Confusing words: the ultimate A-Z reference guide

Posted on 10 March 2015 by Lucy Gregory

Introducing the ultimate guide to confusing words

We plan to build this page over time to create the most comprehensive, useful and all-round awesome blog on confusing words in business English.

Why? Well, you could look this stuff up in a dictionary – but maybe you can’t be bothered. And sometimes you don’t know what to look up in the first place.

So bookmark this page and use it whenever you need help unmuddling the muddle.

If you have any suggestions for confusing words to add to the blog, please share them in the comments box at the bottom of the page.
A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z |


A lot / alot

It’s always written as two words: a lot.

Accept / except

Accept means to receive or come to terms with something: I gratefully accepted her gift.
Except means to exclude something or someone: Everyone’s invited to the meeting except Lorna.

Adverse / averse

Adverse means unfavourable, harmful or preventing success: His hostility to colleagues created an adverse working environment.
Averse means opposed to, against or unwilling: I’m not averse to a little chocolate after supper.

Advice / advise

Advice is the noun. Advise is the verb.
Gary asked Richard to advise on a complicated matter. Richard was pleased his advice was valued.
It’s more common to spell adviser, with an e than an o.

Affect / effect

Affect is most commonly used as a verb (an action word). It means to have an influence on or to produce a change in something. Effect is most commonly used as a noun. It means the result or consequence of something on something else.
If you need to write a, an or the before your affect/effect, then the correct choice is almost always effect. Or, use this nifty mnemonic: RAVEN – Remember Affect (is a) Verb (and) Effect (is a) Noun.

Allude / elude

Allude means to subtly refer to or hint at something: The CEO alluded to the company’s financial problems.
Elude means to escape from or avoid something, usually in a sneaky or skilful way: The CEO had stolen £1 million from the company but, with help from the finance director, he eluded detection.

Alternate / alternative

If something alternates, it occurs in turn repeatedly: The British weather alternates between cold and wet.
An alternative is one of two courses of action: If you’re not happy with my proposal, let’s discuss an alternative.
If there are more than two courses of action, alternative is not technically the right word. Most people won’t notice but if you’re a stickler for the rules it’s better to use option or scenario.

Anticipate / expect

Anticipate means to take a course of action to prepare for something you expect to happen: Rachel bought painkillers on Friday in anticipation of Saturday’s hangover.

Assure, ensure, insure

To assure means to dispel doubts: Eva assured Jon she would finish her work by Friday.
To ensure means to guarantee or make something happen: Eva worked all night to ensure she completed the work by Friday.
To insure means to take out a policy of financial protection: She was so busy, Eva forgot to insure her car.



Bare / bear

Bare means naked. It also means basic or simple: He did the bare minimum of work during his notice period.
Bear is the animal. It also means to carry a load or burden, or conduct yourself in a particular manner: Please bear with me.

Biannual / biennial

Biannual means twice a year. Biennial means every other year.



Compare to / compare with

Use compare to if you are noting similarities: The company’s performance today is strong and compares to its success before the financial crisis.
Use compare with if you are noting differences: The company’s performance today is strong compared with recent years.

Complementary / complimentary

Complementary means something that works or matches well with something else: Our marketing and sales teams complement each other.
Complimentary means free of charge or flattering: Kelly complimented James on his negotiation skills after he wangled complimentary tickets to the football for the whole team.

Continual / continuous

Continual means recurring but intermittent: We discussed the matter for two weeks continually.
Continuous means steady and without interruption: We have been on the conference call for three hours continuously.

Council / counsel

A council is a body of decision makers. To counsel someone (verb) means to advise them. Counsel (a noun) is advice or an adviser (usually legal).



Defence / defense

Defence with a c is the British spelling. Defense with an s is the US spelling.

Dependant / dependent

A dependant is someone who relies on another, usually in a legal context. To be dependent is to rely on another.

Discreet / discrete

Discreet means careful or tactful. Discrete means separate or distinct.

Disinterested / uninterested

Disinterested means unbiased, objective or impartial. Uninterested means bored or not interested.



Eg / ie

Eg means ‘for example’: Transport, eg car, bike, train or plane.
Ie means ‘in other words’: Transport, ie a means of moving people or goods from one place to another.
You can write both of them with or without full stops after the letters.

Effect / affect

See Affect / effect above.

Elicit / illicit

Elicit means to draw out, prompt, extract or evoke: Our latest sales strategy has elicited many new customer enquiries.
Illicit means illegal or improper: The boss and his secretary conducted an illicit affair after hours in the office.

Elude / allude

See Allude / elude above.

Emigrate / immigrate

Emigrate and emigrant refer to someone who has left a country. Immigrate and immigrant refer to someone who has entered a country.

Eminent / imminent

Eminent means distinguished, high in reputation or prominent: The eminent professor is giving a talk on his latest theory.
Imminent means soon: The professor will arrive imminently.

Enquire / inquire

Traditionally, enquire and enquiry were used to mean ‘ask’ in the general sense of the word: The PR department is handling all enquiries.
Inquire and inquiry were used in relation to a formal investigation: The government has ordered a formal inquiry to take place.
Nowadays the two are used interchangeably, although enquire is more common in the UK and inquire is more common in the US.

Except / accept

See Accept / except above.



Fewer / less

Fewer is for things you count individually: fewer meetings or fewer computers.
Less is for things you can’t count or things not thought of in numbers: less fun, less work or less information.
When talking about time, money, units of measurement and proportions, it’s generally correct to use less because they are often not thought of in numbers.

Flounder / founder

Flounder means to struggle or act with difficulty or confusion. Founder means to collapse, sink or fail completely: I floundered at work for six months and no one helped me. When finally I foundered, they fired me.
Flounder are also a group of flatfish species.

Formally / formerly

Formally means officially, properly or in accordance with etiquette. Formerly means before or in the past.



Historic / historical

Historic means something important or momentous: Winning our first award was a historic moment for the company.
Historical means something from the past: We reviewed historical data to reach our conclusions.
Traditionally, both words were preceded by an and the h was not pronounced: It was an historic moment. However, most people don’t do this any more and it’s more common to see the words preceded by a, as in our examples.



Ie / eg

See Eg / ie above.

Illicit / elicit

See Elicit / illicit above.

Immigrate / emigrate

See Emigrate / immigrate above.

Imply / infer

Both words refer to making suggestions or assumptions based on information. But which one you use depends on who you’re writing about.
If you’re the person giving information then you imply: I implied to Darjeet that he would be promoted this year.
If you’re the person receiving information then you infer: Darjeet inferred from our discussion that he would be promoted this year.

Inquire / enquire

See Enquire / inquire above.



Judgement / judgment

Judgement is the ability to make a sensible and authoritative decision: Harry trusted Louise’s judgement.
A judgment is a legally binding decision made by a judge in a court of law: The judge handed down his judgment.
In the US, judgment (no e) is used for both definitions.
In all contexts (and in UK and US English), judging is spelt without an e.



Less / fewer

See Fewer / less above.

Licence / license

Licence is the noun: They were granted a licence to develop the land.
License is the verb: They were licensed to develop the land.
In the US, license (with an s) is used for both noun and verb.



Passed / past

Passed is the past tense, past participle and perfect tense of the verb to pass. As a quick trick, imagine your sentence in the present or future. If pass works in the context, then passed is the right option in your original sentence.

Past refers to time and position and can be a noun (things happened in the past), an adjective (this past month has been wonderful), a preposition – after a verb, followed by a noun (he ran past her desk; turnover past £1m this year), and an adverb – after a verb, without being followed by a noun (he ran past; I’ll meet you at half past).

Practice / practise

In UK English, practice is the noun and practise is the verb.
I spend an hour a day on piano practice.
I practise piano for an hour a day.
He set up a dental practice on the high street.
He’s been practising dentistry for 20 years.
It is not the practice of this company to allow staff to practise roller skating in the canteen.

Precede / proceed

Precede means to go before. Proceed means to start, continue or go forward.

Principal / principle

Principal is the first in order of important or a leading individual. Principle is a rule, ideal, truth or code of conduct.

Program / programme

In British English, use program when referring to computing. Use programme for everything else.
In US English, program is used for all spelling.



Remuneration / renumeration

It’s spelled remuneration (m then n). The other spelling is wrong.



Stationary / stationery

Stationary means not moving. Stationery refers to writing equipment. An easy way to remember it is that stationery has an e, like envelope.

Supercede / supersede

Supersede is spelled with an s in the middle, not a c.



Their / there / they're

Their means belonging to them: It’s their life.
There is a place other than here: Look over there!
They’re is a contraction of they are: They’re very happy with your work.

Tortuous/ torturous

Tortuous means full of twists and turns or excessively complicated. Torturous means causing pain or suffering.



Uninterested / disinterested

Uninterested means bored or not interested. Disinterested means unbiased, objective or impartial.



Wangle / wrangle

To wangle means to obtain something through clever manipulation. A wrangle is a complicated dispute or argument.

Whiskey / whisky

Generally, US and Irish whiskies are spelled with an e. Scottish and other single malt whiskies are spelled without an e.
Some say the two spellings originate from different Scottish and Irish translations of the word from Gaelic. Others say Irish distillers in the nineteenth century added the e to differentiate their product from Scottish whisky, which was lower quality. Either way, the different spellings have stuck.

Who / whom

Who is the subject of the verb – the equivalent of using ‘he’ or ‘she’. Whom is the object of the verb – the equivalent of using ‘him’ or ‘her’. 
An easy way to tell which is correct is to rejig the sentence by trying to insert ‘he’ or ‘him’. If you need to use ‘he’ for the sentence to make sense, who is correct. If you need to insert ‘him’ then whom is correct.
Who/whom was on the phone? -> He was on the phone.
(The correct word is who)
I don’t know to who/whom I should send this email. -> I should send this email to him.
(The correct word is whom)
Who/whom does he think he is? -> He thinks he’s superman.
(The correct word is who)

Who's / whose

Who’s is the shortened form of of who is or who has: I was speaking to Anna, who’s the new CEO.
Whose is the possessive form of who. It shows when something belongs to someone: Whose coat is that?



Yours faithfully / yours sincerely

Use Yours faithfully when you don’t know the recipient’s name, eg Dear Sir or Dear Madam.
Use Yours sincerely when you do know the recipient’s name, eg Dear Bob or Dear Mr Smith.