Spelling, Vocabulary, and Confusing Words
Many words in English sound or look alike, causing confusion and not a few headaches. This section lists some of these words, and other troublemakers.
Use a when the first letter of the word following has the sound of a consonant. Keep in mind that some vowels can sound like consonants, such as when they're sounded out as individual letters. Also, some letters, notably h and u, sometimes act as consonants (home, usual), other times as vowels (honest, unusual).
a U-turn (pronounced "yoo")
a NASA study
Use an when the first letter of the word following has the sound of a vowel.
an unfair charge
an honor (the h is silent)
an HMO plan (H is pronounced "aitch")
an NAACP convention (the N is pronounced "en")
This is a fine distinction that some consider nitpicking. Terms such as FBI, HMO, and NAACP, although widely called acronyms, are actually abbreviations. The difference is in how they are spoken. An abbreviation, also called an initialism, is pronounced letter by letter. An acronym is pronounced as if it were a word. The abbreviation FBI is pronounced "eff-bee-eye." The acronym NASA is pronounced "nassa."
Accept means "to acknowledge" or "to agree to."
Except is usually a preposition used to specify what isn't included: I like all fruits except apples.
See abbreviation, acronym.
Ad: short for "advertisement."
Add: to include; to perform addition.
To adapt is to take something and change it for a special purpose. A screenwriter adapts a book to make it work as a movie. An organism adapts (itself) to a new environment.
To adopt is to take something and use it or make it your own. A government adopts a different policy. A family adopts an orphan.
Adverse: unfavorable: an adverse reaction to the medication.
Averse: not fond of; seeking to avoid: averse to risk.
Advise: to suggest; to recommend.
Affect as a verb means "to influence": It affected me strangely. As a noun, it is a technical term used in psychology to describe someone's emotional state.
Effect as a noun means "result": It had a strange effect on me. As a verb, it means "to bring about" or "to cause": He's trying to effect change in government.
This word is not a synonym for annoy or irritate. To aggravate is to make something worse: He started running too soon and aggravated his sprained ankle.
You can get hold of something, and you can get a hold of it. But in formal writing, "ahold" is not a real word.
An aid is a thing that helps.
An aide is a living helper or assistant: His aide brought first aid.
Ail: to be ill.
Ale: an alcoholic beverage.
Aisle: a corridor.
Isle: an island.
ALL READY, ALREADY
All ready means that everything or everyone is now ready.
Already refers to something accomplished earlier: We already ate.
Two words. Someday, alright may finally prevail, but it hasn't yet.
The team set an all-time record for consecutive games won. Delete all-time. All records are "all-time" records.
Similarly, avoid "new record." The team set a record, not a new record.
ALL TOGETHER, ALTOGETHER
All together: in a group: We're all together in this.
Altogether: entirely: It is not altogether his fault.
ALLUDE, ELUDE, REFER
Allude means "to mention indirectly." Do not confuse allude with refer. If we say, "Good old Joe is here," we refer to Joe. If we say, "That man with the ready laugh is here," we allude to Joe, but we never mention his name.
Allude is also sometimes confused with elude, which means "to escape" or "avoid capture."
Allusion, the noun form of allude, is an indirect, sometimes sly, way of talking about something or someone.
An illusion is a false perception.
Aloud: said out loud.
Altar: a pedestal, usually religious.
Alter: to modify; to change.
Something is ambiguous if it is unclear or has more than one meaning.
Ambivalent describes a mixed or undecided state of mind: Her ambiguous remark left him feeling ambivalent about her.
Both words mean "friendly," but amiable generally describes a pleasant person; amicable generally describes a cordial situation: The amiable couple had an amicable divorce.
Either is acceptable, but many writers prefer the more concise amid.
Use amount for things that cannot be counted and number for things that can be counted: This amount of water is enough to fill a number of bottles.
The culprit is amount. Some might incorrectly say "a large amount of bottles," but no one would say "a large number of water."
The abbreviation a.m. refers to the hours from midnight to noon, and p.m. refers to the hours from noon to midnight. Careful writers avoid such redundancies as three a.m. in the morning (delete in the morning) or eight p.m. this evening (make it eight o'clock this evening).
To avoid confusion, use midnight instead of twelve a.m. and noon instead of twelve p.m.
The terms also are frequently written as A.M., P.M.; AM, PM; and am, pm.
See a, an.
"Objectionable to many, who regard it as a legalism," says Roy H. Copperud in A Dictionary of Usage and Style. Either say and or say or.
An anecdote is a brief, amusing tale.
An antidote counteracts or reduces the effects of something unpleasant or even lethal. There are antidotes for snakebites, but there is no known antidote for boring anecdotes.
Some speakers and writers use an with certain words starting with an audible h—the word historic heads the list. But why do those who say an historic occasion say a hotel, a hospital, a happy home? There is no valid reason to ever say an historic, an heroic, an horrific, etc., and anyone who does so is flirting with pomposity.
In casual usage, anxious has become a synonym for eager, but the words are different. Whereas eager means "excited" or "enthusiastic," anxious, like anxiety, denotes uneasiness.
ANY MORE, ANYMORE
Use the two-word form to mean "any additional": I don't need any more help.
Use anymore to mean "any longer": I don't need help anymore.
ANY TIME, ANYTIME
Traditionalists do not accept the one-word form, anytime. But it is everywhere, and there's no turning back.
There does seem to be a difference between You may call anytime and Do you have any time? Always use the two-word form with a preposition: You may call at any time.
A school district official was quoted as saying, "We have been appraised of all the relevant issues." Bad choice. The word appraise means "to decide the value of." The gentleman clearly meant apprised, which means "informed."
Ascent: a climb; movement upward.
Assent: an agreement (noun); to agree (verb).
See in regard(s) to, with regard(s) to.
Assume: to take for granted without evidence.
Presume: to believe based on evidence.
ASSURE, ENSURE, INSURE
To assure is to promise or say with confidence. It is more about saying than doing: I assure you that you'll be warm enough.
To ensure is to do or have what is necessary for success: These blankets ensure that you'll be warm enough.
To insure is to cover with an insurance policy.
What you insure you entrust to a business. What you ensure results from your personal efforts.
Since the two words are pronounced the same, be careful not to write oral (having to do with the mouth) if you mean aural (having to do with hearing).
See adverse, averse.
A WHILE, AWHILE
The two-word phrase a while is getting pushed aside by awhile. But awhile should only be used to mean "for a while." It's a distinction worth preserving: It took a while, but I was convinced after thinking it over awhile.
Always use a while with prepositions: After a while, she arrived.