You went to school.
You completed your homework.
You learned a thousand things you’re not sure you’ll ever find a use for.
Still, you have doubts — especially when it comes to writing.
And writing is important to you.
So, you proofread your emails, your texts, your social media posts — pretty much all of your correspondence.
You use spell check.
You verify facts with Google and do your best not to plagiarize.
Sometimes, you turn to apps such as Grammarly and Hemingway.
Other times, you let it fly, hoping you’ll get a pass from your friends, your coworkers, or strangers on the internet.
Often, you just get tired of sweating all the small stuff.
If you’ve ever worried about tripping over your words or looking like an fool in front of other people, this post is for you.
Learning the proper use of commonly confused words will help you avoid future embarrassment.
This list covers 20 of the most commonly misused words in the English language.
Let’s dive in.
Could Of vs. Could Have
“Could of” is incorrect; the correct phrase is “Could have” or its contraction “Could’ve.”
I could have gone to the cinema, but I decided to stay home.
If I had studied harder, I could’ve passed the test.
Affect vs. Effect
Affect is a verb meaning “to influence or change.” Effect is a noun meaning “a result or consequence.”
The sound of the thunder affected my concentration. (The thunder influenced my concentration.)
The effect of the storm was disastrous. (The storm resulted in a disaster.)
Who’s vs. Whose – What’s the Difference?
The words “who’s” and “whose” are both interrogative pronouns, but they have different uses.
“Who’s” is a contraction for “who is.” For example, you might say, “Who’s going to the party?”
“Whose” is used to indicate possession or ownership. For example, you might say, “Whose book is this?”
Flout vs. Flaunt
Flout means “to ignore or show contempt for.” Flaunt means “to show off.”
Our school principal vowed to flout the rules if that’s what it took to get better funding for our school.
The popular kids flaunted their new iPhones on social media.
Unique vs. Unusual
Unique means “one of a kind.” It is not used to describe something that is merely unusual or uncommon.
My daughter’s complete lack of interest in pink frilly things makes her unique in our family.
The unusual shape of the rock caught my attention.
Stationary vs. Stationery
Stationary means “not moving.” Stationery means “paper for writing letters.”
The desk was stationary because the wheels were locked. (The desk did not move because the wheels were locked.)
I bought some new stationery for my upcoming trip to Europe. (I bought some new paper to write letters with while I’m in Europe.)
Complement vs. Compliment
Complement means “to complete or enhance.” Compliment means “to give praise.”
The beautiful flowers complement the green landscape. (The beautiful flowers complete or enhance the green landscape.)
I complimented her on her new shoes. (I praised her new shoes.)
Principal vs. Principle
Principal means “most important.” Principle is a rule or standard.
The principal goal of our group was to raise money for charity.
The principle guideline we followed was to be respectful to everyone we met.
Discreet vs. Discrete
Discreet means “keeping a secret.” Discrete means “separate.”
He was discreet about his plans to propose to his girlfriend, not wanting to spoil the surprise. (He was secretive about his plans to propose.)
His job involves handling several discrete tasks that require different skills. (His job involves handling several separate tasks that require different skills.
Desert vs. Dessert
Desert means “to abandon or leave behind.” Dessert means “a sweet food that is served as the last course of a meal.”
The soldiers were so hungry they deserted the battlefield. (The soldiers abandoned or left behind the battlefield.)
I can’t believe she ate three pieces of chocolate cake for dessert ! (I can’t believe she ate three pieces of chocolate cake as the last course of her meal.)
Council vs. Counsel
Council means “a group of people who offer advice.” Counsel means “advice.”
The city council voted to raise taxes. (The council offered advice by voting.)
I received counsel from my older sister about what classes to take next year. (My older sister gave me advice about what classes to take next year.)
All Right vs. Alright
All right is the correct term. Alright, while a common colloquialism, is not an accepted standard English word.
Still, you’ll see alright in use everywhere in informal settings.
Is everything all right ? (Is everything okay ?)
I’m alright; thanks for asking! (I’m okay, so thanks for asking!)
Alot, A Lot, and Allot
“A lot” means a large number or quantity. Alot is not a word. Allot means to to give something, especially a share of something , for a specific purpose.
A lot of people think alot is a word.
The company decided to allot resources to the development of a new software tool.
Accept vs. Except – What’s the Difference?
The words “accept” and “except” have different meanings, but they’re often confused because they sound so similar.
“Accept” means to take something that is offered to you. For example, you might say, “I accepted the offer without hesitation.”
On the other hand, “except” means excluded or exempt. You might say, for example, “Everyone was invited to attend except for me.”
Then vs. Than
Then is used to connect two actions in a chronological order. Than is used to compare two things.
You must turn right at the intersection, then left into the church parking lot. (First, you turn right; afterward, you turn left.
This soup is hotter than the last one. (This soup is hotter than the one I had before.)
Fewer vs. Less – Which is correct?
These two words sound very similar and they may even look similar too. However, there is a very important distinction between them.
“Fewer” is used with countable items, while “less” is used with mass nouns, uncountables, and noncountables.
Fewer cars on the road would lead to less pollution.
I wish there was less traffic during my commute to work.
For all intensive purposes vs. For all intents and purposes – Which is correct?
These two phrases cause confusion because they sound alike.
“For all intents and purposes” is correct. It means “in effect” or “essentially.”
“For all intensive purposes” is a misheard rendering of the phrase.
According to Merriam-Webster, “When mistaken formations of words or phrases are used in a seemingly logical or plausible way, like ‘for all intensive purposes,’ it’s known as an eggcorn. (The word eggcorn itself comes from people hearing the word acorn as eggcorn enough that linguists adopted it as the term.)”
Although he hasn’t officially retired, he’s not taking on any new clients, so for all intents and purposes, he’s no longer practicing law.
It’s vs. Its – What’s the Difference?
The words “it’s” and “its” are commonly confused because they both have to do with possession.
“It’s” is a contraction for “it is” and it can never be used to indicate possession. For example, you might say, “It’s raining outside.”
“Its” indicates that something belongs to or relates to something else. For example, you could say that the dog lost its bone.
Taught vs. Taut (or taunt) – Which one is correct?
These words sound alike, but they have different meanings and spellings.
“Taught” is the past tense of “teach.” For example, you might say that I taught my friend how to make French toast.
“Taut” refers to something that is tightly drawn, without slack. For example, if someone lost their balance and fell off a tight rope, they would fall onto something taut (like a trampoline).
Often misused in place of “taut,” to “taunt” someone is to make remarks about someone in order to provoke them into feeling anger, embarrassment, or pain/discomfort.
Weather vs. Whether
“Weather” relates to atmospheric conditions. “Whether” is used to introduce alternatives or express doubt.
The weather today is quite sunny and warm, perfect for a picnic.
I’m unsure whether I should attend the concert or stay home and study for my exams.
Take some time to familiarize yourself with these examples. Bookmark this page.
And if you’re ever in doubt, do some research online.
These common errors can make you look silly — especially in situations where grammar and punctuation are important.
Make sure to double check cover letters, resumes, and business correspondence. If you’re in academia or publishing content online or offline, you’ll also want to avoid these errors.
So, what did we miss?
Leave your comments below.