Confusing Words in the English Language

Confusing LanguageThe English language is confusing when you have two words that have different meanings but the same or similar spelling.  What are the most frequently confused words?

‘Affect’ and ‘effect’

  • ‘Affect’ – is a verb, meaning to have an influence on, or make a difference to. For example, ‘I hope to affect change in the world.’
  • ‘Effect’ – is a noun or a verb.  As a noun: meaning to change as a result of a consequence of an action or a cause. For example, ‘The fire had a lasting effect on Tommy’s health.’  We use the noun “effect” for the result of something that has happened (i.e., the fire in this sentence). As a verb: meaning to cause something to happen.  For example, ‘the Prime Minister effected many policy changes.’ In this sentence, the verb “effect” sounds more formal and/or more serious than the verb “affect” mentioned above.

‘Hear’ and ‘here.’

Why English is so hardThe verb ‘hear’ means to listen and the adverb ‘here’  means closeness.  An easy way to remember the difference is that the verb ‘hear’ contains the word ‘ear’ (hear).  You use your ‘ear’ to ‘hear.’  The word ‘here’ contains the letters ‘ere’  which also appears in the words ‘where’ and “there“. Both ‘Where’ and ‘there’ are to do with location.Where are you?  I am over here, and he is over there!”

‘There,’ ‘they’re,’ and ‘their’

These three words have the same pronunciation, yet their meanings are completely different.

  • ‘There’ – means location.
  • ‘They’re’ – is a contraction of ‘They are.’
  • ‘Their’ – is a possessive pronoun

‘Accept’ and ‘except’

These two words have similar pronunciation but their meanings are different.

  • ‘Accept’ is a verb meaning “agree to take”. For example, ‘I accept your offer.’
  • ‘Except’ is a preposition, meaning not including, as in the sentence ‘I work every day, except this Sunday.’

‘To,’ ‘too,’ and ‘two’

These words are homophones, which means they sound the same, yet have different meanings.

  • ‘To’ – is a preposition.  ‘To’ indicates going towards something.  For example, ‘I am going to the beach.’
  • ‘Two’ – is a number.
  • ‘Too’ – is an adverb. ‘I have had too many anchovies.’

‘Complements’ and ‘compliment’

These two words are homophones, yet their meanings are different.

  • ‘Complements’ – A verb meaning to match, pair, or work well with something. For example, ‘That shirt complements your smile.’  The adjective ‘complementary‘ means, combing in such a way as to enhance or emphasize the qualities of each other.
  • Compliment‘ – A verb or a noun meaning to give praise for someone or something.  For example, as a verb, ‘I wish to compliment you on your fine hat.’  For example, as a noun, ‘Thanks for your compliment.’  ‘Compliment’ has the letter ‘i’ in the middle, so remember that ‘I compliment you’ which is a verb phrase with the letter ‘i’.

‘Where,’ ‘we’re,’ and ‘were.’

These words have similar pronunciations, yet their meanings are totally different.

  • ‘Where’ – is to do with location.  For example, ‘Where is the tomato sauce.’
  • ‘We’re’ – is a contraction of ‘We are.’
  • ‘Were’ – referring to a past condition.

‘Desert’ and ‘dessert’

These two words have similar spelling and different meanings.

  • ‘Desert’ – as a noun means a waterless desolate place.  As a verb means to abandon in a way that is disloyal. There is only one letter “s” in this word.
  • ‘Dessert’  is a noun meaning a sweet complement to the end of a meal.

‘Less’ and ‘fewer’

The distinction between less and fewer can be confusing.  While it is correct to say ‘five apples or fewer,’ it is also correct to say ‘five apples or less.’  However, it is not correct to say ‘I will have fewer water.’  ‘Water’ is not countable, and ‘apples’ are countable.  Countable nouns, or noun phrases that can be counted individually, for example, ‘grains of sand.’  Uncountable nouns cannot be counted, for example ‘sand.’

  • Fewer‘ is for countable nouns
  • Less‘ is for countable nouns or uncountable nouns, however, some scholars do not approve of ‘less‘ for countable nouns.

‘Much’ and ‘many’

  • Much‘ – is for uncountable nouns.  For example, ‘I am in so much trouble’.  In this example, the exact amount of ‘trouble’ is not specified.
  • Many‘ – is for countable nouns.  For example, ‘I have so many troubles.’  In this example, it would be possible to count the number of ‘troubles’.

Bear‘ and ‘bare

Bear‘ and ‘bare‘ are phonetically the same, yet they have very different meanings.

  • Bear‘ is a verb or a noun.  As a noun, it is the name of an animal.  As a verb, it means ‘to carry.’
  • ‘Bare’ means not covered, naked or empty. For example: “I walked to school barefoot today”

‘Advise’ and ‘advice’

  • ‘Advise’ –  is a verb meaning to inform or recommend. For example, ‘I advise you not to jump in the lake.’
  • ‘Advice’ – is a noun meaning ‘guidance or recommendation offered. ‘He should take advice from his solicitor.’

‘Principle’ and ‘principal’

  • ‘Principle’ – is a noun and is a belief or rule. For example, ‘Taking your hat off when entering a courtroom is a matter of principle.’
  • ‘Principal’ – is an adjective and means ‘Primary’ or ‘main’. For example, ‘The electric motor is the principal means of motivation.’


These are some of the many confusing words in the English language.  A more comprehensive reference to the complexities of the English language can be found in Michael Swan’s book ‘Practical English Usage’

Can you score 10 out of 10 in this quiz on frequently confused words.

Aaron Skudder


  1. This is a perfect post for me. English is my second language and even though I use it daily, I get confused with it all the time! Thanks for clarifying Compliment and Complements, now I know the meaning. lol Oh I think you miss our the “complimentary” as well, I hear that all the time at the fancy restaurant and found out later that it means free lol. Advise and Advice is also another good one. Thanks again! 

  2. I really enjoyed doing the quiz just because I like words.  I used to teach English in Spain and I love to read and write.  It’s interesting but I know even when English is your first language you can make mistakes.  I always had to look up Compliment and Complement until I started to associate that the “I” in compliment with saying..I pay you a compliment.  Great post and VERY clear, I like that.

    • I have added your suggestion about ‘i’ in the word ‘compliment.’

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