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Everyone knows the problem with spell-check: your word might be spelt right, but it may be wrong. It happens all the time. You’re writing a paper or texting a friend and must ask yourself, “Is it affect or effect? A while or awhile?” Sometimes, even the most seasoned writers have to stop and quickly search (Google) to double-check themselves. English is full of confusing words that sound alike but are spelt differently. It’s also full of words that share similar (but not identical) meanings, which are likely to be misused. They either look and sound alike or, worst of all, look and sound alike but have entirely different meanings.

Affect/Effect

The main difference between these two words is grammatical, although pronounced slightly differently. Usually, affect is a verb, and effect is a noun, and they’re used when discussing the results or consequences of particular actions.

    • I’m worried that your lazy habits will affect your studies (your lazy habits will hurt your studies).
    • Before you start an argument with your boss, consider the effects of your actions (before you start an argument, consider how your actions will affect the situation).

Common/Mutual

Common means belonging to many or all.

    • Miscommunication is a common problem among online users.

Mutual means “reciprocal”; feelings or actions felt or done by two or more parties regarding the other parties in the group.

    • Their feelings for each other were mutual.

Appraise/Apprise

Appraise means to “assign a value” to something.

    • The mortgage broker appraised my house at well over Rs.30,00,000.

Apprise means to “make aware of” something.

    • You should apprise him of what happened last night at the embassy.

Hung/Hanged

Hung is the past of the verb to hang, most of the time.

    • I hung the painting on the wall, and I hung my clothes on the clothesline.

Hanged is the deadly exception, as it’s the past tense of hang in a particular situation. Hang can also mean executing a criminal by hanging them with a rope. In that case, the past tense of hang is hanged.

    • The judge sentenced the murderer to be hanged.

Compare/Contrast

Compare should be used when referring to likenesses or similarities.

    • Those numbers compare favourably with those of last quarter.

Contrast is correctly used when pointing out differences.

    • In contrast to my measured approach, his is to rush forward, full steam ahead.

Amount/Number

Amount refers to a quantity of something.

    • A significant amount of snow fell last night.

The number is when something can be counted.

    • A large number of snowploughs are out on the road today.

Disinterested/Uninterested

Many native speakers use these two words with the same meaning – bored or not interested. That’s undoubtedly the meaning of uninterested, but it’s not the meaning of disinterested. The real meaning of disinterested is impartial, objective, or not taking sides in an argument. A judge hearing a court case should be disinterested but not uninterested!

    • The children wanted to play outside and were very uninterested in doing any studying.
    • Sometimes, a stranger can make a disinterested and fair decision more quickly than a family member.

Council/Counsel

Council is a decision-making governing body, advisory board, or board of directors.

    • Last night, the City Council decided on garbage pick-up days during the summer.

Counsel refers to the provision of advice or guidance.

    • I sought him out to seek his counsel on these latest developments.

Assume/Presume

Assume means believing something based on a theory or hypothesis without evidence.

    • Let’s assume he will do the right thing and appear at the preliminary hearing.

Presume means believing something is true unless it is proven to the contrary.

    • I presume this cutback will result in significant reductions in plant output.

Advice/Advise

These words have similar spellings and meanings and only slightly different pronunciations. Advice — with an “s” sound — is a noun. You can give your friend some advice.

    • My father gave me one piece of advice – “Always be on time.”

Advise — with a “z” sound — is a verb. With this word, you can advise your friend. The meaning of the two words is the same.

    • She advised me to invest my money more carefully.

Attentiveness/Attention

Attentiveness refers to the state of being attentive or considerate.

    • Her superiors noticed the nurse’s exceptional attentiveness to her patients.

Attention refers to the act of focusing or concentrating the mind on something.

    • We appreciate your attention to this pressing matter.

Beside/Besides

Beside is a preposition that means “immediately adjacent” or “by the side of” something.

    • The man sat beside his daughter while they waited.

Besides can mean “moreover” or “in addition to” something.

    • He’s not eligible for coverage. Besides, he’ll be changing jobs next month in any case.

Lose/Loose

We spell them differently, and we pronounce them differently, but English speakers still misuse these words. Lose – pronounced with a “z” sound – is a verb meaning not to have something anymore, to be unable to find something or not to win. You lose your cell phone, or you lose your way while driving somewhere.

    • I don’t want my football team to lose the game.

Loose – with an “s” sound – on the other hand, is an adjective that means free, unattached or not tight. It’s also a verb meaning to untie or let go of something.

    • The door handle fell off because it was too loose.

Continual/Continuous

Continual implies a close recurrence in time, a rapid succession of events, or constant repetition.

    • His partner’s continual complaining eventually drove him away from the business.

Continuous uninterrupted in time or sequence.

    • The continuous barrage of heavy metal music eventually broke him down.

Accuracy/Precision

Accuracy is how close something is to the actual value and to what degree it is free of error.

    • His shooting was very accurate in tonight’s game.

Precision is the measure of the “fineness” of value, usually measured in numeric terms.

    • The laser cut the diamond to a precision of .005.

Further/Farther

Further and farther have the same meaning but are used in different situations. They’re pronounced similarly, too, but with a difference – fur and far. Farther — with far — is used when discussing physical distance.

    • As a passenger in a car, you can ask the driver, “How much farther is it until we reach our destination?”

Further — with fur — is used for more abstract situations.

    • The human resources representative told me: “If you have any further complaints, please tell me.”

Cite/Quote

To cite something is to refer to it or repeat it as proof of what was said.

    • He cited numerous legal precedents while making his argument.

To quote something is to repeat it verbatim. (enclosed in quotation marks).

    • To quote John Lennon, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Anyone/Any one

Anyone, as one word, can only refer to people.

    • Anyone here is eligible for the draw.

Any one, as two words, is used when referring to things.

    • He couldn’t blame her illness on any one factor.

Bear/Bare

Bear — as a verb — has several meanings, including holding up or supporting a heavyweight and suffering or enduring difficulties.

    • Please don’t stand on that old chair; it cannot bear your weight.
    • I cannot bear to see my son in pain.

Bare is an adjective that means naked or uncovered or a verb that means to uncover or reveal.

    • I wore bare feet for the entire walk over the rocks as I got the best grip that way (adjective).
    • I bared my arm to show them my new tattoo (verb).

Alternate(ly)/Alternative(ly)

To alternate means to do something in turns, one after another.

    • When training, every two minutes, we alternate between wind sprints and jogging.

The alternate can sometimes be used as a noun.

    • We took the alternate route.

Alternative refers to one or more choices or options.

    • Our only alternative is to return to the way we came from.

Approve/Approve of

Approve means “to ratify” or “sanction” something.

    • I intend to approve the agreement once they add the paragraph I requested.

Approve of means “to accept something” or “to think well of” something.

    • The Mayor enthusiastically approved of the two new appointees.

Resign/Re-sign

These two words have identical spellings – except for the hyphen – and opposite meanings. Resign — without the hyphen — means to quit your job, and the “s” is pronounced like a “z.”

    • My boss didn’t want to increase my salary, so I decided to resign. This will be my last week of work.

Re-sign — with the hyphen — means to sign a contract again, and it usually also means that you’ve decided to stay in your current job! In re-sign, the “s” is pronounced as an “s,” and you emphasize the first syllable.

    • I love my current job, so I happily re-signed for another year.

Characteristic/Distinctive/Typical

Characteristic is a quality that distinguishes and identifies.

    • Novak always made his characteristic fist pump and bow after winning a match.

Distinctive is a feature that sets a person or thing apart from others in its group.

    • That designer has a distinctive style when working with recycled wood.

Typical is a characteristic specific to a group, type or species to which a person or thing belongs.

    • That long-winded letter was typical of a government bureaucracy.

Assure/Ensure/Insure

Assure means “to guarantee” or “be convinced” that something will happen.

    • I can assure you that the increase will be more than the inflation rate.

Ensure means “to make sure” that something will happen.

    • Fill your tank now to ensure you can make the trip without stopping.

Insure is used to describe covering something with insurance.

    • I plan to insure my new car for both collision and public liability.

Compliment/Complement

Compliment — If someone says to you “I like your shirt” then they’re complimenting you. In other words, they’re giving you a compliment. As a verb and noun, compliment means saying something nice about someone.

    • I complimented my sister on her delicious cooking (verb).
    • I gave my sister a compliment on her delicious cooking (noun).

Complement — is when two things go well together, or complete each other. This word is often used in food and fashion to describe matching styles or ingredients.

    • My blue tie complements my white shirt (my blue tie and white shirt go well together).
    • That wine complements the meat dish well.

Allusion/Illusion/Delusion

The allusion is an indirect reference to something.

    • Her allusion to the manager’s wife was utterly unfounded.

The illusion is when something appears to be real but isn’t.

    • The mist hanging over the river created an optical illusion.

Delusion is a persistent belief in something contrary to fact or reality.

    • The delusion that all doctors are infallible persists in some quarters.

Biannual/Biennial/Semi-annual

Biannual means for something to occur “twice a year”.

    • We conduct a mini-audit of the business on a biannual basis.

Biennial means for something to occur “every two years” or to last for two years.

    • An environmental conference is a biennial event.

Semi-annual means for something to occur “twice a year” or once “every six months”.

    • We review our hardware inventory levels semi-annually.

Comprise/Constitute/Compose

Comprise means “to consist of” or “to be made up of” something.

    • A baseball game comprises nine innings.

Constitute and compose are equivalent and mean “to make up” or “account for” something.

    • The landmass of Canada constitutes more than 60% of North America.
    • Those ten provinces and three territories constitute the country of Canada.
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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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