Commonly Confused Words: Homophones

There are many words in the English language that are frequently mistaken for others. This can be because they sound the same when spoken aloud, are only a letter or two apart, have similar meanings, or are so commonly misused that the confusion has spread from one person to another. This post focuses on the former, also known as homophones, which are responsible for many of the most commonly confused words.

Girl with pen and hands on face - Commonly Confused Words: Homophones

Affect vs. Effect

This pair is particularly tricky, because not only are their pronunciations identical, their meanings are also related:

I didn't think exercise could affect my mood, but it's had a wonderful effect on my mental health.

The 'cause and effect' relationship between these words makes them all too easy to confuse. Let's look to their definitions for clarity.

When one thing affects another, it is having an influence on it or changing it in some way.

The lack of sleep was starting to affect my concentration.

It's easiest to understand the meaning of affect through its adjective, affected, as it's used more commonly:

The suburb was affected by the floods.

In contrast, an effect is a result of a change or event.

Plastic has a devastating effect on the environment.

Effected is a word, but it's not used very often (not correctly, at least!). It's based on the verb form of effect (as opposed to the noun), which means to bring something about:

The king effected great change to the realm.

Chances are, if you hear one of these similar-sounding words ending in -ed, it's probably affected.


  • affect = influence
  • effect = result

To vs. Too

Though one of the most commonly confused words, it is far less complicated than the last word pair. The confusion around this pair is purely because the words sound the same.

To expresses motion, or the transition from one state to another:

I am going to the park around midday.

I went from laughing to crying.

Too can either mean 'as well as' or 'excessively'.

Sophie is coming to the movies too.

I got a little too excited.

Making this mistake may lose you a date with a grammar enthusiast, so watch out for it!

Compliment vs. Complement

A compliment is a polite recognition of praise or admiration, generally for another person. While objects can be complimented, it is usually in respect to an associated person's style or taste.

She gave me a compliment on my new shoes.

A complement is something that accompanies another thing in order to provide it with additional value, thereby improving or emphasising its original qualities.

I have a jacket that would be a great complement for that hat.

Ensure vs. Insure

To ensure something is to take steps to guarantee a particular outcome or occurrence.

I will ensure that the wedding goes smoothly.

When you insure something, you obtain insurance for it, i.e., make payments in exchange for compensation if it's damaged or lost.

I think it's wise to insure the contents of your home, as well as the house itself.

More generally, to insure can also mean to put a contingency in place to secure or protect against something undesirable.

I removed all the moisture in the caravan to insure against mould.

In a sense, ensure and insure are opposites. One guarantees that something will happen, while the other promises to prevent it. This makes it all the more important to know the difference!

Than vs. Then

Than is used to facilitate a contrast between one thing and another, usually to indicate that it's greater or lesser.

I am much better at playing piano than I am at singing.

Then relates to the time that something occurred. It can also be used to denote the next action in a sequence.

Around then, I was still getting ready for work.

I put on my clothes, then grabbed my keys and ran out the door.

Past vs. Passed

The word past refers to any time before the present moment, but generally implies a notable distance from it. When used in conjunction with a noun (e.g., past relationship), it is implied that the noun is no longer occurring or has ceased to exist.

In the past, I worked in administration.

Passed, on the other hand, is the past tense of 'to pass'. It means that something has travelled from one point to another, and/or moved beyond something in its wake.

She passed through every country town on the east coast.

As she went, she passed by more pubs and motels than she could count.

Both words have several colloquial uses that somewhat blur the line between which is appropriate. Overwhelmingly, however, use past when referring to time and passed when referring to movement.

Other Commonly Confused Words

For more help with commonly confused words, see our first post and our second post on word pairs.


Photo credit Monstera, Pexels

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