Spelling, Vocabulary, and Confusing Words

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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.


Idle: not active; unemployed.

Idol: an effigy; a beloved celebrity.

Idyll: a happy interlude; prose or poetry describing rural serenity.


See e.g., i.e.


See allusion, illusion.


See emulate, imitate.


See emigrate, immigrate.


See eminent, imminent.


As a verb, impact is constantly misused, and affect is almost always the better choice. Avoid such usages as The proposition will impact property taxes or Greenhouse gas emissions negatively impact the environment. Make it affect instead of impact in both sentences.

Impact means "to pack tightly together," as in an impacted tooth.


Infer is not a synonym for imply. Imply is done by a speaker or writer—specifically, one who is being indirect: She implied that I'm a fool means that she didn't come right out and say it, but she got her point across.

Infer is done by a perceptive listener or reader who "catches" your meaning: I infer that you think I'm a fool.

Imply is akin to suggest and insinuate; infer is akin to deduce and conclude.


Incite: to provoke; stir up.

Insight: understanding; comprehension.


From a story about a rescue at sea: "The rescued pair included an American woman and a Danish man." This is a misuse of include, which means "to make someone or something part of a group." You can't be included unless others are involved. The sentence requires a rewrite, something like The two people rescued were an American woman and a Danish man.

A major-league baseball team doesn't include men; it consists of men, and only men. Compare: Our office softball team includes women. We realize immediately that it's a coed league and there are also men on the squad.


Something incredible is beyond belief, so when we experience it, we are incredulous.

Incredulous refers to a state of astonishment or disbelief. It is not a deft synonym for incredible.


See imply, infer.


See flammable, inflammable.


What a difference one letter makes. Ingenious refers to worldly brilliance; ingenuous refers to otherworldly innocence.


Sometimes in order to is necessary, but it's often just a fussy way of saying to: We should exercise in order to stay healthy. Drop in order whenever possible.


In regard to and with regard to are phrases that mean "regarding," "concerning," "on the subject of."

As regards—note the s on the end—means the same thing. Perhaps this is why people mindlessly pluralize regard and say in regards to and its partner in crime, with regards to.

Both of the following examples are correct: With regard to your friend, let's hope she is well. Compare that to With regards to your friend. Let's hope she is well.

In the first sentence, With regard to means "concerning." But in the second sentence, regards with an s is a plural noun meaning "best wishes."


See assure, ensure, insure.


When something is ironic, it has a grimly humorous or paradoxical twist, as if the universe were playing a wicked practical joke. Thus, it is ironic if a speeding car crashes into a "drive carefully" sign, or if someone named Joe Friendly turns out to be a serial killer.

Do not use irony or ironic to describe a simple coincidence: It's so ironic that our birthdays fall on the same day. No irony there; it's merely coincidental.


This nonsense word results from confusing and combining regardless and irrespective. If people would just think about it, what's that silly ir- doing there?

In technical terms, ir- is an initial negative particle. So if irregardless means anything, it means "not regardless" when the person using it is trying to say the exact opposite.


The thing is is thatThe truth is is thatThe problem is is that … The airwaves are teeming with commentators afflicted with the is is hiccup, one of life's mysteries, even to those who say it. The most alarming case in point: The fact of the matter is is that, a bloated locution intoned by certain pundits, often right before they express an opinion.


See aisle, isle.


It's: a contraction for it is or it has.

Its: a possessive pronoun meaning "belonging to it."

Misused Words

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