50 Problem Words and Phrases

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Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to conceive written communication. So many pairs or trios of words and phrases stymie us with their resemblance to each other. Here’s a quick guide to alleviate (or is it ameliorate?) your suffering:

1. a while / awhile: “A while” is a noun phrase; awhile is an adverb.

2. all together / altogether: All together now — “We will refrain from using that two-word phrase to end sentences like this one altogether.”

3. amend / emend: To amend is to change; to emend is to correct.

4. amount / number: Amount refers to a mass (“The amount saved is considerable”); number refers to a quantity (“The number of dollars saved is considerable”).

5. between / among: The distinction is not whether you refer to two people or things or to three or more; it’s whether you refer to one thing and another or to a collective or undefined number — “Walk among the trees,” but “Walk between two trees.”

6. biannual / biennial: Biannual means twice a year; biennial means once every two years.

7. bring / take: If it’s coming toward you, it’s being brought. If it’s headed away from you, it’s being taken.

8. compare to / compare with: “Comparing to” implies similarity alone; “compare with” implies contrast as well.

9. compliment / complement: To compliment is to praise; to complement is to complete.

10. comprise, consist of / compose, constitute: Comprise means “include,” so test by replacement — “is included of” is nonsense, and so is “is comprised of.” The whole comprises the parts or consists of the parts, but the parts compose or constitute the whole.

11. connote / denote: To connote is to convey (“Air quotes connote skepticism or irony”); to denote is to specify (“A stop sign denotes the requirement to halt”).

12. continual / continuous: Continual events are frequently repeated, or intermittent. Continuous events are uninterrupted, or constant.

13. credible / credulous: To be credible is to be authoritative; to be credulous is to be gullible.

14. deserts / desserts: If you eat only cake, pie, ice cream, and the like, you eat just desserts. If you have it coming to you, you get your just deserts as well. (However, the connotation is negative, so hit the gym.)

15. different from / different than: The former phrase is preferred in formal writing; but “differently than” is always correct usage.

16. discreet / discrete: Discreet means “subtle”; discrete means “separate.” (“He discreetly reminded them of their discrete meanings.”)

17. each other / one another: “One another” is preferred in formal writing when more than two of something are being discussed.

18. economic / economical: Economic refers to the science of economics; economical suggests frugality.

19. elemental/elementary: What’s elemental is essential or integral to nature; what’s elementary is basic.

20. ensure / insure / assure: To ensure is to guarantee, to insure is to indemnify, and to assure is to comfort or convince.

21. epidemic / endemic / pandemic: An epidemic is the outbreak of disease in a limited place and time; an endemic disease is a recurring one peculiar to a place or population; a pandemic is pervasive over a wide geographical area.

22. forgo / forego: To forgo is to go without; to forego is to go before (and is generally used only in the forms foregoing and foregone, which are themselves rare).

23. gibe / jibe / jive: To gibe (soft g, as in gym) is to taunt or insult (though jibe is an alternate spelling), to jibe with is to coincide or fit, to jive is to deceive.

24. historic / historical: Something historic is remarkable for its impact on history; something historical is simply an event in history.

25. home in / hone in: To home in is to close in; to hone in is to confuse one word for another. (“Hone in” has no meaning.)

26. jealousy / envy: Jealousy is resentment; envy is covetousness.

27. lay / lie: Lay is transitive, associated with a direct object — “Lay that pencil down.” “Yesterday, I laid that pencil down.” “That pencil has been laid down.” Lie is intransitive, not so associated — “Lie down.” “Last night, I lay down.” “It was my plan to have lain down already.

28. leach / leech: To leach is to dissolve by percolation; to leech is to remove blood with a leech or to exhaust; as a noun, it means a parasitic worm or the human figurative equivalent, or the edge of a sail (also spelled leach).

29. libel / slander: Libel is written defamation; slander is the spoken equivalent.

30. may / might: May refers to factual or possible; might is appropriate for the hypothetical or counterfactual.

31. nauseous / nauseated: To be nauseous is to cause sickness. To be nauseated is to feel sick.

32. notable / noticeable / noteworthy: Something notable is worthy of note. Something noticeable is capable of being noticed. Noteworthy is a synonym of notable, though the former implies the unusual and the latter the commendable.

33. partly / partially: Partly means “in part”; partially means “incomplete” or, rarely, is an antonym for unfairly.

34. peak / pique: To peak is to reach the pinnacle; to pique is to arouse interest or to bother.

35. people / persons: People has assumed primacy; persons is reserved mostly as a synonym for bodies (“those belongings carried on their persons”).

36. persuade / convince: To persuade someone is to motivate them to do something; to convince someone is to lead them to understand or believe.

37. predominantly / predominately: Both forms are correct, but predominantly predominates.

38. purposely / purposefully: What’s done purposely is done on purpose; what’s done purposefully is done with a purpose.

39. regrettably / regretfully: Regrettably is a synonym for unfortunately; regretfully means just that — full of regret.

40. repetitive / repetitious: Both terms have acquired a negative connotation, but the former retains a more neutral meaning.

41. sensual / sensuous: Sensual has an erotic connotation; sensuous refers more neutrally to what is pleasurable to the senses.

42. since / because: Informally, these terms are interchangeable, but in formal writing, since should be used only to refer to time.

43. stationary / stationery: To be stationary is to stand still; stationery refers to letter-writing materials.

44. that / which: That is used restrictively (“The pencil that is sharp” — among more than one pencil, the one with that characteristic); which is employed nonrestrictively (“The pencil, which is sharp” — one pencil alone, possessing that characteristic). The distinction is rarely observed other than in American English.

45. tortuous / torturous: A tortuous experience is a winding one; a torturous one is painful.

46. transcript / transcription: A transcript is a thing; a transcription is the process of creating it.

47. verbal / oral: Verbal refers to both written and spoken communication, but oral is useful for distinguishing the latter from the former.

48. while / although / whereas: Informally, while is a synonym for the other two terms, but in formal writing it should be reserved for temporal connotations.

49. wreak / wreck: These terms do not share etymological origin; you wreck a party, but you do so by wreaking havoc.

50. whether / if: Both words are correct in expressing a choice, but the former is more appropriate in formal writing (“I can’t decide whether to go”), whereas the latter is better reserved for reference to possibility or probability (“I’ll go if you do”).

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103 thoughts on “50 Problem Words and Phrases”

  1. If you can’t remember the rules for affect/effect, remember RAVEN.


    It’s not 100% accurate, but it’s sufficient for most of our daily writing/speaking.

  2. I found this post valuable and informative. It addresses commonly used words which should be clarified for proper usage. Thank you for sharing.

  3. On the subject of affect and effect. Affect is a verb and a noun, depending on how it is used. It is a verb if it is used to influence or act on. It is a noun when used as a feeling or emotion. Effect is also a noun and a verb depending on how it is used. It is a noun if used as result or to make changes and a verb if used to produce as an effect, bring about, accomplish or make happen. I do hope this helps to clarify affect and effect.

  4. I’m so glad this was posted; it’s very useful! Thank you, found this via StumbleUpon.
    However, I would like to ask about the difference between “save” and “except”. Example of what I mean:
    “There was no difference SAVE the color of their skins.”
    “There was no difference EXCEPT for the color of their skins.”

    I know that “save” is rather uncommon in this usage. However, is it a correct usage, and is one over the other preferred in formal writing?

  5. My number one pet peeve is when people misuse the past tense of “hang”. For the most part the past tense is “hung” unless you’re talking about the death of someone by hanging in which case it is “hanged.”

  6. @conor hogan:
    Repeat after me: “Run-on sentences are always incorrect.” And no, they are not considered colloquialisms.

  7. I’ve resisted “different than” because it conveys — awkwardly — the comparative sense. I’ve stayed with “different from” because it — appropriately — refers rather than compares. Is it ever possible that English grammar rules made a slip on this one?

  8. I have a doubt about “is comprised of” being nonsense.

    The Cambridge dictionary provides an example of its usage: The class is comprised mainly of Italian and French students. ( .

  9. Jenny:

    The use of save as a conjunction (“I know nothing about the book save the title”) or a preposition (“There is no God save one”) is, as you say, uncommon, and I think becoming archaic and obsolete. I would use it only for period effect.

  10. Is there anyone else out there who is bothered by “charged with” as in “the team is charged with the project”?

    How did this piece of inelegant passive pablum get in to our beautiful language?

    I think this is a job for the Subject Verb Object Superhero!

  11. Title and entitle? “The author should be entitled to title the work.” Or, should the author entitle the work? Seems “entitle” is often abused by those in highly educated circles.

  12. Helpful. I skimmed through specifically to find effect/affect, though, and I even read through previous comments to find it, and am still confused by it. Which one is a verb and which is a noun, and can you give examples on when/how to use them?

  13. Title and entitle. Does a writer “entitle” a work? Does one title a vehicle or entitle a vehicle? Seems entitle is often misused when the correct word should be title or titled.

  14. Angela:

    Both affect and effect are nouns as well as verbs. Psychologists speak of an unemotional person as having a flat affect, and something can have or lack an effect. The distinction between the verb forms — they are, in effect, antonyms — is demonstrated below:

    Affect can mean either “to influence,” or “to pretend” or “take on”: “The change in weather affected her outlook” or “The change in weather caused her to affect a happiness she did not feel.”

    Effect means “to cause”: “The change in weather effected a corresponding alteration in her outlook.”

  15. Dan:

    Entitle is correct but has a grandiose connotation — but, in the first usage you describe, title is itself often unnecessary: In the phrase “The book, titled The Chicago Manual of Style,” titled can be omitted without any loss of comprehension.

    I’ve never heard or read a reference to a car being entitled — except to regular maintenance.

  16. Angela,

    Mark did a good job at describing affect and effect, but below I have broken the meanings of the words down into the nouns and verbs for all the readers that may still be confused about them.

    affect: v., to influence / to act on
    n., feeling or emotion

    effect: n., result / to make changes
    v., to produce as an effect / bring about / accomplish / make

    There are 2,684+ such same sounding words in our English language. They are called homonyms and homophones. I have written and published a book on these same sounding words.

    In my dictionary antonym is a noun and means a word of opposite meanings. A homonym is a noun, and means one or two or more words spelled and pronounced alike but different in meaning. A homophone is a noun and means one of two or more words pronounced alike but different in meaning or derivation or spelling. I personally classify them as being homophones…

    I do hope Mark and I helped clarify affect and effect. If you have other words you question, just let me know and I’ll do my best to help.

  17. Its very good informative blog,because in our daily life,we use more words and phrases.A word and phrases will have different meanings.So pronunciation is more important when we communicate each other.Thanks for sharing this information.

  18. “Effect” vs. “Affect” seems to cause a lot of confusion. Here’s one take on the difference between these two words.

    “Effect” is a noun that approximately means “result.” You can write “the effect,” “one effect,” and “an effect” because “effect” is a noun.

    These two sentences use “effect” correctly as a noun:
    “We don’t know what effect healthy food snacks will have on children’s food choices.”
    “Caffeine has a soothing effect on children with ADHD.”

    “Effect” is sometimes used as a verb to mean “cause,” as in “cause to occur.” For example, you can say, “The new laws will effect a change in how we treat patients with chronic conditions.”

    “Affect” is a verb that approximately means “alter.” You can write “affects,” “affecting,” and “affected” because it is a verb.

    “Affect” is a transitive verb, meaning it is done to something. Here, “affect” is used correctly as a transitive verb:
    “The new legislation will affect the way we buy cars.”
    “Cold weather conditions have affected zoo attendance.”

    “Affect” can only be used as a noun when you are writing about an emotional response. A person’s affect is his or her emotional state. In all other cases, it is a verb. (When speaking: As a verb, the stress is on the second syllable. As a noun, the stress is on the first syllable.)

    If you’re not sure which one you need, and you can’t decide whether you need a noun or a verb, try replacing the word with its definition and see which one fits what you’re trying to say.

    “result” – use “effect” (n)
    “cause” – use “effect” (v)
    “alter” – use “affect” (v)
    “emotional state” – use “affect” (n)

    I hope this helps.

  19. @Sondra:

    Some 95% of the time, affect with an a is going to be used as a verb**, and effect with an e is going to be used as a noun.**

    This might help, but remember – correctly using “effect” and/or “affect” takes thought and care. There exists no method to differentiate when to correctly use these words.

    As a Noun, affect means: “A FEELING”. As a Noun, “effect” means: “THE RESULT OR CONSEQUENCE of some action or process”.

    As a Verb, affect means: “TO EXERT AN INFLUENCE UPON”. As a Verb, effect means: “TO BRING ABOUT AS A RESULT”.

    Effect, as a verb, means to carry out or to ACCOMPLISH an action upon a noun – a person, place, or thing. Effect, as a noun, is the actual result of a verb – an action. Effect is used often as both noun and verb.

    Affect, as a verb, means to influence or to produce something EMOTIONALLY upon a noun – a person, place, or thing. Affect, as noun, is the actual emotion or feeling. Affect is most often used as a verb. If you find yourself using “affect” as a noun, be sure to double/triple check your usage.

  20. Rather short, but something that irks me…

    If you are going to use the word ‘copyright,’ please SPELL IT RIGHT!

    I do not want to see copywrite. You write what you have the RIGHTS to.

    Still not sure? “Copyrite” is not going to give you a half a point.

    Just a circle and a c with a date will not do.


    Open a book, magazine, journal, etc. It is not difficult people!

  21. Roger:

    As you can see from the comments, I “forgot” more than one of the usual suspects. I just couldn’t bring myself to discuss them, but perhaps I’ll follow up with a post about just the most obvious ones.

  22. I was shocked that inflammable, flammable and nonflammable didn’t make the list. While all of the others aid in clear communication, only a few put life in jeopardy as much as this triplet. When people ask, I always remind them of what “inflame” or “inflammatory” implies, and take the cue from there. You certainly wouldn’t call someone benign who is inflamed, and saying something inflammatory can set off a firestorm.

  23. Shark:

    Unfortunately, there’s only so much room on the Internet (and only so much time in my life) — I couldn’t fit every problem word and phrase in this post. But thanks for appending the flammable family here.

  24. You’ve got a brain, Niko, you can work it out – why feel the need to rely on someone else to give you information. You are responsible for your own learning.

  25. Thank you! Having taught at university for a few years, I wish my students had known about these things. I wish *I* had known a few more so I could use them confidently rather than avoiding them altogether. Bookmarked!

  26. I can’t believe affect and effect aren’t on here — people mix these up all the time!

  27. How about ‘presume’ and ‘assume’? I’m still confused by those two and no one else seems to know!

  28. Andrew:

    Good question. Assume means to merely suppose; while presume has a stronger connotation of self-assured expectation.

  29. I always have trouble with “over all” and “overall,” when to use which? In fact that was the first thing I checked for on this list. Do you have an explanation of this problem word/phrase?


  30. This was an excellent article. I know you only have limited space, but another grammatical error I hear way too often these days is the misuse of “I” and “me.”

    “My daughter and I went to the beach with John.” As opposed to “John went to the beach with my daughter and I” (which should be “me.” The rule is that either “I” or “me” should be able to stand alone if you eliminate the other person in the sentence.

  31. insure/ensure is worth including here. Best to leave insure to mean the act of purchasing insurance, while ensure more generally means to “make sure” something happens. Insure tends to get used very often when ensure is properly meant.

    Also healthy/healthful. While healthy has been used to mean both “being in good health, and “conducive to good health” for a long time (so can’t really call the latter use incorrect), it is worth trying to distinguish the 2 since having 2 words to mean 2 things is preferable to 1 word doing double duty. Socrates, after all, could’ve eaten a big helping of perfectly healthy hemlock and still had the same result; and a poisonous mushroom can be just as healthy as benign one.

  32. You say: (“Hone in” has no meaning.)

    In my lexicon, “hone in” means to refine your aim or trajectory.

  33. Bruce:

    My point in #25 is just that: “Hone in” is a misreading of “home in” (“to target”). You can hone something, such as a tool or a skill, but you can’t hone in on something.

  34. How about alot, which should be a lot? We don’t spell alittle, so why do folks spell alot?
    My pet peeve is everyday and every day. Every day is describing something that happens daily-I go to work every day. Everyday is an adjective- I wore my everyday shoes instead of my good shoes.

  35. I love this list. I have printed it and intend to give it to the English teacher I’m currently assisting as an aide. She’s absolutely incapable of explaining these differences to her students. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard her say “because that’s just the way it is.” It’s awful.

    On a side note, I always have a silent laugh when people complain of being nauseous, rather than nauseated.

  36. Mine is when people complain “of” something instead of complaining about it. But I can be rather nauseous to some. 🙂

  37. You didn’t discuss the difference between more than (opposite of fewer!) and over (a location) Not only didn’t you discuss it – you have the misuse of “over” on your page in the add for subscribing to your site. You can have more than 50,000 people subscribe to your site … or you can hover over a football stadium filled with more than 50,000 people.

  38. The *add* for subscribing to the site? You can have an ad- vertisement for your site…o you can have something that is an add-ition of some kind for your site, I suppose. Or maybe add itself is a noun we aren’t aware of…:)

  39. Shannon: And don’t forget *iffect*– what would possibly happen if something affected something else, and *offect*– what happens when the affect is effectively to knock off something that was, theretofore, on.

  40. Eldergee:

    I have no idea; I speak and write American English and had never heard of this word until I saw it in your comment. According to Merriam-Webster Online, it’s a direct synonym of timely used primarily in Scotland and South Africa; perhaps a site visitor from one of those countries can enlighten you about any nuance.

  41. After I had just started with an engineering firm I found “gravely” instead of “gravelly” on one of their report figures to describe soil with gravel. It had been used for at least 10 years and hundreds of reports.

    I brought it to the attention to the senior engineer, who minored in English. He was “gravely” disappointed.

  42. This is really helpful! I am a trancriptionist and run into affect vs effect often. This is the most complete list I have seen like this. Thanks for putting it together!!!

  43. Tom: I can symphatize. I work at a university and I found that their commencement programs had referred to the Grand *Marshall* of the ceremony for at least 15 years. I pointed this out to the head of the English Dept, and he didn’t even see the problem. I was the one gravely disappointed!

  44. Hysterical / Hilarious:

    Being Hysterical is someone who is emotionally uncontrollable and / or panicking physically. Chicken Little was hysterical when he ran around yelling “The sky is falling!”

    Being Hilarious is funny beyond humorous. Robin Williams live on stage (or pretty much any time he is turned “on”) can be hilarious to the point no one in their right mind is not weeping with hilarity.

    One can be both hysterical and hilarious, but the words are NOT interchangeable, despite common misuse by the general public and the media.

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