Top 10 Confused English Words [U-Z]

By Maeve Maddox

Having come to the end of the alphabet with my series of “words often confused with one another,” I find myself hard-pressed to come up with a final set of ten for the remaining letters, U-Z. I can’t think of any for U or Z, but here are some for V, W, and Y.

1. vane / vain / vein
All three sound alike and speakers know what they mean when they say them. The confusion arises with the spellings.

INCORRECT: A cupola sat astride the angled wedge of the rooftop, sporting a beautiful gold colored weather vain.
CORRECT: A cupola sat astride the angled wedge of the rooftop, sporting a beautiful gold colored weather vane.

INCORRECT: If we cut one of our vains what chance do we have to live?
CORRECT: If we cut one of our veins what chance do we have to live?

vane noun: a blade that rotates

vain adjective: 1. hopeless: “She continues to harbor a vain desire to write a novel that will make her rich.”
2. having an excessively high opinion of one’s own appearance, attainments, qualities, or possessions: “He is especially vain about his hair.”

vein noun: the tubular vessels in which the blood is conveyed through the animal body.

2. venal / venial
Neither word is common in ordinary speech. Catholics are familiar with the adjective venial in reference to a lesser kind of sin than a mortal sin. In a secular context, “a venial fault” is one that does not deserve severe censure.

Venial (three syllables) is usually applied to a thing. The adjective venal (two syllables) applies to people as well as to things.
 
“As a politician in a venal age, he preserved his independence and purity.”
“The venal man raised the price from $13.50 a pill to $750 overnight.”

venial adjective: easily forgiven.
venal adjective: corruptible; likely to accept bribes.

3. vicious / viscous
Although pronounced differently, viscous [VIS-kus] is often misspelled as the more familiar word vicious [VIH-shus], with comical effect.

INCORRECT: Polymer solutions are very vicious so need lots of solvent.
CORRECT: Polymer solutions are very viscous so need lots of solvent.

vicious adjective: cruel and mean.
viscous adjective: thick and sticky.

4. wave / waive
Both words are pronounced the same.

wave verb: move back and forth. “The sign waved in the wind.

waive verb: give up; not require. “Do you waive your right to an attorney?”

The usual error is to leave the i out of waive.

INCORRECT: Can a 21-year-old who waved his rights to appeal without knowing the law get another trial?
CORRECT: Can a 21-year-old who waived his rights to appeal without knowing the law get another trial?

5. weather / whether
Both words are pronounced the same by speakers who don’t distinguish between the sounds of w and wh.

weather noun: condition of the atmosphere at a given place and time. “The weather outside is frightful.”

Whether is a function word used as different parts of speech. One use is as a conjunction to introduce an alternative expressing doubt or choice.

The usual spelling error is to spell whether as weather.

INCORRECT: I am a grown-up and can make decisions weather to marry or not.
CORRECT: I am a grown-up and can make decisions whether to marry or not.

6. wet / whet
The h in whet is often omitted, perhaps because so many speakers pronounce wh as w.

wet adjective: full of moisture.
“The wet dog shook vigorously.”

wet verb: to make wet.
“The oboe player wets his reed before playing.”

whet verb: to sharpen.
“Here, whet your sword on this grindstone.”

whet verb: to stimulate.
“The scent of baking bread always whets my appetite.”

INCORRECT: One day in Quebec will wet your appetite for a longer visit. 
CORRECT: One day in Quebec will whet your appetite for a longer visit. 

7. wreck / wreak
Although pronounced differently, the words are frequently mixed up in writing.

wreck /REK/ verb: to damage severely; to destroy.
wreak /REEK/ verb: to cause damage.

Wreak is an old word, used chiefly in the phrase “to wreak havoc.”
“Patricia is no longer a hurricane, but it’s about to wreak havoc in Texas.”

INCORRECT: A tornado wrecked havoc in the city in 1896 killing several hundred people.
CORRECT: A tornado wreaked havoc in the city in 1896 killing several hundred people.

8. wreath / wreathe
The error with these words is failure to recognize wreathe as a verb in which the th is voiced.

wreath noun: [The th is unvoiced, its sound in thin.] a ring-shaped arrangement of leaves or flowers.
“She hung a Christmas wreath on the door.”

wreathe verb: [The th is voiced, its sound in then.] to surround or encircle.
“Inside, she wreathed the mirrors with holly branches.”

INCORRECT: Martha Stewart makes small arborvitae wreathes to accent the front door of her home.
CORRECT: Martha Stewart makes small arborvitae wreaths to accent the front door of her home.

The plural of the noun wreath is wreaths. The third person singular of the verb wreathe is wreathes.

9. yoke / yolk
Both words are pronounced the same. Yoke is usually spelled correctly in the context of a contrivance used to hook two animals together, as in “a yoke of oxen.” It’s when yoke is used in the context of sewing that it is sometimes misspelled as yolk. And on cooking sites, sometimes yolk is misspelled as yoke.

yoke noun: (sewing) part of a garment, made to fit the shoulders.
yolk noun: The yellow internal part of an egg.

INCORRECT: The Creek Line House: How to Separate Egg Whites from the Yokes
CORRECT: The Creek Line House: How to Separate Egg Whites from the Yolks

INCORRECT: How To Sew A Shirt Yolk
CORRECT: How To Sew A Shirt Yoke

10. your / you’re
The query “difference between your and you’re” brings up 323,000,000 Google hits when typed in the search box. Clearly, a great many English speakers remain uncertain as to the difference.

Your is a possessive adjective.
“Is that your dog?”

Your is always followed by a noun.

You’re is a contraction of the words “you are.” The apostrophe in you’re indicates that something is missing. The ’re stands for the verb are. The a of are is what is missing.

You’re may be followed by a noun, an adjective, or the present participle of a verb.

“You’re [you are] the best friend I ever had.” (noun)
“You’re [you are] wrong about this matter.” (adjective)
“You’re [you are] making a big mistake.” (present participle)

People who have difficulty with these words can avoid problems by spelling out “you are.” If the result sounds stuffy in an informal context, the writer can replace “you are” with you’re in revision.

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2 Responses to “Top 10 Confused English Words [U-Z]”

  • venqax

    5. weather / whether
    Both words are pronounced the same by speakers who don’t distinguish between the sounds of w and wh.

    6. The h in whet is often omitted, perhaps because so many speakers pronounce wh as w.

    AHHH!! And poxes on them HWen they do this! HWat’s next? The tank/thank merger? I tink I can do tat. Lot’s of speakers say nukyular, too. Ask MW. And don’t forget that lots say spsgetti. That HW sound is just so herculean to enunciate. A dark day in the Anglosphere that whine/wine abomination.

  • Andy Knoedler

    The first example sentence for “you’re” displays a lack of logic: “You’re the best friend I ever had” either needs qualification (e.g., “back in my high school days”) or should be reserved for films where either the speaker or the auditor is deceased.

    If both are alive, the statement should be “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”

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