Skip to main content

Frequently Misused Words

This is a handy guide to help choose the right word from frequently misused pairs or groups of words.

Accept : (verb) To receive, to welcome or invite in

Except : (verb) To exclude, to leave out. 

     Example: All except for the Best Actress, all winners were present to accept their awards. 


Affect : (verb) To move, to influence.

Effect : (noun) Result; (verb) to bring about.

     Example: The drug did not affect the disease at all, but it produced several negative side effects. 


Aisle : A narrow passageway, as in a church or a store

Isle : An island

     Example: As I wander the aisles of the grocery store, I often think about what foods I would miss the most if I were stranded on a deserted isle. 


Allude : To refer to something

Elude : To evade, to escape from someone or something

     Example: Despite Sarah's best efforts, the cat eluded her grasp and went out the window onto the roof; though he was safely retrieved, Sarah still shudders whenever this incident is alluded to.


Benefactor : Someone who gives to another (often in reference to money)

Beneficiary : Someone who receives from another (often in reference to money)

     Example: I was the beneficiary of my uncle's generosity when he, now my benefactor, gave me a new car!


Biweekly : Occurring every two weeks (likewise, bimonthly = every two months)

Semiweekly : Occurring twice a week (likewise, semimonthly = twice a month)

     Example: Though the Biweekly Planning Committee generally meets only every other Thursday, they will be meeting on a semiweekly basis (Tuesdays and Thursdays) for the next two months in preparation for the annual convention. 

     Note: When talking about years, it is even more confusing because BOTH biannual and semiannual mean "occurring twice a year." The word for something that happens only once every two years is biennial.


Both : indicates togetherness ("I gave both children $20" means I gave them $20 to share)

Each : indicates separateness ("I gave each child $20" means I gave to them individually)

     Example: They both went to the movies, but they each paid their own way.


Cite : (verb) To issue citations or make reference to something else

Site: (noun) A location, a particular place

Sight : (noun) Vision, normally associated with the eyes. 

     Example: Citing a supposedly reliable source, he claimed that the site of the ancient city was one mile away, in plain sight from the top of the hill.


Criteria/Phenomena : Plural

Criterion/Phenomenon : Singular

     Example: It is a singular phenomenon how many students chose acting as the first criterion in their evaluation of The X-Files, rather than the criteria of special effects and an authentic representation of UFO phenomena. 


Defiantly : (adverb) rebelliously, disobediently

Definitely : (adverb) absolutely, positively, unquestionably

     Example: Susie defiantly declared that she would not be coming in to work today, even though she was definitely scheduled to.


Desert : A geographical area that gets very little rain

Dessert : A sweet, generally unhealthy, dish eaten after the main course

     Example: An ice cream float might be a good dessert to eat when exploring the desert. 


Disinterested : Objective, impartial, neutral

Uninterested : Not interested, bored

     Example: Though expected to be disinterested in every case, Judge Blue found it very difficult to avoid also becoming uninterested in the extremely boring case he was trying. 


e.g. : abbreviation, meaning "for example" (think egg-sample = example)

i.e.: abbreviation, meaning "that is"

     Example: I went to Paris, i.e. Paris, Texas, to buy some cowboy memorabilia, e.g. cowboy hats and spurs. 


Good : indicates quality and/or behavior (i.e. I don't feel good = I feel like misbehaving)

Well: indicates health (I don't feel well = I feel sick)

     Example: That cake was way too good; I ate so much I don't feel well now.


Hole : The absence of something; the place from which something is missing

Whole : Entire, complete

     Example: That whole hole needs to be re-filled with dirt!


Less : non-countable comparative

Fewer : countable comparative

     Example: He decided to drink less soda by keeping fewer cans in his fridge.


Loose : (adjective) not securely fastened

Lose : (verb) to misplace

     Example: Be careful! Your luggage rack is loose, and you don't want to lose your luggage!


Nauseated : The state of feeling sick at one's stomach

Nauseous : The state of making others feel sick at theirs. (Saying "I'm nauseous" means that the speaker makes others feel sick!"

      Example: His nauseous personality was making me nauseated!


Number : If you can count it, use number. Examples: Hours, shoes, books, doughnuts, freckles, earrings, etc.

Amount : If you can't count it, use amount. Examples: Water, time, fame, money, health, jewelry, food, etc. 

    Note: There is a distinction between units of something and the thing itself. So, you can count dollars and cents, which are units of money, but we don't count "one money, two monies, three monies, etc." Similarly, we can count drops or bottles of water, but water itself is not countable. 


Then : Time designation, can be used to indicate sequential events

Than : Comparative

     Example: the way we lived then is much better than the way we live now!


Their : Plural, 3rd person possessive

There : Preposition, indicates location

They're : Contraction of "they are"

     Example: They're looking for their car in the wrong place; it's over there!


To : Preposition (to the store) and infinitive indicator (to eat)

Too : Comparative (too much, too little), Also (me, too!)

Two : Number (one, two, three, etc.)

     Example:  The two of them, Sarah and Jake, went to the movies and then to a restaurant, too.


Wait on : Two serve someone

Wait for : To expect or anticipate someone or something

     Example: "Sir," said the restaurant manager to the angry patron, "I understand that you're frustrated and hungry, but you will have to wait for the waiter to wait on you."