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’.

Drop me an email or give me a call on 0405 695 534 for a chat on how I can help you with your writing.

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  1. It’s a great section Gail. I loved reading it. Keep it going, Gary

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