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20 commonly confused word pairs: how to avoid mixing these words up

Posted on August 24, 2023

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Commonly confused words

English includes many words that have similar spellings and/or similar but not identical meanings, so it's easy to see how they can be confused.

 

It's important to understand the different meanings so you can avoid mixing these words up and instead say what you mean to say. The following list contains word pairs that I most often see confused.

1. Among or between?

  • among – in the middle of, surrounded by

  • between – in or into the space, time or interval that separates (two or more things), an equal connection or relationship between two or more things

2. Amuse or bemuse?

  • amuse – to entertain or interest somebody; to appeal to someone’s sense of humour

  • bemuse – to confuse somebody

3. Breath or breathe?

  • breath – (noun) the air that goes in and out of your lungs

  • breathe – (verb) to inhale or exhale

4. Chose or choose?

  • chose – past tense of choose

  • choose – (present tense) to select, pick or have a preference for something

5. Disinterested or uninterested?

  • disinterested – impartial or free from bias

  • uninterested – not interested in or not concerned about something

6. Disused or unused?

  • disused – no longer used

  • unused – not used yet; not accustomed to something (e.g. unused to hot summers)

7. E.g. or i.e.?

  • e.g. – for example (it stands for ‘exempli gratia’ in Latin)

  • i.e. – that is or in other words (it stands for ‘id est’ in Latin)

8. Empathise or emphasise?

  • empathise (or empathize) – to understand or be aware of the feelings of another person

  • emphasise (or emphasize) – to give something importance or significance

9. Fewer or less?

The general rule is to use ‘fewer’ with plural nouns and ‘less’ with singular nouns.

  • fewer – used for things that can be counted (fewer people, fewer cars)

  • less – used with quantities or when something is measured (less time, less salt)

10. Flaunt or flout?

  • flaunt – to display or parade (one’s possessions or oneself) impudently or ostentatiously

  • flout – to treat (something) with contempt, scorn or distain (e.g. flouting the rules)

11. Imply or infer?

  • imply – to suggest (something) indirectly; to hint at (something)

  • infer – to draw a conclusion from available information or evidence

12. Inflammable or non-flammable?

  • inflammable – capable of being set on fire easily; flammable; combustible

  • non-flammable – doesn’t catch fire easily

13. Lay or lie?

  • lay – to put or set (something) down on a surface; said of a bird (i.e. to produce an egg); past tense of lie

  • lie – to assume, to be or to stay at rest in a horizontal position; to rest or recline; to be or remain in a flat or horizontal position on a surface (said of something inanimate); an untrue or false statement (or to make an untrue statement) with intent to deceive

14. Lose or loose?

  • lose – cease to have, retain or keep

  • loose – not firmly or tightly fixed in place

15. Serial or series?

  • serial – a work published or broadcast in parts, usually at regular intervals (e.g. a novel appearing in successive issues of a magazine). A serial offers an ongoing narrative which the audience has to read/watch in the correct order so as to follow the plot

  • series – any group of systematically related items; a succession of volumes or issues published with continuous numbering. A series can be read/watched in any order because each instalment is a different, self-contained story – even if they connect with each other)

*A lot of self-published books are advertised as a series when they are actually a serial – books chopped into two or more parts with no resolution to any part except the concluding book. Authors, please warn your readers (at the start of the blurb) that there is a cliffhanger. It may put some readers off buying the books, but it should hopefully stop them receiving unfavourable reviews!

16. Than or then?

  • than – used with comparatives to introduce the second element in a comparison (e.g. he’s taller than I am, I would read rather than wash the dishes)

     *Usage note: ‘she’s shorter than I’ is the correct grammar form – ‘than I’ is short for ‘than I am’. Filling in

     the missing verb is the best way to preserve grammar and avoid awkwardness.

  • then – at that time (I’ll see you then, since then, etc.); soon after that or next (finish your homework, and then you can watch TV)

17. That or which?

Should you use ‘that’ or ‘which’?

  • that – if a sentence has a clause that is essential (restrictive), use ‘that’

     E.g. the car that crashed into the wall was an Aston Martin DB5.

  • which – if a sentence has a clause that is not essential (non-restrictive), use ‘which’.

     E.g. her car, which is a Ford Fiesta, was parked on the drive.

*Usage note: In British English ‘that’ and ‘which’ can both be used for essential clauses. However, always use ‘which’ for non-essential clauses.

18. That or who?

Both ‘that’ and ‘who’ are relative pronouns, which means they stand in for a thing or idea previously mentioned in a sentence.

  • that – (plural ‘those’) used to refer to an object, animal, idea or person.

  • who – used to refer to a person (or multiple people)

Q: Should you use 'that' or 'who' to refer to people?

A: Either is grammatically correct. As long as they are used consistently.

19. Uncharted or unchartered?

  • uncharted – unmapped or unexplored; unknown as a place or region

  • unchartered – without regulation; without a charter

20. Who or whom?

Who and whom (possessive pronouns) are the subjective and objective forms (respectively) of the same word.

  • who – (subjective) performs the action of a verb, and it corresponds to the subject pronouns I, we, he, she, they, you and it

     – used as an interrogative: what or which person or persons? e.g. who did it? (he did it)

     – used as a relative to introduce a restrictive or non-restrictive clause in reference to a person or animal,

     e.g. my sister, who is a doctor (she is my sister/a doctor)

  • whom – (objective) receives the action of a verb, and it corresponds to the object pronouns me, us, him, her, them, you and it

     – used as an interrogative, e.g. whom do you love? (I love him) Whom is the book about? (the book is

     about them)

     – used as a relative to introduce a restrictive or non-restrictive clause in reference to a person or animal,

     e.g. this is Jack, whom I met last year (I met him last year)

     – used as an object of a preceding preposition, e.g. to whom did you wish to speak? (I wish to speak to her)

*Note: ‘you’ and ‘it’ are both subject and object pronouns, so these won’t help you to decide whether you need to use who or whom.

Very professional and highly organised beta reader ...

“Victoria stands out as a very professional and highly organised beta reader. She is always clear and responsive in her communication. Her feedback was useful to understand what works well and what can be improved. I would recommend Victoria to anyone looking for beta reading/proofreading/editorial services.”​

—JU, author

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