Confusing Word Pairs

Words and Rules

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Last week’s post about polishing writing, editing and formatting skills drew a lot of attention.  I picked up new readers and subscribers.  That’s exciting for me, and I thank you!

It seems that many visitors to my blog posts about language are non-native English speaking folks, some students and some not.  I started thinking about our very puzzling language – and believe me, it is puzzling at times even to those of us  that are native to the English language.  I think it is important to look at some of our confusing words and rules and set the record straight – or at least make the record a little less crooked and hopefully less confusing!

Confusing words.  Look at the title of this post?  That’s a  place to start.  The word “pair” has two homophones (sounds the same, spelled differently, different meanings). Pair sounds like pare and pear I pared a pair of pears. 

 Be careful with easily confusable word pairs.  Some pairs of words are often confused in the English language.  They are both correct words, but they have different meanings.  Spell check can’t identify these, of course, because they are both spelled correctly. For instance,

  • where    refers to a location of something or someone  —  Where is my hat?
  • were      is the past tense of the verb “was”   —   We were looking for your hat.
  • their       is the possessive of they   —   Where is their house?
  • there      is a location —   The bread is over there.
  • affect     usually a verb meaning change or shape   — What you eat can affect your weight.
  • effect     the majority of the time it is used as noun that means result or impression  — The  effect of our fatty diets has resulted in obesity as a national problem.
  • accept    this word can have several different meanings.  Some common meaning are to take, receive,  endure or consent.   —  The thrift shop did not accept our furniture.
  •  except  means to exclude  —  Except for furniture, the thrift shop accepts household goods.   (You’ll notice the last sentence example uses both of these words in this example.)

What about pronouns?

  • Who/Whom   these are both pronouns, but we have to remember that pronouns have cases.  You will need to use “who” if the pronoun is acting as the subject of a clause, and “whom” if it’s acting as the object of a verb or preposition, and “whose” if it’s possessive (acting as an adjective).

It’s common to be confused about when to use the pronoun who and when to use the pronoun whom. To find out which one is correct, substitute he and him for the pronouns who and whom. He and who are subject pronouns, and whom and him are object pronouns.

For example:

  • Give the papers to him.
  • To whom should I give the papers?
  • We did invite him to the party.
  • Whom did we invite to the party?
  • He spilled coffee all over the white rug.
  • Who spilled coffee all over the white rug?

Review your work!  Now these words and the sample sentences may seem pretty remedial to many of us, but I can’t tell you how many times I have identified these errors when tutoring or reviewing writing projects  —  even my own.  So review your work carefully for simple errors and to help you gain a better understanding of the words that you use .  It’s always a good idea to have another pair of eyes review your work, it at all possible.  And remember that spell checkers can’t identify meanings.  And don’t forget to get a valuable resource to help you.  One that I like is The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need by Susan Thurman.  You’ll find it any of the well known book sellers like or  It is also available in eBook format.

These are just a few of the many confusing words in the English language.  There are many more out there that cause problems for most of us.   For me, a troublesome pair of words is

  • incite    v to move to action or to put in motion*  —     She incited me to learn more about SEO and how it can help me market my business.
  • insight  the power or act of seeing into a situation*  —  To those of us that are new to SEO, the presentation gave us great insight.

What words or word pairs do you find confusing?  Do you find yourself looking up the same word over and over again?  Share with me.  I’d love to hear from you!

As always, thanks for listening and reading….

  — *definitions from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition.


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13 responses to “Confusing Word Pairs

  1. I agree–I think our English language is very confusing! I’m not sure if editing is becoming less stringent or not, but I’m finding grammatical and spelling errors in almost every book I’ve read lately. And even on CNN, the commentators are forever using “I” when they should be using “me.” I’m enjoying your blog and I’ll be back!

    • Yes, Sandra, you are correct. English is confusing. Just think about how confusing it is to those who have to learn to speak it as well as to write with it. And the list of words I referred to in this post is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many easily confused words.

      Thanks for visiting and for leaving a comment.

  2. Sometimes, I find it difficult editing my own work. I don’t see such errors until I’ve read it over for the third time.
    I sometimes misuse the words ‘affect’ and ‘effect’. Well, thanks to your post, I won’t make this mistake anymore.

  3. I am glad you found this post helpful, Lanre. Affect and effect are often confused! Sometimes we just need to be reminded of their proper definitions and uses.
    Best wishes with your writing and thanks for visiting!

  4. Thanks for sharing your post. As a new writer it is good to be reminded of certain words and how they should be used. I am publishing my first E-Book The Book of Ruth A Story of Love and Redemption and I had it edited three times besides my own edits and every time there were new things found. Hopefully reading articles like yours will help keep me from making some of these mistakes.

    • Thanks for visiting Deborah. I am glad you found my post helpful to you. good luck with your first E-Book!
      Please visit again. I will visit your blog soon. I am currently out of town, but will catch up with all replies within the next week!. Have a great weekend!….

  5. Great examples and advice. There is no question that English is complex, however, it should always be used correctly.

  6. I started making a list of commonly confused words a couple years ago, after seeing so many people who couldn’t be bothered to think about what they were saying, yet expected the reader to decipher their verbal chicken-scratch. Many times I have had occasion to compliment non-native English writers on their excellent use of the language, and in fact being better at it than the unfortunate majority of native speakers.

    Once my list got to about 100 commonly misspelled words, I quit, because my intended short article was no longer short. Later, I decided to write the article anyway, but lost the list. This is the result:

    Maybe it will help some of you.

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  8. Good post. These used to be solidly taught in schools. Good resource.

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