Top 50 words that people get wrong in English

Advice or advise? Complement or compliment? Get it right!

English has many commonly-misused words and phrases. Maybe they sound similar, look the same, or are just confusing. Here’s a list of some of the most common English mistakes.

Technically, these words usually fall into 3 categories:

  • homonyms: words that have the same sound or spelling but a different meaning
  • homophones: words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings, origin and/or spelling
  • homographs: words that have the same spelling but differ in origin, meaning and/ or pronunciation.
accept – except“Accept” is a verb meaning to take or receive. “Except” is usually a preposition meaning excluding.
I will accept all the packages except that one.
adapt – adopt “Adapt” means to change. “Adopt” means to take as one’s own or to practise or use something.
I have adapted the time plan to allow for holidays. They have adopted a child. He adopted a humble tone of voice.
advise – advice “Advise” is the verb. “Advice” is the noun.
I advised him to stop giving unwanted advice.
affect – effect “Affect” is usually a verb meaning to influence. “Effect” is usually a noun meaning result.
The drug did not affect the disease and it had several unpleasant side effects.
alternate – alternative “Alternate” is a verb meaning one after the other or back and forth. “Alternative” is a noun meaning one or the other.
The weather alternates between rain and shine. The alternative to a large bookcase is two small ones.
cheque – check “Cheque” is a noun meaning “bill”, “receipt” or “bank order” in British English. In American English it is spelt “check” which can also mean a slip or ticket showing the amount owed, especially a bill for food or beverages consumed. “Check” is also a verb, meaning to verify.
Please check if this cheque is correct.
complement compliment“Complement” is something that enhances or goes together well with something else. “Compliment” means to praise or flatter.
Jack complimented Jane. ‘This wine is the perfect complement to the food”, he said.
continual – continuous “Continual” usually means frequently occurring or recurring at frequent intervals. “Continuous” means unceasing or without interruption.
The phones are ringing continually. My heart beats continuously.
dependent – dependant “Dependent” is a verb meaning relying upon. “Dependant” is a noun meaning a person (child or spouse) who depends on someone else for income or support. Generally, “dependent” is used for both.
Umbrella sales are often dependent on the weather. All staff and their dependants (or dependents) are covered by health insurance.
ensure – insure – assure – secure The first three of these verbs all generally mean “to make sure,” but they cannot be used interchangeably. “Ensure” is something you do to guarantee an event or condition. This is sometimes spelled “insure” in American English.
“Assure” is something you do to a person to remove doubt or anxiety. “Insure” is reserved for limiting financial liability, most commonly by obtaining an insurance policy. “Secure” is to make something stable or safe.
Please ensure that there is enough food. Assure the staff that their salaries will be paid on time despite the bank strikes. We are insured against theft. Secure high shelving units to the walls.
follow-up – follow up“Follow-up” is a noun or an adjective. “Follow up” is a verb.
It is important to do follow-up after the event. The follow-up study shows a decrease in sales. You need to follow up on the results of the event.
fulfil Incorrect: fullfil, fullfill, fulfill. However, fulfilling and fulfilled are correct.
learning – lesson – finding The noun “learning” is not wrong. It means knowledge or skill gained from learning. But it is clumsy and can easily be replaced by the simpler word “lesson”, meaning a useful piece of practical wisdom acquired by experience or study, or by finding, meaning a conclusion reached after examination or investigation.
The lesson from this activity is that we need to work together to achieve better results. The finding from the research analysis is that 0.2 percent failed the test.
less(er) – few(er) “Less” refers to quantity. “Few” refers to number.
There is less water in this bottle. There are fewer cakes on this plate.
Note: This distinction is disappearing in English: ‘less’ is used more often, as in a checkout aisle sign saying ’10 items or less’. It hurts the purists among us, but it is what it is. Language evolves.
lose – loose “Lose” is to fail or go missing. Pronounced “louz”. “Loose” is the opposite of tight. Pronounced “louss”.
We cannot afford to lose customers to our competitors. The screw is loose and needs to be tightened.
media – medium“Medium” is singular. “Media” is plural. Sometimes it is used as a singular collective noun to mean “the press media.”
Digital media include blogs, websites, apps, etc. The media is sure to publish her photo.
precede – proceed“Precede” means to go before or be in front of. “Proceed” means to go forward, continue, or carry on.
Production precedes distribution. Proceed with caution: the floor is unstable.
practice – practise “Practice” is a noun and “practise” is a verb.
I will practise my English while on holiday. I will start football practice after lunch.
principle – principal “Principal” is an adjective meaning primary or main. “Principle” is a noun meaning a basic truth or law.
The principal task is to clean up. Honesty is a matter of principle.
set-up – set up “Set-up” is a noun. “Set up” is a verb.
The meeting room has been set up with all the chairs facing the back of the room. It’s an unusual set-up.
than – then “Than” is used in comparisons. “Then” relates to time.
I like pizza more than lasagna. We ate dinner, then went to the movies.
their – there “Their” is a possessive pronoun. “There” indicates a place.
I listen to their opinions. Please hang up your coat over there.
use – usage (noun) Although the definitions are slightly different, “usage” is usually just a fancy way to say “use” because people think it sounds more technical. It doesn’t. Stick to “use”.
The product is guaranteed one year with normal use. Regular use of oil improves the shine.
use – utilize (verb) As above, although the definitions are slightly different, “utilize” is usually just a fancy way to say “use.” Stick to “use”.
It’s best to use all the available space in a room. Clever storage helps you use the space efficiently.

See also I couldn’t be arsed… and other less-common English mistakes.

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