Commonly Confused Words

A quick and handy list of terms which I often see confused, misused, or swapped:


affect vs. effect

to affect (v.): to have an impact on

  • His work affected my project.

affect (n).: expression of emotion (a psychiatric term rarely used outside that field)

  • A lack of appropriate affect in response to trauma is a concern.

to effect (v.): to cause to happen

  • The protests effected change.

effect (n.): impact

  • His work had an effect on my project.

all right             

Even if the kids are alright, that spelling is not. It’s always two words.


Use “could” as the past tense of “can” (to be able to).

  • PRESENT: This means that he can see the mirror.
  • PAST: This meant that he could see the mirror.


Use “might” or “might have” as the past tense of “may” (to have the potential to happen).

  • PRESENT: This removes any fear that a runner may “hit the wall.”
  • PAST: This removed any fear that a runner might “hit the wall.”
  • PRESENT: This removes any obstacles the runners may encounter.
  • PAST: This removed any obstacle the runners might have encountered.

complement vs. compliment           

To complement means to complete something; the complement is the amount needed to make something complete.

To compliment means to give praise; a compliment is a nice thing to say.

  • The accents are designed to complement the overall theme.
  • We sent the usual complement of four staff members.
  • The boss complimented the staff on a job well done.
  • The boss had many compliments for the staff.

 complementary vs. complimentary

Complementary means something which enhances something else or is used in tandem. Complimentary means free. (It does also mean approving.)

  • Salt and caramel provide complementary flavors: savory and sweet.
  • Our cookies are complimentary for members.
  • The client had many complimentary remarks for the staff.

council vs. counsel         

Council can only be a noun, and means “a group of people formally organized who meet regularly to decide things and give advice.”

Counsel can be noun or verb. The verb means “to give advice.” The noun can mean “advice” or be a collective noun for “lawyers/legal team.”

  • The Council of Six advised the queen.
  • We counseled her not to go.
  • She gave her counsel to the governor.
  • Legal counsel should be consulted before proceeding.


Uses two periods and a comma. It stands for “exempli gratia,” and means “for example.” Punctuate it as though using “for example.”

  • Star Trek broke new ground in many ways — e.g., Kirk and Uhura sharing the first interracial kiss on U.S. network television.

Cannot be combined with etc. in the same phrase. Use one or the other, not both.


Uses two periods and a comma. It stands for “id est,” and means “that is.” Punctuate it as though using “that is.”

  • Spock breaks out of the plak tow when he realizes what he’s done (i.e., killed the captain), to the surprise of all assembled.

Cannot be combined with etc. in the same phrase. Use one or the other, not both.


The plural form takes an S at the end. (from the Japanese e, picture, + moji, character)

ensure vs. insure vs. assure

Ensure means to guarantee: We measured twice to ensure a perfect fit.

Use insure for references to insurance: The policy will insure you against theft.

Assure means to say something positive or to remove all doubt: She assured us that it was the right house.

farther vs. further vs. furthermore

Farther refers to physical distance.

  • He threw the ball farther than before.

Further refers to an extension of time or degree.

  • She took a further minute to read the contract.
  • She said she will look further into the matter.

Furthermore means “in addition.”

  • Furthermore, I do not like red eggs and ham either.

first-come, first-served      

Both phrases are compound adjectives and take hyphens, and both verbs are past tense. The phrase is a shortening of “The first to come are the first to be served.”

home in (on)                  

Not hone in. “To hone” means “to sharpen.” Homing in on something means to focus on it.

 intelligently vs. smartly     

Even though intelligent and smart are synonyms, the adverbs are not always; smartly is used more often to mean stylishly or briskly. 

  • RIGHT: He was smartly dressed in a bespoke suit.
  • RIGHT: The band stepped smartly along the street.
  • WRONG: They deployed personnel smartly.
  • RIGHT: They deployed personnel intelligently.

led vs. lead

The verb is “to lead.” The past tense is “led.” The metal with the chemical symbol Pb is “lead,” pronounced with a short E.

long-term, short-term       

Hyphenate if used as adjective phrases:

  • A long-term goal
  • A short-term gain

Do not hyphenate when used as noun phrases:

  • Such tactics don’t work in the long term.
  • In the short term, this is fine.


Loose is the adjective meaning “not tight.” Lose is the verb, which has several meanings: to fail at a contest, to be unable to locate something, or to be deprived of something.

  • These jeans are loose since I’ve lost weight.
  • He did not want to lose the race.
  • She managed to lose her keys.
  • You don’t lose a lot of blood when you donate.


Looser is an adjective meaning “more loose.” Loser is the person who loses.

  • I prefer a looser cut of shirt.
  • He was the biggest loser in the race.

palette vs. palate vs. pallet

Palette is a range of options, originally referencing color: A wide creative palette

Palate describes an appreciation of food and drink: A sophisticated palate

Pallet is a wooden base which is used to support stacks of goods in transport: A pallet full of brochures

phase vs. faze (vs. phaser)

To faze means to disturb or bother; it’s frequently used in the negative. Captain Kirk wasn’t fazed by the chaos. Klingons didn’t faze him either.

Phase, meaning a stage of a process, is more often used as a noun: the phases of the plan. As a verb, the construction is usually phasing something in/out.

When discussing Captain Kirk and Klingons, the gun is called a phaser, but you won’t see that term much outside sci-fi.

premier vs. premiere        

Premier means top-quality.

  • We offer premier service to our Gold members.

Premiere refers to a debut, usually of a TV show or movie.

  • The third-season premiere of Sherlock garnered high ratings.

 principal vs. principle

Principal means “main” or “primary”: the principal speaker

Principle means “the fundamental source or idea”: The organization’s guiding principle was getting stray cats off the street.

real time, real-time

When used as an adjective phrase (meaning “immediate”), hyphenate:

  • real-time updating

When used as a noun phrase (meaning “the present”), do not:

  • updating in real time

rein vs. reign                  

Rein is used on a horse; the widely-used phrase “to rein in” means “to restrain something.”

Reign refers to royal rule: the reign of King Arthur.

tenet vs. tenant (vs. Tennant)

Tenet is a belief or principle.

  • One of the key tenets of medicine is “Do no harm.”

Tenant is someone who rents space.

  • Jane is a tenant in the corner apartment building.

David Tennant is an actor who played the tenth incarnation of Doctor Who.

 which/that vs. who/whom        

Which and that are used for objects, groups, and things that are not people or animals.

  • The car which drove the fastest won.
  • The building that the trial was held in is considered historical.
  • The corporation that made the biggest donation to the charity was thanked by the organizers.

Who and whom are used for people and animals. (Because animals aren’t things, as far as I’m concerned.)

  • Students who often acted like they didn’t need help were the most in need.
  • The band found backup singers who could harmonize.
  • John is a boy whom I like.
  • Fluffy is a cat whom I’ve had for years.

(We are not getting into dependent and independent clauses here.)


The possessive of who. Cannot be used for things or objects. Must be used in relation to people. Unfortunately, there is no possessive pronoun which’s. Someone should really get on that.

  • RIGHT: Mothers, whose influence cannot be overstated, are celebrated here.
  • WRONG:Hallmark, whose best-known product is cards, also sells ornaments.
  • RIGHT: Hallmark is best known for cards, but it also sells ornaments.
  • WRONG: The corporation whose donation was largest was thanked.
  • RIGHT: The corporation which made the largest donation was thanked.

woman/women vs. female, man/men vs. male                         

  • Woman with an A is the singular noun. Women with an E is the plural noun. Female is the adjective.
  • Man with an A is the singular noun. Men with an E is the plural noun. Male is the adjective.

(You would not think I would have to include this, but the number of times I’ve seen a women in the last two years makes me want to scream.)