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Commonly Misused Words

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One of the most memorable classes I took in college was on the history of the English language. The influence other languages had on the development of English explains the inconsistencies, the exceptions to the rules, and the varied vocabulary. For example, when do you use “more” or “most” to increase the intensity of a word, and when do you use the suffixes “-er” or “-est”? It depends on whether the word came from the Germanic roots of English or the influence of the Romance languages.

Time and use change the words we use and the rules we enforce, but there are still some ways to misuse words that, if done repeatedly, will mark a writer as an amateur.

Homophones and other words that have only slight differences but mean different things can cause stumbling. A usage guide such as Garner’s Modern English Usage is as indispensable as a dictionary or a style guide. I once caught the word “insure” used in a contract when it should have been “ensure.” I did not want a legally-binding document implying that I was promising to buy insurance.

This is a handy list of commonly misused words. Keep an eye on these when you use them. Your reader, and your editor, will thank you.


accept: to take, receive, or believe something

except: to exclude something


adverse: unfavorable

averse: opposed to or disinclined to


affect: almost always a verb, meaning to make a difference or change

effect: almost always a noun, meaning result or consequence or an item belonging to someone, except when used as a verb in the expression “to effect change”


all intents and purposes, not all intensive purposes


all right, generally preferred over alright


all together: in a group

altogether: wholly, entirely, completely


allude: to hint at

elude: to evade


a lot, never “alot”


alter: verb meaning to change

altar: noun meaning a place where people get married


a while: noun phrase

awhile: adverb, cannot be the object of a preposition like “for” or “in”


bated breath, not baited breath


canvas: noun meaning fabric

canvass: verb meaning to go door to door


cite: to quote someone or to give a citation

sight: vision

site: location, also used when referring to a website


coarse: rough

course: a class, a dish, or a direction


complement: completes or goes well with

compliment: a flattering comment


couldn’t care less, not “could care less,” though this has been misused so much that it has become idiomatic


cue: signal or prompt

queue: line


discreet: concealed, unnoticeable, or prudent

discrete: separate or distinct


eek: an exclamation

eke: barely getting by


elicit: verb meaning to evoke or get

illicit: adjective meaning illegal


eminent: prominent

immanent: inherent

imminent: ready to take place


envelop: verb meaning to enclose

envelope: noun meaning a piece of stationery


every day: noun phrase

everyday: adjective


fair: lightness, beauty, or justice

fare: fee


farther: used for physical distances

further: used for things other than physical distances


faze: verb meaning to disturb

phase: noun meaning a stage or point in a process


flaunt: to show off

flout: to openly defy or disrespect


flounder: to flop around

founder: to sink


forbear: to hold back

forebear: an ancestor


forego: to come before

forgo: to do without


foreword: an introductory section in a book

forward: a direction


hoard: verb meaning to collect

horde: noun meaning a large group of people


imply: to indirectly suggest

infer: to draw a conclusion


lay: to put or place something else down (needs a direct object), other verb tenses are laid and laying

lie: to rest or recline, other verb tenses are lay, lain, and lying


medal: token of recognition

metal: category of substances

meddle: to interfere

mettle: fortitude or strength


palate: sense of taste or the roof of the mouth

palette: color scheme

pallet: square wooden platform


peak: pinnacle

peek: look

pique: to stimulate


pour: to make liquid flow

pore: as a verb meaning to study something carefully, as a noun meaning a small opening


precede: to go before

proceed: to begin to do


principal: the first or leading example, also the head of a school or a sum of money

principle: a concept or moral value


regardless, preferred over substandard “irregardless”


sleight of hand, not slight of hand


stationary: not moving

stationery: paper products


till, not ‘til


vice: moral weakness, or a secondary position

vise: a tool used to hold an object in place

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