21 Most Commonly Confused Terms in English Grammar

Tuesday, October 113 min read

No matter how long we’ve been reading and writing English, we all have certain words that trip us up. For example, some folks can’t remember the difference between “lie” and “lay.” Others still get confused by “their,” “there,” and “they’re.” If you’re shaking your head in agreement, you’re not alone. Let’s examine some of the most commonly confused English words, and find tips for improving your mastery of these tricky terms.

Affect vs. Effect

Of all the words on this list, these two may be the hardest to keep straight. “Affect” is usually used as a verb meaning “to have an effect on.” (The adorable puppy affected her mood.) But “effect” is most often used as a noun that means “a change produced by a cause.” (The effect was she smiled for the rest of the visit.) Need a tip to help you remember? Swap out the word with “alter” and “result.” If “alter” (with an “a”) fits the sentence, then “affect” is the correct word. If it’s “result,” then “effect” is the right term.

Of course, “affect” can also be used as a noun, but that’s limited to psychological contexts (such as a “depressed affect”), and “effect” as a verb is a formal construction meaning “to bring about change.” They’re less commonly used than the examples given above.  

Counsel vs. Council

These words are homophones — they sound alike but are spelled differently. The verb “to counsel” means to advise someone, but it can also be used as a noun in similar contexts. (A lawyer offers her clients legal counsel.) On the other hand, a “council” is a group that gives advice. Think of a city council gathering in public to vote to install a new traffic light in the town square.

Everyday vs. Every Day

Trying to decide between these two terms can be tricky. “Everyday” is an adjective that means ordinary or commonplace. (Her mother wore her everyday dress to the fair.) Separate this term into two words when you want to use it to mean “daily.” (She rode the bus to work every day.) If “single” can be inserted between “every” and “day” to clarify, then “every day” is the correct term.

Insure vs. Ensure

This word pair may cause you to check on your current insurance coverage. If an item is “insured,” it is secured or protected, usually financially. (Jana insured her car in case of theft.) On the other hand, to “ensure” means to make certain a problem doesn’t happen.” (Jana tried to ensure her vehicle would not be stolen by locking it in the garage.)

Led vs. Lead

To explain how Mary showed Sarah the way to math class, we could say that one girl “led” the other through the halls. But if Sarah shares her pencil with Mary, we would call it a “lead” pencil. Both words rhyme with “bed,” but “led” is the past tense of “lead,” and the other “lead” is a type of metal.  

Lie vs. Lay

The subtle difference between these words is who or what is doing the action. When a person or animal “lies” down, they recline. For example, Tony lies down on the grass to rest. But only an inanimate object can “lay” down or, in other words, be placed or put down. So, Tony can lay his picnic basket on the grass. As a general rule of thumb, living things will “lie” down while someone will “lay” an object down.

Lose vs. Loose

These words sound similar (but not identical), yet their meanings are very different. When you “lose,” it means you’ve failed to win at a game or other contest. Or maybe you just can’t find something. (Frank will lose his cool if he loses at Uno.) When describing something that is not firmly or tightly fixed, “loose” is the correct word. (He had a loose grip on the cards.) There’s also a subtle difference in pronunciation: “Lose” is pronounced with an “ooz” sound and “loose” has an “oos” sound.

Than vs. Then

Use “than” to compare ideas or elements. (The yacht is bigger than the boat.) The word “then” is useful to discuss time or sequence. (The boat docked, then the yacht entered the harbor.)

There vs. Their vs. They’re

This trio of words is infamous for causing confusion. “There” is all about place and location. (Her cousins walked from over there.) “Their” is a possessive pronoun indicating something belongs to a group of people. (Her cousins brought their doll collection.) Finally, “they’re” is a contraction of the words “they are.” (They’re going to play with the dolls.)

Who vs. Which

The most straightforward rule to remember is that “who” always refers to people, and “which” always refers to things. For example, in the sentence, “I know a doctor who can treat your cold,” the word “who” refers to the person “doctor.” In another example, “Margo showed us her coat, which she bought last week,” “which” describes the object, “coat.”

Featured image credit: SolStock/ iStock

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