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A Tiny List of Most Confusable Words


There are words that people often mistake in writing, and it's surprisingly true that many such words found new meanings merely due to popular wrong use. A familiar example is 'alternative' vs. 'alternate'. The basic meaning of the word alternative was 'option' or 'choice', and the meaning of alternate, 'one after the other'. But people profusely started using alternate to mean 'option', and even authorities accepted it as a correct meaning in time.

Let's make sure that we don't use incorrect words, which affects your writing style. Many of the words I suggest not to use in a situation are not incorrect now, but for better style and understanding of your writing, I advise you to follow the guidelines. Here is the list of words.

Ability, Capacity: Ability is 'the skill to do something', and capacity is 'the volume of a space'. Make sure you don't use capacity to mean ability, though its not incorrect.

She showed great ability to fill the bottle to its capacity.

Accept, Except: This should not much confuse people, though there are people who use it interchangeably. Except is a grammar word that means 'letting alone' and accept is a verb meaning 'to agree to receive something'.

Everyone except me was present at the wedding.
I accepted her proposal for marriage.

Advise, Advice: Here both mean the same, but 'se' is verb and 'ce' is noun. Don't interchange them. There are other words in which 'se' forms verb and 'ce' forms noun (which, sad I can't remember now, and would request any of my knowledgeable readers to comment about).

I advised him to take her advice.

Adapt, Adopt: Adapt is used to mean 'you are preparing for a situation'. Adopt is 'to accept an orphan as your child and raise him' or 'to choose to use particular plan'.

I would like to adapt to the climate of Chennai.
I decided to adopt the child.
I also adopted the new mutual funds investment plan.

Affect, Effect: Affect is 'influence'. Effect can be noun (the result of something) and verb (to cause something)

The Tsunami affected the lives of South Indian people, and effected a great fall in share market. (Here effect means cause).

Allusion, Illusion: Allusion (verb: allude) means 'a reference to something'. Illusion is 'a magical appearance'.

He alluded to the incident briefly.
The Fire Escape illusion was wonderful.

Averse, Adverse: You are averse means 'you don't like something'. Adverse means 'harmful', and it should be used more with things than human beings.

I am averse to smocking in the public, since it's adverse to your health.

Among, Between: Among comes when there are three or more people, and between comes when there are two people. Both mean 'in the middle of'.

Compliment, Complement: You give a compliment to somebody for good performance. Complement is the matching other piece of something. The adjective form of these are complementary and complementary. Notice, there is no word such as 'complementory' or 'complimentory' with that o.

The blouse complements quite well with the saree, which I complimented her about.

Counsel, Council: Two of the famous confusable words. Counsel means 'advise' or 'guide in the correct direction'. Its a verb. On the other hand, council is a noun meaning a 'body of people governing something'.

The council approved the counseling of its aberrant members.

Comprise, Compose: Comprise means 'include' and compose means 'create'. Just remember that components 'create (compose)' something, and something is 'comprised of (includes)' its components.

The microphone comprises a magnet and an attached diaphragm.
A magnet with a diaphragm attached composes a microphone.


There are a million more words you can confuse with, and this is only a very tiny list. More of the words will come in separate posts in the coming days. In the meanwhile, please drop me a message if you find yourself confused with any word. I will give you clarification as quickly as possible.

Related Entries:

Why Superfluity Sustains?
Using the Right Word (Semantics)

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008


  1. I know what you mean... I always confused "continuously" and "continually" ;)
    Very helpful post!
    Thank you.

  2. Hi Disturbed stranger, thanks for the comment. Yes, continuously and continually are two such well confused words. Let me clarify.

    Continuously should be used for anything that doesn't break, like the flow of water.
    Continually is for anything that 'recurs' in a pattern (with fixed intervals in between) like the process of yearly tax returns or the beating of the drum by a drummer.

    Sad that many people mix them up.


  3. This list reminds me of the 'Words and Expressions Commonly Misused' section of Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. If you haven't read it already, you should. It is a wonderful book and invaluable to a writer.

    Thanks again for the reminder on 'among' and 'between' - those words seem to be my Achilles' heel in writing. ;)

  4. Pema, thanks for the link.

    Of course I have read Elements of Style. There is not a single writer that starts professional writing without reading that book, I guess.



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