Commonly Confused English Words

It’s been a while since we’ve posted an English grammar blog, so here is another on commonly confused English words. We also recommend you read the previous grammar blogs, Cool Writing Tips, Commonly Confused Word Pairs, and Desert or Dessert? More Commonly Confused Word Pairs.

When revising the draft of your book, it helps to know some of the grammar basics, and this knowledge can also save you editing fees. (If you’d like to find out how to save on editing fees with some simple formatting tips, we invite you to download our concise, to the point guide, How to Format your MS for Editing and Save.)

Commonly Confused English Words

Signposts showing confusion and a blue sky

Commonly Confused English Words

Perspective and Prospective

Perspective is a noun that deals with sight or view, including point of view. Some synonyms are ‘viewpoint’, ‘standpoint’, ‘perception’.

Example: From your perspective, there’s nothing to worry about but I’m the one who’ll cop it if anything goes wrong.

Prospective is an adjective relating to the future. Some synonyms are ‘potential’, ‘future’, ‘likely’.

Example: The prospective employee was called back for a second interview.

Since and Because

Since refers to time.

Example: Since I quit drinking, I’ve married and had two children.

Because refers to causation.

Example: Because I quit drinking, I no longer wake up with a hangover.

Stationery and Stationary

Stationery is a noun referring to writing materials such as papers, pens and notebooks.

Example: He bought his kids’ stationery for the school year at the local newsagent.

Stationary is an adjective that means not moving.

Example: The car was stationary while it waited at the level crossing for the train to pass.

Subject and Verb Agreement (and possessive pronoun agreement)

This grammar rule may seem counter-intuitive given that in English, many nouns become plural with the addition of ‘s’ (e.g. snail, snails).

With verbs, on the other hand, most plural subjects – such as ‘we’, ‘they’, ‘John and Mary’ – take verbs without an ‘s’.

Example: They type letters but She types letters

With possessive pronoun agreement, you add a possessive element to these sentences.

Example: She types on her computer, and They type on their computers.

Their, They’re and There

Their is a possessive pronoun.

Example: The students turned in their papers.

They’re is a contraction for ‘they are’. A contraction is when two words are contracted or joined together by dropping a letter (or more than one letter) and replacing the missing letter/s with an apostrophe.

Example: I thought Jen and Steve were coming but they’re (they are) studying all day.

There is an adverb of place (it has parts of speech other than as an adverb, but this is what we’ll cover here).

Example: I can’t see the baby anywhere…oh, she’s over there under the sofa.

Then and Than

To distinguish between these two words, think ‘then’ when discussing time, and use ‘than’ when comparing one thing (or person) to another thing (or person).

Example: We had a meeting and then we went to lunch.

Example: This meeting was more productive than the last one.

We’re and Were

We’re is a contraction (see above) of ‘we are’.

Example: Today, we’re (we are) going to learn about English grammar.

Were is the plural past tense of the verb ‘to be’.

Example: We were going to attend the party but we changed our minds.

Whether and If

Whether expresses a situation where there are two or more alternatives.

Example: Whether I go on that overseas trip or stay home depends on finding someone to look after the dog.

If implies a condition where no alternatives are expressed.

Example: If I find someone to look after the dog I’ll go on that overseas trip.

Who’s and Whose

Who’s is a contraction (see above) of ‘who is’ or ‘who has’.

Examples: Who’s (who is) attending the auction tonight? Who’s (who has) taken my jacket?

Whose is the possessive form of ‘who’.

Example: Whose notebooks are these? (to whom do they belong? or who do they belong to?)

Your and You’re

Your is a possessive pronoun.

Example: That is your pen.

You’re is a contraction (see above) of ‘you are’.

Example: You’re (you are) planning to take me to the dance tonight, aren’t you?

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Commonly Confused Word Pairs

Commonly Confused Word Pairs

In my first blog COOL WRITING TIPS, I discussed some commonly confused word pairs. Some of these word pairs are mainly confused in written English, sometimes mainly in spoken English, and in some cases, in both. I offer here some more examples and tips with yet more commonly confused word pairs, to help improve your writing and usage. As always, all usage I refer to is British English, not American English. I don’t attempt to give every possible example using the word pairs. I also refer to use in contemporary English, not to any obsolete use of words.

Commonly confused word pairs

accept and except

The trick: think that the ‘x’ in ‘except’ excludes something. Example: We accept your application and everything is in order except that your date of birth is missing from the application form.

a lot and alot

A lot – meaning ‘a large quantity’ – is written as two separate words. Always. It is an informal phrase, which experienced writers use sparingly, preferring to use ‘much’ (uncountable nouns*) or ‘many’ (countable nouns*), or using another turn of phrase altogether. Instead of saying, He has a lot of money, a seasoned writer might prefer to say, ‘He is an enormously wealthy man’. (*Uncountable and countable nouns will be explained in the next blog.)

advice and advise

Trick: there is a group of words in English that can be spelt with a ‘c’ or an ‘s’, and these follow the same rule. Spelt with ‘c’ the word is a noun (n): advice. How to check if a word is a noun? If you can use ‘the’, or an adjective (adj), or a pronoun before it, it is a noun: The advice (n) he gave me was excellent; He gave me excellent (adj) advice (n). Spelt with ‘s’ the word is a verb: advise. How to check if a word is a verb? If you can use ‘to’ before it, it is a verb: If you are going to advise (v) me, advise (v) me well. Example: I advise (v) you to take my (pronoun) advice (n).

Other word pairs that follow the rule ‘c’ = noun, ‘s’ = verb: practice (n) / practise (v); licence (n) / license (v); device (n) / devise (v).

allusion and illusion

An allusion is an implied or indirect reference. Example: Samantha’s allusion to Pinocchio’s nose when she shouted at Vince made us think she was calling him a liar. The verb associated with allusion is allude, meaning ‘to make a reference to’. She alluded to Pinocchio’s nose when she told Vince she didn’t believe him.

An illusion is a figment of one’s imagination, or a trick. Example: The magician’s illusion was pulling a rabbit out of the hat.

aloud and allowed

Aloud is an adverb – an adverb adds extra meaning to a verb. Example: Please read the book aloud to me. Aloud tells us how the book is going to be read, qualifying the verb ‘read’.

Allowed means permitted or accepted. It can be used as a verb or as an adjective (adj). Example: I allow (v) the children to watch a movie. Smoking is not allowed at the office (adj).


I’m going to keep this one simple, and divide the use of the apostrophe into two straightforward rules. In future blogs, I may go into more detail.

Contractions. A contraction is the short form of a word, where the apostrophe is placed exactly where the letter has been removed. Example: don’t is the contraction for do not (the apostrophe replaces the ‘o’ in ‘not’; isn’t for is not; he’s for he is; you’re for you are; it’s for it is.

Trick: If you can make a meaningful sentence with the long form, then the apostrophe is being used correctly. You’ll often see the apostrophe being used incorrectly. Pizza’s and pasta’s is incorrect; this simply needs to be plural, pizzas and pastas; The dog ate it’s dinner is wrong. You can’t say, The dog ate it is dinner. The correct form is The dog ate its (possessive pronoun) dinner.

But what about won’t for will not? Thank you, English! Here, we simply have to accept that English is idiosyncratic. By looking at the etymology of the word (the study of the origin of the word and how its meaning has changed throughout history), the explanation and logic can be discovered.

Possession (to mark ownership of something or someone). Place the apostrophe before the ‘s’ to show singular possession. Examples: the mans peculiar laugh; the kids toy; Ruperts white steed. For simple plural possession, place the apostrophe after the ‘s’. Examples: the boys toys; the actors cues; the lovers letters.

bring and take

Trick: when you move something (or someone) towards someone (or something), you bring it; when you move it away from someone (or something), you take it. Example: if Jonathan wants to buy Ming a ring and he needs her to try it on, the jeweller might tell him, Please bring Ming to buy the ring. Jonathan would reply, Yes, I will take Ming to your shop to buy the ring.

cannot and can not

Cannot means unable to do something. Example: I am working tomorrow so I cannot take you to see the gnu at the zoo. Trick: if you can substitute can’t, it means the same thing. Can’t is the contraction (short form).

Used as two separate words, can not implies the speaker has the option of not doing something. I would suggest not using it, as it is clumsy and can be confusing. Example: Instead of, I’m eighteen and I can go to night clubs, or I can not go to night clubs if I choose, it would be clearer to say, I’m eighteen and I can go to nightclubs, although I can also choose not to.

continual and continuous

Continual means something that occurs again and again, but with time lapses between. Example: The continual music next door made it the worst night of studying for Jasmine. This means that the music was playing on and off throughout the night.

Continuous means something that continues with no break in between. Sheena’s friend Gloria’s continuous talking gave her a headache. This implies that Gloria is giving Sheena an ear bashing, that she just doesn’t stop talking.

could have or could of (also should have or should of, would have or would of)

Hearing could of or should of or would of is, to my ears, the equivalent of fingernails being scraped across a blackboard (hmmm, yes, the allusion to blackboard shows my age!).

Only could have, should have and would have are correct.

The reason the confusion arises is that in the spoken language, the contraction (shortened form), e.g. could’ve (could have) may sound like ‘could of’.

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