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Commonly Confused Words


Here’s some good council for you: one of the premiere tenants of polished writing is to be conscience of commonly confused words.

It’s not just an ascetic consideration: ignoring this principal can negatively effect readers’ perceptions of your document, even to the point that they might become disinterested—maybe even give it a wide birth.

By contrast, while accurate diction won’t insure that readers will agree with you, if you hone in on the precise terms you want, then, for all intensive purposes, your writing will be more likely to illicit a positive reaction from readers.

 

Notice anything a little . . . off there?

English is full of homophones—words that sound alike but mean different things—and other words and expressions that are a hair’s breadth (not hare’s breath) from each other in sound and spelling—so much so that they can be hard to tell apart.

Often, these types of errors—variously called eggcorns, mondegreens, and malapropisms—arise from hearing or mishearing a word or expression and not seeing it in print, with the result that we’re sometimes not even aware that the correct form exists!

The best way to avoid these kinds of slips is to study up a bit on commonly confused words and get a sense of the vocabulary available to you. The links below offer a good start; here are some other tips:
 

  • Spellcheck can’t help: commonly confused words are all real words! The grammar checker sometimes gets things right, but it can’t replace your precious brain—or anyone else’s; soliciting human feedback from a GWC coach or other knowledgeable reader is invaluable in this regard.
     
  • If you notice an error in diction, use your word processor’s Find function to check for other spots where the same error might have crept in.
     
  • The dictionary isn’t training wheels: it’s more the actual wheels, a fundamental component of getting your text where it needs to go. Keep one handy and consult it often. The autocomplete feature of electronic dictionaries can reveal similar words you didn’t know existed—but then, so can browsing one of those old two-ton tomes.

 

There was something off there

The opening paragraphs did indeed contain many errors in usage. The following list points out the errors, with the correct word or phrase following the colon:

  • Council: counsel
  • Premiere: premier
  • Tenants: tenets
  • Conscience: conscious
  • Ascetic: aesthetic
  • Principal: principle
  • Effect: affect
  • Disinterested: uninterested
  • Birth: berth
  • Insure: ensure
  • Hone: home
  • For all intensive purposes: for all intents and purposes
  • Illicit: elicit

Ultimately, while these kinds of substitutions might not completely obscure your meaning, they can cause readers to question your knowledge and attention to detail more broadly, whether fairly or unfairly—so it's best to nail down your usage and give them no such opportunity.

 

More Information on Commonly Confused Words

GWC - all topics list heading

All-Topics Index


The following index makes searching for a specific topic easier and links to the appropriate place in the sequenced material. We think we have most of them, but please email us at writingcenter@nps.edu if we are missing something!

A-Z content menu

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z

A

abbreviations

abstracts

academic writing

acronyms

active voice

advisor, selecting and working with

apostrophes

appointment with GWC coaches, how to schedule

argument

article usage

assignments, understanding them

audience

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B

body paragraphs

brackets, square

brainstorming

building better sentences tips

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C

capitalization

citations

citation software

citation styles

clauses

clarity

clustering

coaching, about

coaching, how to schedule

colons

comma splices

commas, FANBOYS

commas, introductory

commas, list

commas, nonessential / nonrestrictive information

commas, Oxford

commas, serial

commonly confused words 

compare-and-contrast papers 

concision

conclusions

conjunctive adverbs

coordinating conjunctions

copyright and fair use

critical thinking  

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D

dangling modifiers

dashes

dependent clauses

dependent marker words

display equations

double submission of coursework

drafting

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E

editing your own work

editing: outside editors

em dash

en dash

exclamation points

executive summary

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F

FANBOYS

FAQs

first person, use of in academic writing

footnotes

fragments

free-writing

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G

gerunds

grammar

group writing

GWC appointment, how to schedule

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H

homophones

hyphens

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I

ibid.

incomplete sentences

independent clauses

introductions

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J

Joining the Academic Conversation

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L

LaTeX

library liaisons

lists, syntax of

literature reviews 

logic and analysis 

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M

making a GWC appointment

mathematics

memos

methodologies

misplaced modifiers

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N

nominalizations

note-taking

noun clusters

numbers

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O

organization

outlining

Oxford comma

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P

paragraph development 

parallelism

paraphrasing

parentheses

parts of speech

passive voice

periods

persuasion

phrases vs. clauses

plagiarism, how to avoid through citations

plain language

polishing

prepositional phrases 

prepositions

pronouns

publishing

punctuation

purpose of research

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Q

questions

quotation marks 

quoting

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R

reading with intent

redundancies                                                                

reference software

reflection papers 

research

research questions

reusing papers

reverse outlining

revision

roadmaps                                            

run-on sentences 

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S

scheduling a GWC appointment

self-citing

semicolons

sentence fragments

serial comma

signal phrases

significance

so what?

sources, engaging with / critiquing

sources, evaluating the reliability of

sources, citing

spelling

standard essay structure

STEM / technical writing 

style

subject–verb agreement

subjects, grammatical

subordinating conjunctions

summarizing

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T

technical writing

that vs. which

thesis writing

thesis advisor, selecting and working with

thesis process overview

thesis process tips

thesis proposals – common elements                                                     

thesis statements

this, that, these, those

tone, professional

topic sentences 

transitions

types of papers

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U

United States or U.S.?

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V

verbs and verb tense

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W

which vs. that

Why write?

writer’s block 

writing process

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Z

Zotero

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