Top 10 Confused Words in English [A-B]

By Maeve Maddox

In compiling a list of the top ten confused words, it’s difficult to choose between simple misspellings and words whose meanings are mixed up in the mind of the writer.

For example, the word altar (raised structure for sacrifice) is frequently misspelled as alter. The writer probably knows the difference between the noun altar and the verb alter, but hasn’t learned the fact that they are spelled differently.

Likewise, the pair its/it’s usually tops lists of “confused words,” but it seems to me that writers who commit errors with this pair have problems with the correct use of the apostrophe in general.

The words in the following list represent misunderstanding of the words’ meanings and not simply an inability to spell them correctly. Notice that this post covers words starting with the letters a and b.

1. affect / effect
These two words have specialized meanings in psychology, but in ordinary speech and writing, affect is most often used as a verb meaning “to act on or to cause a change” and effect as a noun meaning “a change that is the result of some action”:

How will the move to New Orleans affect the family? (verb)
What is the effect of this move on the children? (noun)

Note: Effect can also be used as a verb meaning “to cause” or “to bring about”:

The new mayor has effected positive change in the police department.

2. advice / advise
The error with this pair results from mispronunciation and failure to distinguish between a noun and a verb. The c in advice is pronounced with the sound of /s/. The s in advise is pronounced with he sound of /z/.

Advice is a noun meaning “recommendation regarding a decision.” Advise is a verb meaning “to recommend”:

She always gives me good advice. (noun)
What do you advise me to do? (verb)

3. aisle / isle
Both words are nouns. An aisle is a passageway between rows of seats, shelves, or other fixtures or obstacles that people need to move between. An isle is an island:

You’ll find the children in the toy aisle.
Robinson Crusoe was stranded on a desert isle.
I want a modern kitchen with a work isle in the middle.

4. adverse / averse
Both words are adjectives that imply a form of opposition. Something that acts against one’s interests or well-being is adverse. The word averse describes feelings of repugnance towards something:

The jury delivered an adverse verdict against the defendant.
Ferris Bueller was averse to attending school that morning.

5. amoral / immoral
Morals and morality relate to considerations of right or wrong. For anyone who has internalized a code of moral behavior, acting against it is immoral.

For example, Macbeth acknowledges that it is wrong for a host to kill his guest, but he and his wife do it anyway. Their murder of Duncan is immoral. When the sharks in Jaws kill people, their behavior is amoral. They don’t feel that it’s wrong to kill a human being. Here are two examples of current uses of amoral:

Nature is amoral. Nature is neither good nor bad. It just is.

Mr. David Coleman once said that no one really cares about what a student thinks and feels. What is important is writing and reading information text. Thus, the Common Core is an amoral curriculum.

6. appraise / apprise
Appraise means “to set a value on something.” Apprise means “to inform”:

A new Audemars-Piquet limited-edition women’s pocket watch with Swiss movement appraised at $13,500.

As stated in Marby, “only when it develops that the defendant was not fairly apprised of its consequences can his plea be challenged under the Due Process Clause.”

 

7. aural / oral
The adjective aural relates to the ear or to hearing. The adjective oral relates to the mouth or speaking.

The study investigates listening and aural experience in a New York City community devoted to avant-garde jazz.

A good oral presentation is well structured; this makes it easier for the listener to follow.

After the accident, Jones required extensive oral surgery.

8. bring / take
Both of these verbs have multiple meanings, but as a pair, they form opposites in the context of conveying something from one place to another.

Bring is “to carry along from one place to another.” The word implies motion towards the place where the speaker or auditor is.

Take also means “to carry something to another place,” but the movement is away from a place. The Chicago Manual of Style explains the difference this way:

The simple question is, where is the action directed? If it’s toward you, use bring (e. g., bring home the bacon). If it’s away from you, use take (e.g., take out the trash). You take (not bring) your car to the mechanic.

9. bated / baited
The error with these words occurs in the idiom “with bated breath.” The error is to write baited for bated. In the context of the idiom, bated means “in great suspense.” In another context, baited means “with bait attached,” as in “The hook is baited with a worm.”

10. broach / brooch
Both words are pronounced the same. Broach is a verb meaning “to open up.” Literally, one might broach a cask of wine. Figuratively, one might broach a subject in conversation:

I sat and waited in the awkward silence, trying to decide if I wanted to broach the subject of his hesitation in Belgrave Square.

Brooch is a noun. Originally, a brooch was used like a safety pin to fasten clothing together. Those who could afford it wore decorative brooches fashioned of precious metals set with precious stones. No longer essential to secure clothing, a brooch is usually just an ornament pinned to something:

Create a choker necklace using a narrow scarf and flashy brooch.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


11 Responses to “Top 10 Confused Words in English [A-B]”

  • Sally Asnicar

    Nos. 1, 2 and 4 are the most common ones I come across on this list but there are countless others. One of the more humorous ones I recall was when my friend’s 8 year old daughter told me she had seen an octopus in a rock pool at the beach that had enormous testicles. Of course, she meant tentacles. She was quite bemused by the tears rolling down her mother’s and my cheeks.

  • Ron Coleman

    What about sight/site/cite?

  • Roberta B.

    bated – as to wait with “bated” breath, comes from abated. Therefore, “in great suspense” means (figuratively) to hold one’s breath. (A better way might be to use an apostrophe to indicate the missing letter!)

    Another pair:
    reprieve/reprise (nouns) – both with the “i” pronounced as ee:
    reprieve = a cancelation or postponement
    reprise = a repeat…………….however,
    reprisal = retaliation (pronounced with a long “I”

  • Maeve

    An introductory paragraph in which I explain my plan to make several Confused Words lists has been omitted. This is the A-B list.

  • Jimbo

    Don’t four get these common English miss takes or con fusions.

    Ewe knighted. King dumb!
    (United Kingdom)

    One Ted dared aura live
    (Wanted dead or alive)

    Weighted infer Dell liver Reese
    (Waited in for deliveries)

    Wheel fined two morose noose pay purr a band donned buy the rode
    ( We all find tomorrow’s newspaper abandoned by the road)

  • Roberta B.

    Thanks, Maeve. We’ll be waiting for the rest with bated breath.

  • Mister Furkles

    Hi Maeve,

    This is a website with two or three thousand common usage errors:
    http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html

    It is astonishing how many such confusing word pairs or groupings there are in the English language. Imagine that the average student entering ninth grade in 2000 had a vocabulary of 10,000 words and yet there are a couple thousand common usage errors they should know about.

  • Maeve

    Mister Furkles,
    Every language has its peculiarities. One of the purposes of education is to teach children how to use a standard form of their native language in addition to whatever dialect they speak at home. Children will have already learned a great many of them by the time they reach the ninth grade. They can learn the rest during the remaining four years of public education. I expect there are complicated things to be learned in the study of math and science subjects as well.

    Btw, Paul Brians (Common Errors in English Usage) is one of my go-to guys. I often visit the site, and I’ve also bought the book.

  • Bernie

    The most common one I see is further/farther. Even Ford Motor Company doesn’t know the difference.

  • Precise Edit

    @Jimbo

    Thank you falettinme be mice elf agin.

  • Joy

    Another commonly made mistake is to write ‘quite’ when the correct word to use in that situation would be ‘quiet’

Leave a comment: