Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Commonly Confused Words

© 2011 Katherine Swarts

 Katherine Swarts is a poet and inspirational writer from Houston, Texas. Her self-published poetry book Where Light Dawns: Christian Poems of Hope for Hurting Hearts (the first volume in a planned series) was “written for naturally gloomy types like myself who are tired of ‘cheer up’ talk and need the comfort of ‘God does love you’ encouragement.” The poems in the book come from Katherine’s blog at http://newsongsfromtheheart.blogspot.com; contact Katherine at katherine@spreadthewordcommercialwriting.com for ordering information.
Commonly Confused Words

“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”

That old quote proved itself when I tried to confirm exactly who said it. A dozen famous characters are credited with originating the phrase—and each has advocates who “know this for a fact” and are ready to tear into anyone who disagrees. I’m sure I’ll hear from some of these if I personally credit anyone besides their top candidates; so I’m going to take the coward’s way out and avoid even mentioning any of the possibilities.

Some “things we know that ain’t so” have uglier consequences than heated arguments. Ask anyone who has mistaken the accelerator for the brake, or spoken condescendingly to a “receptionist” who turned out to be the company president. And though few people have been sued for confusing “principal” and “principle,” avoiding vocabulary mistakes is crucial to projecting a conscientious, intelligent professional image.

Last week’s post talked about commonly misspelled words. Today, we go on to commonly confused words. Here are ten pairs for starters:
1. Accept/Except: “Accept” means “to receive”; “except” means “excluding.”

2. Benefactor/Beneficiary: The benefactor does the giving, the beneficiary the receiving.

3. Complement/Compliment: “Complement” means “a necessary part of” or “to supplement something”; “compliment” means “a flattering statement.” (And the word that refers to free gifts is complimentary—like gift, it has an i in it.)

4. Continual/Continuous: “Continual” means “regularly recurring”; “continuous” means “uninterrupted.”

5. Disinterested/Uninterested: “Disinterested” means “objective” and may refer to someone, such as an arbitrator, who is very much involved in a situation. “Uninterested” means that someone is totally uninvolved and couldn’t care less.

6. E.g./I.e.: “E.g.” means “for example”; “i.e.” means “in other words.”

7. Farther/Further: Generally, “farther” refers to material, physical distance and “further” to less measurable quantities. Hence, “three miles farther” but “for further consideration.”

8. It’s/Its: “It’s” means “it is” or “it has”; “its” is the possessive form of “it.” One sentence demonstrating the difference: “It’s a wise dog that scratches its own fleas.”

9. Mean/Median: Both are mathematical terms roughly meaning “average,” but they are calculated in different ways. When a sum is divided by the number of calculations that went into it (as in [3+9+12]/3=8), the result is the mean. A median is the midpoint of a list of numbers that is arranged from lowest to highest.

10. Principal/Principle: “Principal” means “first in rank” or “the person first in rank.” (The head of a public school is the principal. The amount of a loan before interest is the principal. The central issue in a situation is the principal issue.) “Principle” means “a basic standard or truth.”
Dozens more “Common Errors in English” are posted at http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html#errors. You may be surprised to learn what you’ve been getting wrong!


  1. Oh my, this post made me laugh so hard! I have a huge hangup about misspelled words, too. This was perfect. :)

    Adriana Ryan

  2. I'm so glad, Adriana. Katherine is a gem and her sense of humour works. I'm actually remembering the rules that were hard to remember in the past.

    Hope your week's good.

  3. Love this!
    I think, among them all, my most difficult is 'further' and 'farther'...in fact, let me go check the meanings again...

    Thanks! Very helpful!

  4. You and me both, Carol. I hear "He drove further than intended" but it should be "He drove farther than intended." It doesn't sound right to my ear. Hmm. Okay, further is inanimate and farther if far away in distance.

    fur is animal as in inanimate
    far is distance as in material.

    I think I got it!

  5. This was wonderful, Joylene. You know, English wasn't my first language. And someone once told me that it was the most difficult language to learn. I always thought that was wrong. The vocabulary is so rich. I fell in love after the first few words. :)

  6. My mother said the same thing, Laila, and always corrected our poor grammar. I had a professor at the university once tell me, "It's a good thing you don't write like you speak."

    After she said, I tried harder to speak properly.

  7. Oh my goodness. This makes me think of my old Microeconomics professor. "Peanut butter and jelly complement each other; they do not sit around and compliment each other!" :D Great post!

  8. That's a good one, Carrie, one I can remember.

    Did he have more?

    Hope your week is going well. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Great post Joylene, and thanks to Katherine for sharing the informaiton.. so useful. It is easy when writing and editing, to know what we mean, and overlook the details.

  10. You are so right, Rosalie. Overlooking the obvious becomes a bad habit after awhile. It's good to be reminded what to look for. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. You always have such wonderful guests, Joylene! Great article. I, of course, don't need to altar my way of riting because I no it all and have good incites.

  12. Hi Joylene and Katharine .. love these - but just wish more of the population would actually want to learn the difference and improve their knowledge (of many things) .. but grammar would come near the top of the list ...

    The graphics are perfect!

    Great post - thanks .. Hilary

  13. @Of course you don't, Pat. Your weigh two smart to make this mistakes. Hey, thanks for stopping by. Hope you're weak goes great.

    @Hilary, me too. I think of my mother and her love of the English language even though it wasn't her first language. Cheers.

  14. As an editor, I am also fascinated by such malapropisms. I have a collection of some tens of thousands -- wish I could find a way of turning it into a meaning-checker resource!
    Bob Rich

  15. Great post! Loved those cartoons! And when the computer flags those words, oy!

    Thanks for stopping by. I've been thinking about that little girl all day. I sometimes have to shake myself, it's so surreal what's happening.

  16. I've been thinking about her too, Kittie. Let's just hope that her mother knows what she's doing and will be fearless in protecting her.

    Have a wonderful week.

  17. Excellent info, complete with the special 'affects' :)
    Yes indeed, I glued myself to the headmaster, talk about sticking to my 'principals'!

  18. Gary, always a pleasure. LOL. Okay, truth, being in the same window with you is hilarious and often dizzying. Not to mention high-volutin'. Oh, and profound too.

    Hope you have a super-dooper week, my good fellow!

  19. I hang my head in shame at some of the faux pas I have made in the 'above' list ... And no, I won't be telling you which ones!

    Most illuminating post :)

  20. Wendy, don't feel bad. As a Canadian I'm constantly using American spelling when I know better. Part of the problem is I've been reading a lot of American authors, their spelling begins to look normal and so when it comes to using the word, I forget which is which.

  21. I'm a stickler for this kind of thing. I'm good with almost all of these. Still, I only realized there was difference between further and farther last year. Who knew?!

  22. Hi Nancy. What's surprising is how many writers do struggle over these examples. And many of them are terrific writers, but somehow can't grasp the differences. Makes me wonder why.


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