Words Often Confused

  • When you're tired, do you lay down or lie down? After dinner, do you eat desert or dessert? This section's purpose is to alert you to everyday words that can trip you up and to help you understand the differences between certain words people tend to confuse.

    Jump to a section in the chapter using this list.

    A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - L - M - P - R - S - T - U - W - Y


    accept, except Accept means "to receive willingly": accept an award. Except as a preposition means "excluding": all languages except English.

    adapt, adopt Adapt means "to adjust": adapt the recipe to be dairy free. Adopt means "to take as one's own": adopt a pet from a shelter.

    advice, advise Advice means "recommendation": a lawyer's advice. Advise means "to give advice": We advise you to learn your rights.

    affect, effect Affect as a verb means "to produce a change in": Stress can affect health. Effect as a noun means "result": cause and effect.

    all right, alright All right is the preferred spelling.

    allusion, illusion Allusion means "indirect reference": an allusion to Beowulf. Illusion means "false appearance": an optical illusion.

    a lot Always two words, a lot means "a large number or amount" or "to a great extent": a lot of voters; he misses her a lot. The phrase is too informal for most academic writing.

    among, between Use among for three or more items: among the fifty states. Use between for two items: between you and me.

    amount, number Use amount for items you can measure but not count: a large amount of water. Use number for things you can count: a number of books.

    as, as if, like Like introduces a noun or noun phrase: It feels like silk. To begin a subordinate clause, use as or as if: Do as I say, not as I do; it seemed as if he had not prepared at all for the briefing.


    bad, badly Use bad as an adjective following a linking verb: I feel bad. Use badly as an adverb following an action verb: I play piano badly.


    capital, capitol A capital is a city where the government of a state, province, or country is located: Kingston was the first state capital of New York. A capitol is a government building: the dome of the capitol.

    cite, sight, site Cite means "to give information from a source by quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing": Cite your sources. Sight is the act of seeing or something that is seen: an appalling sight. A site is a place: the site of a famous battle.

    compose, comprise The parts compose the whole: Fifty states compose the Union. The whole comprises the parts: The Union comprises fifty states.

    could of In writing, use could have (could've).

    council, counsel Council refers to a body of people: the council's vote. Counsel means "advice" or "to advise": her wise counsel; she counseled victims of domestic abuse.

    criteria, criterion Criteria is the plural of criterion and takes a plural verb: certain criteria have been established.


    data Data, the plural of datum, technically should take a plural verb (The data arrive from many sources), but some writers treat it as singular (The data is persuasive).

    desert, dessert Desert as a noun means "arid region": Mojave Desert. As a verb it means "to abandon": he deserted his post. Dessert is a sweet served toward the end of a meal.

    disinterested, uninterested Disinterested means "fair" or "unbiased": a disinterested jury. Uninterested means "bored" or "indifferent": uninterested in election results.


    emigrate (from), immigrate (to) Emigrate means "to leave one's country": emigrate from Slovakia. Immigrate means "to move to another country": immigrate to Canada.

    etc. The abbreviation etc. is short for the Latin et cetera, "and other things." Etc. is fine in notes and bibliographies, but avoid using it in your writing in general. Substitute and so on if necessary.

    everyday, every day Everyday is an adjective meaning "ordinary": After the holidays, we go back to our everyday routine. Every day means "on a daily basis": Eat three or more servings of fruit every day.


    fewer, less Use fewer when you refer to things that can be counted: fewer calories. Use less when you refer to an amount of something that cannot be counted: less fat.


    good, well Good is an adjective: She looks good in that color; a good book. Well can be an adjective indicating physical health after a linking verb (She looks well despite her recent surgery) or an adverb following an action verb (He speaks Spanish well).


    hopefully In academic writing, avoid hopefully to mean "it is hoped that"; use it only to mean "with hope": to make a wish hopefully.


    imply, infer Imply means "to suggest": What do you mean to imply? Infer means "to conclude": We infer that you did not enjoy the trip.

    its, it's Its is a possessive pronoun: The movie is rated R because of its language. It's is a contraction of "it is" or "it has": It's an action film.


    lay, lie Lay, meaning "to put" or "to place," always takes a direct object: She lays the blanket down. Lie, meaning "to recline" or "to be positioned," never takes a direct object: She lies on the blanket.

    lead, led The verb lead (rhymes with bead) means "to guide": I will lead the way. Led is the past tense and past participle of lead: Yesterday I led the way. The noun lead (rhymes with head) is a type of metal: Use copper pipes instead of lead.

    literally Use literally only when you want to stress that you don't mean figuratively: While sitting in the grass, he realized that he literally had ants in his pants.

    loose, lose Loose means "not fastened securely" or "not fitting tightly": a pair of loose pants. Lose means "to misplace" or "to not win": lose an earring; lose the race.


    man, mankind Use people, human, or humankind instead.

    may of, might of, must of In writing, use may have, might have, or must have.

    media Media, a plural noun, takes a plural verb: The media report another shooting. The singular form is medium: Television is a popular medium for advertising.


    percent, percentage Use percent after a number: 80 percent. Use percentage after an adjective or article: an impressive percentage; the percentage was impressive.

    principal, principle As a noun, principal means "a chief official" or "a sum of money": in the principal's office; raising the principal for a down payment. As an adjective, it means "most important": the principal cause of death. Principle means "a rule by which one lives" or "a basic truth or doctrine": Lying is against her principles; the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


    raise, rise Meaning "to grow" or "to cause to move upward," raise always takes a direct object: He raised his hand. Meaning "to get up," rise never takes a direct object: The sun rises at dawn.

    the reason . . . is because Use because or the reason . . . is (that), but not both: The reason for the price increase was a poor growing season or prices increased because of a poor growing season.

    reason why Instead of this redundant phrase, use the reason or the reason that: Psychologists debate the reasons that some people develop depression and others do not.

    respectfully, respectively Respectfully means "full of respect": Speak to your elders respectfully. Respectively means "in the order given": George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush were the forty-first president and the forty-third president, respectively.


    sensual, sensuous Sensual suggests sexuality: a sensual caress. Sensuous involves pleasing the senses through art, music, and nature: the violin's sensuous solo.

    set, sit Set, meaning "to put" or "to place," takes a direct object: Please set the table. Sit, meaning "to take a seat," does not take a direct object: She sits on the bench.

    should of In writing, use should have (should've).

    stationary, stationery Stationary means "staying put": a stationary lab table. Stationery means "writing paper": the college's official stationery.


    than, then Than is a conjunction used for comparing: She is taller than her mother. Then is an adverb used to indicate a sequence: Finish your work, and then reward yourself.

    that, which Use that to add information that is essential for identifying something: The horses that live on this island are endangered. Use which to give additional but nonessential information: Abaco Barb horses, which live on an island in the Bahamas, are endangered.

    their, there, they're Their signifies possession: their canoe. There tells where: Put it there. They're is a contraction of they are: They're busy.

    to, too, two To is either a preposition that tells direction (Give it to me) or part of an infinitive (To err is human). Too means "also" or "excessively": The younger children wanted to help, too; too wonderful for words. Two is a number: tea for two.


    unique Because unique suggests that something is the only one of its kind, avoid adding comparatives or superlatives (more, most, less, least), intensifiers (such as very), or hedges (such as somewhat).


    weather, whether Weather refers to atmospheric conditions: dreary weather. Whether refers to a choice between options: whether to stay home or go out.

    who's, whose Who's is a contraction for who is or who has: Who's the best candidate for the job? Whose refers to ownership: Whose keys are these? Tom, whose keys were on the table, had left.

    would of In writing, use would have (would've).


    your, you're Your signifies possession: your diploma. You're is a contraction for you are: You're welcome.