning “to erase”
  • Rehs is the plural of reh, a mixture of sodium salts found as an efflorescence in India
  • Réis is the plural of real, a currency unit of Portugal and Brazil
  • Res is the plural of re, a name for one step of the musical scale
Hair and Hare


Then there are homographs, words that are spelled the same but differ in meaning or pronunciation. I’ve focused on the former here.

  • Bar as in drinking place, bar as in fasten the door, bar as in fastener or weapon
  • Part as in separate, part as in a piece of something
  • Snuff as in tobacco product, snuff as in smothering a candle flame
  • Yen as in Japanese currency, yen as in a desire
  • Clear as in weather, clear as in clean up
  • Foot as in body part, foot as in length
  • Wind as in moving air, wind as in turning something
  • Chair as in furniture, chair as in run a meeting
  • Stand as in get up, stand as in take a stand, stand as in piece of furniture
  • Case as in luggage or box, case as in court case
  • Bit as in took a bite of, bit as in horse harness, bit as in small amount
  • Swallow as in ingest, swallow as in bird
  • Pot as in vessel, pot as in plant, pot as in marijuana
  • Ring as in jewelry, ring as in bell
  • Wire as in piece of metal, wire as in electrical work, wire as in telegraph
  • Dig as in make a hole, dig as in “like it”
  • Bow as in bend from the waist, bow as in front of a boat
  • Stern as in firm, stern as in back of a boat
  • Park as in outdoor space, park as in leave a vehicle
  • Ear as in body part, ear as in corn
  • Second as in time, second as in between first and third 
Bark and Bark

Many of these homographs are variations from a single word origin, and their various meaning can be traced back. If you want to wander down an internet rabbit hole, try looking up the etymology of homophones.

  • Walk from the Proto-Indo-European root “wel-” meaning “to turn or revolve
    • Travel on foot
    • A pathway along which one might travel on foot
  • Pregnant from Latin “praegnantem” meaning “before birth
    • Person who is with child
    • Tense pause (full of meaning)
  • Plate from Proto-Indo-European root “plat-” meaning “to spread
    • Flat sheet of metal that holds food
    • Flat sheet of very thin metal coating an object so it looks like gold or silver
    • Layer of the planet’s mantle holding continents, floating on magma
  • Secretary from Medieval French “secretarie” meaning “confidant, someone entrusted with secrets
    • Administrative assistant
    • Officer
    • Type of desk used by a secretary
  • Port from Proto-Indo-European root “prtu-” meaning “passage
    • Wine variety originating from the Portuguese city Oportus
    • Place where boats anchor
    • Left side of a ship when facing forward from the stern
    • Medical appliance installed under the skin
  • Book from Proto-Germanic “bōk(ō)-” meaning “the part of a beech tree used to make tablets for written documents
    • Reading material
    • Make a reservation (originally marked in a book, now more likely kept on a tablet)
  • Table from Latin “tabula” meaning “small flat slab, usually for inscriptions or games
    • Furniture for holding meals or other objects
    • List of numbers and figures
    • To enter into return to a list
  • Lift from Proto-Germanic “luftijan” meaning “to elevate”
    • Pick up
    • Elevator
    • Giving a ride
Port and Port and Port and Port

Homographs (non-homophonic)

And then there are homographs that are spelled the same but differ in pronunciation as well as meaning. How many of these do you recognize?

  • Wind
  • Buffet
  • Minute
  • Bow
  • Bass
  • Evening
  • Coordinates
  • Proceeds
  • Does
  • Axes
  • Agape
  • Putting
  • Moped
  • Tear
  • Wound
Double Bass

In many cases, only a shift in stress from one syllable to another indicates whether the word functions as a noun or a verb. As with many elements of the English language, this “rule” has many exceptions.

  • Attribute
  • Produce
  • Refuse
  • Frequent
  • Discharge
  • Second
  • Entrance
  • Digest
  • Interchange
  • Content
  • Advocate
  • Discount
  • Contract

And just to increase your vocabulary one more time: homonyms can be either or both!

Bottom Line: It’s no wonder people have difficulty learning English as a second language!

Mince and Mints
(Do not confuse these two in recipes!)