Commonly Confused Words

Commonly Confused Words

Well known dictionary company Merriam – Webster assembled some of the commonly confused words in English. Learning these words are particularly important for English-language learners, because you can easily notice that some of these words also explained wrongly in Turkish-English dictionaries.

Let’s learn these words, their meanings, and their proper usage in examples:


Confused Words - 1

Question: Does the weather affect or effect your mood?
Answer: affect.

How to Remember It:

The simplest distinction is that affect is almost always a verb, and effect is usually a noun.

It may help to remember that the verb – the “action word” – starts with “a”: affect is an action.


Confused Words - 2

Question: If you receive an appropriate punishment, did you get your just deserts or just desserts?

Answer: just deserts.

How to Remember It:

This word is unrelated to deserts of the sand and cactus kind, and it isn’t about the desserts that provide a sweet finish to a meal.

Instead, this deserts comes from the same word that gave us deserve. (Oddly, it’s pronounced like desserts.)


Confused Words - 3

Question: Do you buy your writing paper in a store that sells stationary or stationery?

Answer: stationery

How to Remember It:

For one, consider the histories of these words.

Stationery comes from stationer, a word that in the 14th century referred to someone who sold books and papers. What the stationer sold eventually came to be referred to by the noun stationery (“materials for writing or typing” and “letter paper usually accompanied with matching envelopes”).

Meanwhile, the adjective stationary has always been used to describe what is fixed, immobile, or static.

Here’s another way to remember it: stationery is spelled with an “e”, like the envelopes that often come with it.


Confused Words - 4

Question: If you’re getting shot at by antiaircraft guns, or receiving unfriendly criticism, are you taking flak or flack?

Answer: flak.

How to Remember It:

Although flack is an established variant, the more foreign-looking flak is the original spelling and the better choice. Flak was originally a German acronym for Fliegerabwehrkanonen – from FLieger (“flyer”) + Abwehr (“defense”) + Kanonen (“cannons”) – which basically means “antiaircraft gun.”

That use of flak in English dates back to 1938. In the decades after the war it took on its civilian meaning of “criticism.”

(A flack, meanwhile, is a PR agent or someone who provides publicity.)


Confused Words - 5

Question: The car won’t start because its battery, or it’s battery, is dead?

Answer: its.

How to Remember It:

The word it’s means “it is” or “it has,” while its means “belonging to it.”

In the sentence above, “it is battery” or “it has battery” doesn’t work – so the correct version has to be its.


Confused Words - 6

Question: When you’re attentively studying, are you poring over or pouring over the materials?

Answer: poring.

How to Remember It:

One reason this word trips us up is that both pour and pore are often followed by over.

But in this case it probably helps to think literally. When we’re intently studying something, nothing is actually pouring (i.e., flowing, leaking) onto the object of study; in fact, if something did pour onto what you’re poring over, your task would be far more difficult. The less familiar verb pore is correct.

(Pore actually has the same root as pour, but of course that only adds to the confusion.)


Confused Words - 7

Question: Does the average American family have less than two kids or fewer than two kids?

Answer: fewer.

How to Remember It:

Fewer refers to things that can be counted (fewer kids, fewer chairs). Less usually refers to quantities of things that can’t be counted (less coffee, less agitation).

However, under certain circumstances less, not fewer, is more commonly used with countable things. For example: Less than twenty miles, less than five dollars, and 1500 words or less, are considered standard.

As for the express lane at the supermarket, “ten items or fewer” follows the general rule, but “ten items or less” is also widely accepted and more often used.


Confused Words - 8

Question: If your ship fills with water and sinks, does it flounder or founder?

Answer: founder.

How to remember it:

When something founders, it loses its foundation. (Founder and foundation have the same root.)

To founder is to collapse, sink, or fail.

One source of confusion here is that the meaning of the verb flounder is similar: to flounder is to struggle to move or get one’s footing, or to proceed or act clumsily or ineffectually.

People can flounder, but ships founder.


Confused Words - 9

Question: Is the person in charge of a school the principal or the principle?

Answer: principal.

How to remember it:

A couple of mnemonics based on letters are useful here: the principal is your pal. Principle, like rule, ends in “l-e.”


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