Abstruse: (adjective) obscure, difficult to understand
Jenna-Mae Lumpkin developed an abstruse thesis about the subversive post-apocalyptic and post-modern cultural appropriation symbolism of Gilligan’s Island.
Obtuse: (adjective) dull-witted, lacking understanding
Jenna’s obtuse classmates failed to understand her brilliant theories.
Accept: (verb) agree with something or take something
Optimus Prime accepted a lovely bouquet of roses from Spongebob Squarepants.
Tinky Winky accepted Bohm’s holographic universe theory.
Except: (verb) leave something out or exclude it; (preposition) excluding, other than
The discount pet health plan excepted certain services, including dog whispering and feline self-esteem workshops.
Buffy invited all the monsters to her birthday party except the vampires.
Adverse: (adjective) harmful, unfavourable, acting in opposition
Shaking hands with a lobster can have adverse consequences.
Averse: (adjective) having a feeling of distaste, opposition, or aversion; strongly disinclined
A staunch vegetarian, Arvid was averse to eating anything that had previously had a face.
Advice: (noun) a recommendation about what to do
Sir Ichabod Squidworthy ignored Lord Daftwager’s advice about not betting on the 2014 lizard races in Australia.
Advise: (verb) to make a recommendation about what to do
Lord Daftwager advised Squidworthy to save his money so that they could take a nice holiday together, but Squidworthy was determined to bet it all on a lizard named Sneaky Pete.
These are just alternate spellings of the same word. Either iscorrect when used to mean one who gives advice (typically an expert in a particular field), though some style guides demand the use of one spelling or the other.
Affect: (verb) influence, change, or imitate something (i.e., accents, styles of dress); (noun) emotion expressed in body language and facial expression (a flat affect is a lack of apparent emotion and emotional reactivity)
Nermal negatively affected everyone’s mood at the party by shouting abuse and hitting guests with a dead salmon.
Gena affected a British accent in order to appear more intelligent.
His affect was flat after watching the 12-hour Andy Griffith marathon on television.
Effect: (noun) the result of an agent or cause, an image or sound used to imitate something real (such as an explosion) or to generate excitement (for example, strobe lighting); (verb) cause to occur
Waldo’s poems about lampposts usually had the effect of putting people to sleep, but Marlene found them enthralling.
The team used special effects to simulate the experience of watching a beautiful sunset with a pack of flatulent dogs.
When Morbo took over the sales team, he effected a number of changes, the first of which was to replace the sales team with stuffed sheep dressed as pirates.
Aggravate: (verb) worsen or make something more serious
Marta’s attempts to play Smoke on the Water on her accordion aggravated Bertha’s headache.
Irritate: (verb) annoy or inflame
Bertha’s assertion that bagpipes are superior to accordions irritated Marta.
Aggravate is used informally to mean annoy as well, but it shouldn’t be used this way in formal writing.
Aid: (noun) assistance, help; (verb) provide assistance, help
Velda aided Mindy by duct taping the doomsday device to the roof of her Smart Car.
Aide: (noun) helper
One of the classroom aides had to take over after the teacher accidentally inhaled a piece of chalk.
Aisle: (noun) a passage between rows of seats
Han Solo and Chewbacca walked up and down the aisles trying to find good seats for the ballet.
Isle: (noun) an island (typically a small one)
Stranded on a desert isle, Cruella de Vil and Scooby Doo had to put aside their differences and work together to survive.
Allude: (verb) refer to something indirectly
Randall McTigger alluded to Moby Dick in his novel, A Whale for Wanda, but never mentioned the classic work directly.
Elude: (verb) avoid capture or discovery
Quilla eluded her pursuers by hiding among the cows and mooing occasionally.
The main difference between these two words is directness: Allude is a verb that means to hint at (in other words, suggest something indirectly or covertly), while refer means to mention something directly.
Brandine alluded to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in her angry letter to the Department of Motor Vehicles, but referred directly to Homer’s The Odyssey in her rant to the Mayor about the city’s hamster shortage.
Aloud: (adjective) out loud
She read her 360-page “Charles in Charge” fan fiction aloud to the dismay of everyone at the party.
Allowed: (verb) permitted
Twerking and other forms of suggestive dance were no longer allowed on the jobsite due to complaints about naked construction workers behaving inappropriately around wrecking balls.
Altar: (noun) a sacred church table
Everyone was appalled when Jerry spread out his picnic lunch on the altar during the church service.
Alter: (verb) to change something
The snickering teenagers altered the sign, removing the ‘l’ from ‘public’.
Alternate: (noun) a substitution, (verb) substitute something for something else or take turns, (adjective) substitute
They had to choose an alternate for their pie eating contest team because Roddy had stopped at an all-you-can eat steakhouse on his way to the event.
During her outburst at the dance contest, Jemma alternated between stomping her feet with rage and throwing fistfuls of salsa at the cowering judges until security guards came to escort her from the building.
They chose an alternate route to the store because the road they usually took was teeming with angry raccoons.
Alternative: (noun) one thing or idea that can be chosen among multiple; (adjective) selectable from among multiple things, unusual, nontraditional
Nero had to choose among three alternatives: a monkey butler, a dancing llama, and a pit bull in a little tuxedo.
Vladamir, who painted with ketchup and mustard and sculpted with mashed potatoes, was a leader in the alternative arts scene.
Amoral: (adjective) unconcerned about right and wrong (refers to a personality trait or state of being)
The amoral woman broke into people’s homes on Christmas Eve, stealing their Christmas trees and replacing them with velvet paintings of Mr. T riding various dinosaurs.
Immoral : (adjective) going against moral standards (refers to the way in which the individual interacts with the world)
Stealing Christmas trees is immoral, and velvet paintings are in poor taste, but Mr. T riding a brontosaurus is fabulous.
Apprise: (verb) inform
Prometheus apprised Gary of the fact that his TV was on fire.
Appraise: (verb) size up or evaluate quality or value
Janet appraised Karl’s plastic figurine of Glenn Beck waltzing with Karl Rove, judging it to be worthless.
Assent: (noun) approval or agreement, (verb) to approve or agree
Jasmine assented to the dog groomer’s plan to dye her poodle’s fur purple but refused the option of puce highlights.
Ascent: (noun) the action of climbing or rising upward
Jack and Jill’s ascent up the hill was slow and plodding, but their descent was much faster.
Assume: (verb) suppose, without proof
Wendell Wackmeister assumed that Genaviva McTwee would accompany him to the barn dance, but she went with Barnaby Thwacktoaster instead.
Presume: (verb) believe something based on probability
The hiker had been missing for a week and was presumed dead, but it turned out that she had faked her death to get out of cleaning the bathroom.
Assure: (verb) remove doubt, make certain, give confidence, reassure, promise
Evan assured Sally that her flying squirrels would be safe with him.
Ensure: (verb) make certain, sure, or safe
Warren ensured that everyone had a porcupine and a flute before the porcupine charming class began.
Insure: (verb) arrange compensation in the case of death, injury, or property damage, usually by purchasing insurance
Because his last electric hammer had met with an unfortunate accident, Mr. Clunkington insured the new one so that he could recover the costs in case of further mishaps.
Aural: (adjective) related to the ears or hearing
Unsurprisingly, elephants have greater aural capabilities than people do.
Oral: (adjective) related to the mouth or speech
The teacher was bewildered by Jenda’s oral report on the history of grommets because it was delivered during a gym class and the homework assignment had been to jump up and down 124 times.
Verbal: (adjective) in the form of words or related to words; can denote written or spoken words
Bella Quagmire didn’t believe in saying things verbally when she could convey them more effectively through interpretive dance.
Aver: (verb) affirm, declare to be true
Jonathan Bletherington averred that because toast always lands butter-side down and a cat always lands on its feet, a piece of buttered toast strapped to the back of a falling cat will spin forever.
Avert: (verb) ward off, prevent, or turn away
Ayla averted disaster by putting the toddlers and the porcupines in separate rooms.
Avoid: (verb) keep away from or shun
Bogwoppit avoided Lord Blackadder after Blackadder stole his favourite melon baller.
Badly means poorly, unsuccessfully, or unsatisfactorily. Bad can mean poor quality, undesirable, unpleasant, immoral, putrid, decayed, worthless, or painful (as in a bad back). When referring to feelings, it can imply guilt, shame, or regret.
She clog danced badly and felt bad as a result. (She clog danced poorly and felt shame as a result.)
His macaroni art was bad because he arranged his pasta badly. (He produced poor quality macaroni art because he arranged his pasta in an unsatisfactory manner).
Bare: (adjective) naked, uncovered; (verb) uncover
All of the eucalyptus trees in the neighbourhood were left bare after Mimsy’s herd of koalas escaped from her backyard.
Lord Sexington drew his sword and bared his rock hard chest in defiance as Princess Blah clung to his muscular thighs and begged him not to fight the glittering vampire hoard.
Bear: (verb) carry, tolerate; (noun) a big furry mammal
Lord Sexington could not bear Princess Blah’s singing any longer, so he silenced her with a kiss.
The grizzly bear ate Lord Sexington and consumed more than half of Princess Blah’s hat.
Bazaar: (noun) a market where goods and services are sold, often outdoors and typically permanent
After purchasing a flying carpet at the bazaar, Aladdin flew around the city throwing tapioca pudding on the heads of his enemies.
Bizarre: (adjective) weird, strange
Princess Jasmine found Aladdin’s pudding obsession so bizarre that she demanded he seek psychiatric help.
Beach: (noun) a sandy or rocky area near an ocean or lake, (verb) drag a boat up on shore
Dr. Zoidberg did his lobster mating dance at the beach.
Chester beached the boat next to a giant sand sculpture of Katie Perry.
Beech: (noun) a type of tree
While most people preferred pine trees and tinsel for their Christmas decorations, Vivian decorated a beech tree with a string of plastic dinosaurs and Pop Tarts.
Beat: (verb) defeat, pound, whip, punish, strike, hit with fists or an object (such as a club); (noun) a musical or poetic rhythm
Waldo beat his enemies savagely with a rubber chicken.
The music had an unusual beat, which was unsurprising, given that it was produced by two monkeys and a parrot named Zippy.
Beet: (noun) a red root vegetable
Instead of eating his beets, Milford liked to dress them in little outfits and use them to re-enact the Civil War.
Boar: (noun) wild pig
Orin thought he saw a bore, but when he noticed the animal’s suit and tie, he realized that it could not be a wild pig.
Boor: (noun) clumsy or rude person
Mumford was known as a boor because he often made negative comments about the size of other people’s nostrils.
Bore: (noun) dull person; (verb) interact with another person in a dull way so that they grow bored, be uninteresting with others; (verb) drill a hole
Natalina was a bore because she talked of nothing but paperclips.
Werner bored others with his endless ranting about gerbils.
Filbert bored holes of various sizes in his wall to store his pens, pencils, and sausage rolls.
Berth: (noun) a ship’s or train’s bunk for sleeping; a place on the water near the shore where a ship stays while awaiting its next voyage
Johnny McAlear was shocked to find a beautiful woman in the berth he’d reserved for his pet sheep, Cinnabar.
Birth: (noun) the moment when a baby emerges from the womb
According to astrologers, his date of birth was inauspicious, but he rose to become the world’s top worm charmer.
Beside: (preposition) by the side of
Wendell continued to sit beside Frannie despite the fact that she had dumped a bowl of spaghetti over his head and sprayed him with pepper spray five times over the past hour.
Besides: (preposition) in addition to or other than
Frannie couldn’t understand why she had no friends besides Wendell.
Biannual: (adjective) twice a year
The Waffle Tossing Contest, a biannual event in Sporktown, was held in January and July of each year.
Biennial: (adjective) every two years
The Peanut Butter Wrestling Championships were held biennially in Sporktown, alternating with the Pineapple Rolling Contest, which was held every other year as well.
Born: (verb) brought into existence by birth
He was born in a cotton candy factory but he died in a giant vat of molasses.
Borne: (verb) carried, transported, spread by (as in a water-borne virus)
The coffin in which the vampire Throb Glitterington slept was borne by twelve shrieking teenagers.
The spontaneous combustion virus was borne by fleas.
Bough: (noun) a branch
A tree bough fell on the Batmobile, scratching the new paint that Robin had just applied.
Bow: (verb) to bend, incline, show respect by inclining one’s head or body; (noun) a ship’s front area; (noun) a knot with two loose ends and two loops, typically used when tying shoelaces or in decorative items; (noun) a weapon used to shoot arrows; (noun) the rod used to play stringed instruments such as the violin
Bilbo bowed deeply to show his respect for King Chunk.
Bartleby’s prize pig broke loose and rushed to the bow of the boat, ruining a romantic moment between Kate and Leo.
Lydia always wore a gigantic yellow velvet bow in her hair when appearing in court for various misdemeanours.
Vera released arrow after arrow from her bow until she had destroyed every one of her brother’s My Little Pony dolls.
When they saw Miranda apply her bow to her violin, Jimmy and Tawna put in earplugs but Randolph, lacking any means to block out the horrible sounds, had no choice but to jump out the window.
Brake: (noun) the device used to make a vehicle stop, often used in plural, as in a car’s brakes; (verb) apply brakes to stop a moving vehicle
Mel hit the brakes but didn’t manage to stop the car in time to avoid driving into Barbara’s Jell-O wrestling pit.
Warren braked quickly to avoid hitting Mrs. Montague’s favourite turtle as it slowly crossed the road.
Break: (noun) a pause; (verb) to separate something into pieces suddenly, often forcefully or even violently (past tense: broke)
Mortimer took a break from surfing the Internet on his phone to assess his surroundings and determine which planet his spaceship had landed on.
When he realized that he was still on earth and did not actually have a spaceship, Mortimer broke his phone into hundreds of little pieces by stomping on it repeatedly.
Breach: (verb) fail to fulfil promises or agreements (as in a breach of trust), break a rule; (verb) break through something; (noun) a gap
Magma’s theft of Ricardo’s underwear was a breach of their roommate agreement.
The whale breached the water’s surface, gave Max a disgusted look, and then returned to the depths of the ocean.
Breech: (noun) part of a gun barrel
Attempting to identify the breech of his loaded gun led to Stan’s snazzy new eye patch and his career as a pirate.
Broach: (verb) bring something up for discussion
Guinevere kept trying to broach the subject of Lancelot’s embarrassing fashion choices, but she could never bring herself to say anything because she knew how much he loved that giant pink hat.
Brooch: (noun) piece of jewelry that is pinned to clothing
Quilla wore a broach in the shape of a marmot standing on a squashed apple pie.
More frequently confused words:
See the main Writer Resources pages for guides to grammar, punctuation, and interesting words.
- Casagrande, J. (2006). Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language tor Fun and Spite. Penguin, New York.
- Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries. (2004). 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses & Misuses. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2013). Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Merrriam-Webster.com.
- O’Conner, P. T. (1996). Woe Is I, the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
- Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. (2013). Oxford University Press. OALD8.OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com.