Confused Words

Below is a compilation of words which are often used incorrectly, especially on the Internet. In most cases, they are pairs (or triplets) of words which are mistaken for each other. If you can think of any other commonly misused or confused words that should be on this list, please feel free to email me.

accept/except | affect/effect | altar/alter | desert/dessert | e.g./i.e. | farther/further | good/well | its/it's | lay/lie | More/Most | past/passed | peace/piece/peas | roll/role | than/then | that/which | their/they're/there | to/too/two | toward/towards | who/whom | your/you're


Accept is a verb meaning "to agree to" or "to adapt to" or similar:
Gabrielle needs to accept Xena's dark side.
This store doesn't accept wooden dinars.
Except is a preposition or conjunction meaning roughly "unless" or "if not."
All Xena's enemies are men except Callisto.



Affect is a verb meaning "to influence" or "to cause change in." Effect is a noun meaning "the result or outcome."
Gabrielle's love affected Xena by making her less violent.
Gabrielle's love had a calming effect on Xena.

The confusion caused by these two words is complicated by the fact that "effect" can sometimes be a verb with meaning similar to "affect," but with a rather subtle difference. The verb "affect" takes a direct object (the noun which is affected) which is typically a person. The verb "effect" takes a direct object (the noun which is effected) which is typically a change or similar concept, So, "Gabrielle's love affected Xena" but "Gabrielle's decision to travel with Xena effected an immediate change in Xena's lifestyle."

As if you weren't already confused enough, "affect" can also be used as a noun, although this usage is generally obsolete. It refers to the emotional or psychological result of something and is used a) in psychology/psychiatry to describe moods and b) in discussion of works of art, e.g. "The overall affect of Beethoven's Fifth is melancholy." However, in general (unless you are a shrink or an art critic) you should disregard this meaning of the word.



An altar is a table or stand upon which religious ceremonies are performed.

Alter means "to change":

Gabrielle, have you altered your hair color?



A desert is a dry sandy place. You place the accent on the first syllable (say "DEH-zert"). It is also an old-style word for "something that is deserved." Nowadays the second meaning only surfaces in the phrase "just deserts." That's just as in "fair," not just as in "only." Whew, this gets more and more confusing, eh?

Dessert is the sweet stuff you generally eat after a meal. You accent the second syllable (say "deh-ZERT").


i.e. versus e.g.

A lot of people use i.e. and e.g. interchangeably. Do allow me to explain why this is wrong.

"i.e." is short for the Latin "id est," literally meaning "it is" or "that is." Use "i.e." when you would say "that is."

I saw Xena today -- i.e., I saw Argo with a dark-haired woman on her back, so I assumed it was Xena.

"e.g." is short for the Latin "exempli gratia," meaning "free example." Use "e.g." when you would say "for example."

I love all the subtext episodes, e.g. ADITL.



Both these words mean "more far." Farther refers to physical distance: that is, more far in terms that can be measured in inches (or centimeters if you prefer metric). Further refers to more abstract differences: for example, the difference between two people's points of view.

Amphipolis is farther from Athens than from Poteideia.
Xena's explanation of what happened is further from the truth than Gabrielle's.



Simply put, "well" is an adverb, whereas "good" is an adjective. (See Grammar Basics.) To illustrate, let's take an easier example: happy is an adjective, happily is the corresponding adverb.

Gabrielle smiled happily.
Gabrielle's smile was happy.

Gabrielle fights well.
Gabrielle's fighting is good.

In the majority of cases, the adverb/adjective pair is easy to understand because, as with happy/happily, they are similar. Well/good confuses us because the two words are so different.



Unlike most possessives, "its" does not contain an apostrophe. It is just one of the many cases where the English language is unnecessarily complex. The trouble with English is not that it has too many rules - it's that there are too many exceptions to the rules. But "its/it's" is a case wherein it's good to remember that an apostrophe often replaces a letter. If the word is "it's," ask yourself, "What letter has been removed?" The answer clearly is "i." The letter i from "it is" has been replaced by the apostrophe.

So, to clarify:
Its = belonging to it. "The frying pan has a dent in its handle."
It's = it is. "It's not my fault the frying pan is dented!"



"Lay" is a transitive verb. This means it must take an object: you have to lay something.

I will lay my head on the pillow.
He lays his hand on my shoulder.

"Lie" is an intransitive verb. This means that it does not take an object.

I like to lie on the sofa for my naps.
The rug lies on the floor.

Further confusing the issue, "lay" is also the past-tense form of "lie."

Yesterday I lay on the sofa for a nap.

The past-tense form of "lay", on the other hand, is "laid".

Yesterday I laid my sweater on the bed.

The following, therefore, are incorrect usages:

My cat likes to lay on my bed.    INCORRECT
I came home and he was laying on the floor.   INCORRECT
Let's lie our picnic blanket down here.   INCORRECT



"More" should be used when comparing exactly two things. For example: "Xena wears more leather than Gabrielle." (The two things being compared are Xena and Gabrielle.)

A collective noun can be considered one of the two things, for example: "Gabrielle is more talkative than all the other Amazons." (The two things being compared are Gabrielle and the entire group of other Amazons.)

"Most" should be used when comparing more than two things. For example: "Of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athena, Aphrodite is the most scantily-clad."

In the following example, "most" is used incorrectly. It should be "more."

"Xena, which do you like most: the dumplings with the red filling, or the fish that I cooked with your juices?"



Past is an adjective meaning "before now." It is also a noun meaning "the time before now."
Yesterday is part of the past; let's think about today.
Xena regrets her past.
Passed is a participle -- that is, a verb-form. Always use it as a verb. It's the past-participle form of the verb "to pass" meaning "to give" or "to move" or, in games, "to decline one's turn."
Xena passed this way yesterday.
Xena passed Gabrielle some nutbread.
I didn't have enough points to bid, so I passed.

Some people also use it euphemistically for death:

My grandfather passed (or passed away) last year.



A piece is a portion or fragment of something:
Xena tore a piece off of Gabrielle's scroll.

Peace is the opposite of war:

Give peace a chance.

Peas are small green vegetables:

Gabrielle, eat your peas.



A roll is:

A role is a part in a play ("Lucy Lawless plays the role of Xena") or, more loosely, the function you perform in a certain group ("I play the role of peacekeeper in my family").



"Than" is a comparative term. Use it only when you're making a comparison between two or more things.

I am shorter than Xena.
There are more cherries in my bowl than in Gabby's.

"Then" is a temporal term. Use it to indicate that something happens after something else, often with a cause-and-effect relationship. Also use it in conditional statements (after "if" clauses).

Xena looked around and then mounted Argo.
Xena entered the room. Then everyone else left.
If you're traveling with Xena, then you must be pretty brave.



Yet another favorite quibble of language purists. In brief, "that" is specific, whereas "which" is general.

The weapon that Xena prefers is the chakram.
Gabrielle's skirt, which is brown, is made of leather.

We use "that" in the first sentence because we are discussing a specific weapon; we are answering the question "What is Xena's preferred weapon?" We use "which" in the second sentence because the color of Gabby's skirt is a side point; no one has asked "What color is Gabby's skirt?"

As a handy help, imagine that a parenthetical "by the way" always follows the word "which." We wouldn't say "The weapon which (by the way) Xena prefers is the chakram," but we would say "Gabby's skirt, which (by the way) is brown, is made of leather."

Note: Never use commas with "that" in this context.

The weapon, that Xena prefers, is the chakram.
The weapon, which Xena prefers, is the chakram.
CORRECT, but only in context. You would only use this sentence if someone had asked you, "What is this weapon?" Your reply is to explain that it's a chakram, and you add the unnecessary info that Xena prefers it.



Their is a possessive meaning "belonging to them."
There indicates position.
They're is a contraction of "they are."

Xena and Gabrielle are brushing their hair.
Xena's hairbrush is over there.
They're never going to finish their brushing if they leave the brush there!

See also your/you're.



To is a preposition indicating direction.
Too is a conjunction meaning "also."
Two is the number after one but before three.

Xena is going to Athens.
Gabrielle is going too.
Two women are going to Athens, and a horse is going too.



These two words are usually considered to be alternate spellings of each other. Mostly, it's a matter of personal preference. In case you care, my own personal preference is to leave the "s" off, just because it can be confusing, seeming to imply plurality where there is none. (Incidentally, the same applies to "anyway/anyways.")



These words are relative pronouns. Use "who" when it is the subject of the sentence, "whom" when it is the object. Here's a very simple rule that should always work: Try replacing the word "who/whom" with "he/him." If "he" is correct, "who" is correct. If "him" is correct, "whom" is correct.

He is my brother.
Who is your brother?

I'm looking at him.
You're looking at whom?



Your is a possessive meaning "belonging to you."
You're is a contraction of "you are."

Is this your hairbrush?
You're not using my hairbrush, are you?

See also their/there/they're.


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Joan the English Chick
Last updated 1 October 2004