Confusing Words

Below is a list of words that people frequently confuse and
misuse.  This list contains several words with which I have seen students
have problems.  I have provided each word with a definition or
explanation and examples that will help you differentiate them so that you use
these words correctly.

Generally, you would use affect when you want a verb:  How
will the President’s executive orders on prosecuting people suspected of
terrorism affect our civil liberties?

B.  Generally, you would use effect when you want a noun:
Many people fear the effect of the President’s executive orders on
prosecuting people suspected of terrorism will leave open the door to squashing
legitimate political dissent.

C. Effect can be used as a verb when it means to cause, rather than to
influence (affect).  For example:  The President’s executive
orders on prosecuting people suspected of terrorism will effect a change
in the judicial process.

D.  Affect is rarely used as a noun, only when one is describing
a symptom of a larger problem.  In this case, usually affect refers
to a medical condition:  An affect of MS could be limping.

2.  its/it’s
A.  Its is a possessive pronoun:  The horse kicked up its hind
B.  It’s is a contraction of it and is:
It’s time to do your homework.  You are saying:  It is
time to do your homework.
A handy tip to make the distinction:  If you can substitute “it is” for the form you want, then use “it’s.”

You wouldn’t say The horse kicked up it is legs!  Well, you
might, but you’d sound pretty silly.

3. whose/ who’s
Same deal as above:

A.  Whose is a possessive pronoun:  The teacher
whose hat is on the table is Dr. Yang.
B.  Who’s is a contraction of  who and is: Can you tell me who’s
going to the party?

4.  their, they’re, and there

A.  Their is a possessive pronoun:  The students all earned
100s on their quizzes.
B.  They’re is a contraction of they and are:  After getting 100s on their quizzes,
they’re going to celebrate.
C.  There refers to a place.  I’m going to join the students there for the celebration.

Consider that the word here is contained in the word
there.  So, here means a place; there means a

5.  too, to, two

A.  Too is an adverb.  It means an excess.  Too many cooks spoil the broth.  Think of an excess amount, and in this word you have an excess of “o“s.
B.  To is a preposition.  It connects a noun to the rest of the sentence, often taking
in words describing the noun:  I gave  high grades to my brilliant students in EN101. “To” connects “my brilliant students” to the rest of the sentence.  “Brilliant” and “my” describe students (a noun).

C.  If you don’t know what two means, you’re in BIG

6.  where, were

A. “Where” is an adverb.  Sometimes it functions as
subordinating conjunction.  It also refers to a place (note that
here” is also part of this word).  Where you go, I will
B.  “Were” is a verb.  We were going to call you to join us.
So, don’t use an adverb as an action word (or state of
being) and don’t use an action word (or state of being) to describe an
adjective, adverb, or verb.

7.  lose, loose
A. Lose is a verb that means either the opposite of win or no longer  to have
something you once possessed.
Did War Admiral lose the match race to
Seabiscuit in the late 1930s?
Did someone lose Seabiscuit’s halter in
the barn?
B.  Loose means the opposite of tight.  You might
think that the word is “loose” because it contains an extra “o.”
If your pants are too loose they will fall down; so wear a belt.


A.  Accept means to bring in, to keep, to take in.
I accept the award that you gave me.
B. Except means to leave out, to exclude:  remember the “ex” prefix
means to go out or put out.
The teacher decided to except Leo from punishment because she knew he would never talk during study period.

9.  then/than
A. then is an adverb or a conjunction.  It refers to when something
happens next, following something else.
If you turn in your work on time, then you will get higher grades than someone who does not.
B. than  indicates a comparison, as you can see in the sentence above.He is taller than me (Here a preposition).
I am smarter than he is (Here a conjunction).

10  have/of
A.  have is a verb that show possession or a helping (auxiliary) verb.
I have a plethora of hats (verb showing possession).
I have been known to wear two different hats in one day, but not at the same time (helping verb).

B.  of is a preposition.  You cannot use it as a verb!

I should have known that he was  the son of a governor.

11.  site, cite, sight
A. site refers to a place; think of the word “situation.”

I will be checking the progress of the new library when I go to the building

B.  cite means to note something.  Think of a Works
Cited page where you note all the references you used in your
paper.  Also think of a citation, which means to be noted for
something good (commendation) or something bad (getting a speeding ticket).

C.  sight – certainly you must “see” what this one means!

12.  bias and prejudice are nouns.

I have a bias against tall people.

Do you have a prejudice against short people?

biased and prejudiced are participles and function as either descriptive
words or part of a verb phrase.

He is a prejudiced person.

I was prejudiced by his friendship with a criminal.
(adjective, descriptive)

I wasn’t biased by his friendly manner.

I wasn’t prejudiced by his favors to my cat.

13. literally vs. figuratively

Literally means actually, in reality, something that happens. Figuratively means metaphorically, not really, that you are exaggerating for effect.

So if you say something like, “Dr. Yang gave me so much reading, I thought my head would literally explode,” you are telling us that someone’s got one heck of a mess to clean up. And it won’t be you, because if your brain does explode, you are pretty dead.

14. uninterested vs. disinterested

People seem to think that these words are synonyms but they definitely are not!

If you are uninterested, you don’t care about something; it might even be boring to you.

Disinterested means that you are objective. You don’t have a stake (a new definition of the word “interest”) in the outcome, so you can make a decision that is wholly unbiased by self-interest.

So, I may be uninterested in a baseball strike because I don’t like sports much. Meanwhile, the people chosen to arbitrate between players and owners should be disinterested in the outcome because they have no alliance to either the owners or players, nor do they have any money invested in the outcome.

15. based on vs. based off of

A base is a foundation. If you build on a foundation, you are on top of it, connected to it. If you are off a foundation, you are not even touching that foundation let alone resting on it. Think about the definitions of the words “on” and “off.”

16. random – In formal English, as opposed to slang, this word does not mean “totally unrelated.” It means selected without bias or preplanning.

17. want vs. desire – In English, when you use the word “want” as a noun, it actually means to lack not to desire something. There’s a difference. So, although you can both want and desire something, a want and a desire are not the same thing.

Thus, if there’s a “want” of clean water, that means clean water is lacking. If you’re trying to express the idea that you’d like to have some clean water, then you have a desire or a need for it.

last revised 4/01/15

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