For want of a better word

If you are trying to be as good as your word, it pays to choose the right word in the first place. That can be tricky with English vocabulary. The language is loaded with words that sound alike but are spelled differently (homophones). English also boasts many words which share similar but not identical meanings. 

It’s incredibly easy to make mistakes, even for well-educated native speakers. Spell-checkers certainly won’t pick up most of the potential errors and enormous care must be taken when translating texts into English.

Below are some of the most commonly confused and misused words in the English language.

Affect and Effect

Confusion reigns (not rains!) with these two words. Affect is usually a verb whereas effect is a noun. They are both used when talking or writing about the consequences of a particular action.

I am concerned that your lack of sleep will affect your ability to study.

Before you decide to stay up late, consider the effect of this on your studies.

stay up late

Compliment and Complement

You’d be very rich if you were given a pound or Euro every time one of these words was misused. Compliment is a verb or a noun and means to say something nice about someone or something.

He complimented his girlfriend on her artistic skills.

Complement is also a verb or a noun and suggests that two or more things go well together

The sofa complements the colour of the wall.

Bare bear

Bear and Bare

These two little words seem to confuse everyone. Bear is a verb and a noun with multiple meanings. 

As a noun, bear refers to large furry animals of the grizzly and polar variety.

I saw a large grizzly bear by the river.

As a verb, bear means to endure or to support a heavy weight.

I can’t bear the pain of this injury.

The beams will bear the weight of the roof.

On the other hand, Bare is an adjective or a verb which means to be naked or uncovered.

I like to have bare arms to show off my tattoos.

Stationary and Stationery

It’s always a nightmare when two words sound identical but have completely different meanings. Stationary is an adjective which means motionless.

The traffic on the main road was stationary.

Stationery is a noun which refers to writing materials including paper and envelopes.

I need to buy stationery as I have several letters to write.

Assure, Ensure and Insure

This trio of words never ceases to cause confusion. It’s incredible how often the three words are misused.

Assure is a verb which means to tell someone that something is definitely going to happen or is definitely true.

I can assure you that I will arrive on time.

Ensure is also a verb and means to make sure of something.

I tried to ensure that I arrived on time.

Insure is a verb which means to take out an insurance policy.

I need to insure my new car.

A word to the wise

We could have cited (not sited!) many other examples of English words which cause confusion. Sometimes the differences between these words is nuanced and so errors may not be noticed. However, mistakes can be obvious and completely change the meaning of a sentence. A poor choice of words matters little in casual conversation. But errors could prove to be hugely problematic if they feature in legal documents and instruction manuals.

It pays to find the right words and software won’t always find them!

X