Frequently Confused Words

The Tricky Top Twenty


I see the following orthographic tricksters confused so often, I’ve awarded them a place on my own Top Twenty List of Misused Words.  For ease of reference, the words are listed in alphabetical order.


1. bare/bear - These two short words cause an inordinate amount of confusion. The verb form of bear has so many uses, I’ve placed examples at the end of this list.


2. clothes/cloths

Clothes -- what you wear; garment

Cloths – pieces of fabric


3. compliment/complement

compliment – praise, expression of admiration

complement – something that fills up or makes complete


4. dessert/desert

dessert – ice cream, cake, pudding or other sweet

desert –  arid land where ice cream might taste refreshing!


5. discreet/discrete

discreet – modest or prudent behavior; unobtrusive

discrete – constituting a separate entity; individually distinct


6. effect/affect

effect – (verb) to cause, to make happen

               (noun) a result or impact of something; an outcome


affect – (verb) to influence something or to put on a pretense

               (noun) an emotional response



7. elicit/illicit

elicit – to draw out

illicit – unlawful, forbidden


8. emigrate/immigrate

emigrate – leave one’s county

immigrate – settle in a new country


9. eminent/imminent

eminent – prominent; conspicuous     

imminent – about to happen


10. envelop/envelope

envelop – (verb) to cover or surround completely

envelope – (noun) container for a letter; something that envelops


11. figuratively/literally

figuratively – metaphorically or symbolically

literally – exactly; without exaggeration; something that actually happened


[We often see literally used as an intensifier, like the word very, to gain emphasis.  But this is generally considered to be incorrect usage.]


12. imply/infer

imply – suggest or express indirectly

infer – draw a conclusion; deduce


13. insight/incite

insight – discernment; the act of apprehending the inner nature of things

incite – spur to action; instigate


14. lightening/lightning

lightening – the relieving of a burden, weight or problem

lightning – electrical discharge released during a storm


15. metal/mettle

metal – a substance that is primarily hard, opaque, and has good conductivity.

mettle – courage; vigor and strength of spirit or temperament


16. nauseous/nauseated

nauseous – to cause nausea

nauseated - to feel nausea


17. peak/peek/pique

peak – highest point; maximum

peek – (verb) to look furtively; (noun) a brief glance

pique – a transient feeling of wounded vanity


18. pray/prey

pray – entreat, implore; to address God or a god in word or thought

prey – (noun) an animal or person killed or harmed by another animal or person

            (verb) to hunt/kill an animal/person; to harm, cheat, steal from a person


To fall prey to means to be harmed or affected in a bad way.


19. principal/principle

principal – chief or main; non-interest part of a loan

principle – fundamental rule or code


20. rein/reign/rain

rein – (verb) to guide or control

           (noun) strap used to guide or control a horse


To give free rein – give freedom to make their own way

To keep under a tight rein – to watch or carefully control


reign – (verb) to rule as a monarch

             (noun) a monarch’s exercise of power or period of rule


rain – (noun) condensed moisture falling separately in drops

            (verb) to fall as water in drops from clouds; to fall like rain; to pour down or

             give abundantly



Bare vs Bear

  If you “grin and bare it” in a public place, you might be arrested!


I’ve yet to see the noun form of bear (relatives of Yogi, Smokey and Pooh) used incorrectly.  


But the verb form of bear and the adjective/transitive verb bare are frequently interchanged, often with comic consequences.


A good rule of thumb for deciding which word to use is this: bare is generally used to imply exposure or uncovering, or a condition of lack.  He bared his soul.  The cupboard was bare.


The verb bear, however, has a multitude of meanings, none of which require nudity of the physical, mental or emotional sort.  Here are a few:


  a.  to hold up under/be capable of: Her excuse didn’t bear close scrutiny.


  b.  support/carry: The thin pond ice will not bear his weight.


  c.  to hold or carry oneself/one’s body: She bears herself like a queen.


  d.  give birth to or produce by natural growth: A woman bears a

    child and a vine bears fruit.


  e.  to move or go in a direction: Please bear left at the fork in the road.


  f.  press or weigh down: Bear down on the accelerator now!


  g.  to strive toward: We must all bear down on the task at hand.


  h.  substantiate: The facts don’t bear out Tom’s claim.


  i.  to endure: Nellie always bears up well under pressure.


  j. show patience: Please bear with me.