2.2 Word Confusion


This section of Ch. 2 will cover the following topics:

  • commonly confused words
  • correcting confusion

Experienced writers know that deliberate, careful word selection can lead to more effective writing. You already know that certain words fit better in certain situations. For example, job application letters and emails to friends require different vocabularies. This chapter covers commonly confused words and how to correct them.


The words here are identified by their part of speech as well as their meaning. A definition for each part of speech is provided the first time the term is used. For more about parts of speech, see Ch. 3.

Commonly Confused Words

Read the following list, paying special attention to words that are challenging for you.
A, An, And

  • A () is used before that begin with a : a key, a mouse, a screen
  • An (article) used before nouns that begin with a : an airplane, an ocean, an igloo
  • And () connects two or more words: peanut butter and jelly, pen and pencil

Accept, Except

  • Accept () means to take or agree to something offered: They accepted our proposal for the conference.
  • Except (conjunction) means only or but: We could fly except the tickets cost too much.

Affect, Effect

  • Affect (verb) means to create a change: Hurricane winds affect the amount of rainfall.
  • Effect (noun) means an outcome or result: Heavy rains will have an effect on crops.

Its, It’s

  • Its () shows possession: The butterfly flapped its wings.
  • It’s () joins the words “it” and “is”: It’s a beautiful butterfly.

Loose, Lose

  • Loose () describes something that is not tight or is detached: Without a belt, his pants are loose at the waist.
  • Lose (verb) means to forget, give up, or fail to earn something: She will lose more weight while training for the marathon.

Of, Have

  • Of () means from or about: I studied maps of the city.
  • Have (verb) means to possess something: I have friends help me move.
  • Have (linking verb) is used to connect verbs: I should have helped her.

Quite, Quiet, Quit

  • Quite () means really or truly: My work will require quite a lot of concentration.
  • Quiet (adjective) means not loud: I need a quiet room to study.
  • Quit (verb) means to stop or to end: I will quit when I am tired.

Than, Then

  • Than (conjunction) is used to connect two or more items when comparing: Registered nurses have less training than doctors.
  • Then (adverb) means next or at a specific time: Doctors first complete medical school and then open a practice.

Their, They’re, There

  • Their (pronoun) shows possession: The Townsends feed their dogs twice a day.
  • They’re (contraction) joins the words “they” and “are”: They’re the sweetest dogs in the neighborhood.
  • There (adverb) indicates a particular place: The dogs’ bowls are over there, by the table.
  • There (pronoun) indicates the presence of something: There are more treats handed out if the dogs behave.

To, Two, Too

  • To (preposition) indicates movement: Let’s go to the circus.
  • To is a word that completes a certain type of verb: to play, to ride, to watch.
  • Two (adjective) is the number after one. It describes how many: Two clowns squirted the elephants with water.
  • Too (adverb) means also or very: The crowd was too loud, so we left.

Who’s, Whose

  • Who’s (contraction) joins the words “who” and “is” or “has”: Who’s the new student? Who’s met him?
  • Whose (pronoun) shows possession: Whose schedule allows them to take the new student tour?

Your, You’re

  • Your (pronoun) shows possession: Your book bag is unzipped.
  • You’re (contraction) joins the words “you” and “are”: You’re the girl with the unzipped book bag.

The English language contains about 200,000 words. Some are borrowed from other languages. Some have multiple meanings and forms. When in doubt, consult an expert: the dictionary!

Exercise 1

Type the following sentences, choosing the correct word from those in :

  1. My little cousin turns ____________ (to, too, two) years old tomorrow.
  2. The next-door neighbor’s dog is ____________ (quite, quiet, quit) loud. He barks constantly throughout the night.
  3. ____________ (Your, You’re) mother called this morning to talk about the party.
  4. I would rather eat a slice of chocolate cake ____________ (than, then) eat a chocolate muffin.
  5. I don’t care ____________ (whose, who’s) coming to the party.
  6. Do you have any ____________ (loose, lose) change to pay the parking meter?
  7. Father must ____________ (have, of) left his briefcase at the office.
  8. Before playing ice hockey, I was supposed to read the contract, but I only skimmed it, which may ____________ (affect, effect) my understanding of the rules.
  9. The party ____________ (their, there, they’re) hosting will be in June at ____________ (their, there, they’re) ranch, and we are planning to be ____________ (their, there, they’re).
  10. ____________ (Except, Accept) for Ajay, we all had tickets to the game.
  11. It must be fall, because ____________ (it’s, its) getting darker earlier.
  12. Four animals live in my house: ____________ (a, an, and) cat, ____________ (a, an, and) owl, ____________ (a, an, and) two old dogs.


Homonyms are words that sound like each other but have different meanings. For example, a witch rides a broom, but the word “which” is a question word to choose between options. Following is a list of commonly confused homonyms.  Read through the list, paying particular attention to words that you have found confusing in the past.

Lead, Led

  • Lead can be used in several ways.  As a noun, is can name a type of metal: The lead pipes in my home need to be replaced. It can also refer to a position of advantage: Our team is in the lead.  As a verb, it can mean to guide or direct: The girl will lead the horse by its halter.
  • Led (verb) is the of “lead”: The young volunteer led the patrons through the museum.

Lessen, Lesson

  • Lessen (verb) means to reduce in number, size, or degree: My dentist gave me medicine to lessen the pain of my aching tooth.
  • Lesson (noun) is reading or exercise for a student: Today’s lesson was about mortgage interest rates.

Passed, Past

  • Passed (verb) means to move: He passed slower cars using the left lane.
  • Past (noun) means having taken place before the present: The argument happened in the past, so there is no use in dwelling on it.

Principle, Principal

  • Principle (noun) is a fundamental concept that is accepted as true: The principle of human equality is an important foundation for peace.
  • Principal (noun) has two meanings. It can mean the original amount of debt on which interest is calculated: The payment covered both principal and interest. Or it can mean a person who is the main authority of a school: The principal held a conference for parents and teachers.

Threw, Through

  • Threw (verb) is the past tense of the word “throw”: She threw the football with perfect form.
  • Through (preposition) indicates movement: She walked through the door and out of his life. (Note: “Thru” is a non-standard spelling of “through” and should be avoided.)

Where, Wear

  • Where (adverb) is the place in which something happens: Where is the restaurant?
  • Wear (verb) is to carry or have on the body: I wear my hiking shoes when I climb.

Which, Witch

  • Which (pronoun) identifies one out of a group: Which apartment is yours?
  • Witch (noun) is a person who practices sorcery: She thinks she is a witch.

Whether, Weather

  • Whether (conjunction) means expressing a doubt or choice: I don’t know whether to go to Paris or Hawaii.
  • Weather (noun) is a quality of the atmosphere: The weather could be rainy.

Exercise 2

Type the following sentences, choosing the correct homonym from the options in parentheses:

  1. I ____________ (where, wear) my pajamas to attend online classes.
  2. Being ____________ (led, lead) up the mountain by a guide felt safer.
  3. Serina described ____________ (witch, which) book was hers.
  4. Do you think it is healthy for Grandpa to talk about the ____________ (passed, past) all the time?
  5. Eating healthier foods will ____________ (lessen, lesson) the risk of heart disease.
  6. Everyone goes ____________ (through, threw) hardships in life.
  7. The  ____________ (weather, whether) continued to be unpredictable.
  8. The ____________ (principal, principle) gave the students a long lecture about peer pressure.

Correcting Word Use Problems

Choosing the correct word will make a good impression on your readers and reduce confusion. The following strategies can help:

  1. Use a dictionary. Look up words when you are uncertain of their meanings or spellings. Buy a good dictionary or find a good online dictionary and bookmark it.
  2. Keep a list of words you commonly confuse. Simply writing them down starts the process of learning what is correct. When you want to use the word, consult your list.
  3. Study lists of commonly confused words. Prepare your mind to notice when they appear in your writing.


  • Be aware of commonly confused words.
  • Differentiating homonyms can reduce confusion.
  • Consulting a dictionary is the best way to ensure you use the correct word. Also, keep a list of words you frequently confuse.
  • Choosing the proper words leaves a positive impression on readers.


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1, 2, 3 Write! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.