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Confusing Words

Study these words to improve your writing.


Remember the boy called Ralphie in the movie A Christmas Story, who couldn't wait to look at his essay grade? He was so sure he would receive a perfect score.

He was sorely disappointed.

We've all been there. We work hard to come up with a great essay and we're so sure we've done our very best. Then, when we get our paper from the teacher and see a less-than-impressive grade, it's a real shocker! Have you ever fallen victim to the problem of mixing up confusing words?

Many experienced writers have to pause for a second and think when they are about to type certain words.

Some words are so close to others in spelling or meaning that they cause confusion, time after time. For this reason, it's a good idea to study the most common word mix-up's, to avoid problems that vex writers everywhere. If you can conquer these common problems, you just might avoid the fate of Ralphie.

Here are some frequent offender words.

    affect/effect: To affect is to produce an effect. Still confused? Affect is usually a verb meaning "to impact or influence." It might help to remember that "a" is for action and "e" is for result.

    accept/except: Accept is a verb, meaning to take willingly. Except is a preposition, meaning "other than." Remember the phrase "I will accept any food except spinach." The words "accept" and "except" are in alphabetical order in that sentence. Hey, it's silly but it might work.

    conscience/conscious: Have you ever been present when somebody fainted? It's scary, because nobody knows which word to use. It's that bad. Seriously, many well-educated people stumble over this one! "Conscious" is an adjective, meaning "aware," "awake," or sometimes "on purpose." Use this one if somebody faints. It might help to think of other "state of mind" words that have the same ending, like "serious," or "delirious." "Conscience" is your sense of right and wrong. It rhymes with "sense."

    fewer/less: If you can get this one right, you'll be ahead of most of the English-speaking population. You'll hear this mix-up all over the media! Few and fewer refer to objects that can be numbered. Less refers to a quantity of something non-specific. It might help to think of "less" as a "lump" word. Examples: I have "fewer" dimes and "less" money than you.

    it's/its: The apostrophe in "it's" poses a real problem for some people. Many people think of possession when they see it. But it's is a contraction, meaning "it is" or "it has." It might be helpful to think of the possessive pronoun its in a group with "hers" or "his." No apostrophe!

    to/too: This is probably the most common problem pair, but once you get the difference, it seems so simple! To is a preposition that indicates location or direction, but it also can be used in front of a verb to make an infinitive, like "to eat" or "to swim." That sounds more difficult than it is. Too is an adverb meaning "excessively" or "additionally." Either way, this word indicates "an extra amount." Just think of the extra "o" in too!

    whose/who's: Again, the apostrophe in who's creates confusion, because it tricks people into thinking it indicates possession. It doesn't! Who's is the contraction for "who is" while whose is the possessive form of who. Examples: Whose turn is it to feed the dog? Who's going to do it?

If you can learn to use all these problem words correctly, you'll certainly make a greater impression on your teacher. Your papers will stand out and look so much more professional when you avoid common mix-up's like "to" and "too."

Take the Confusing Words Quiz

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