Frequently Confused Words A-B

Abstruse/Obtuse

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/Except

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/Averse

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/Advise

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.

Adviser/Advisor

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/Effect

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/Irritate

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/Aide

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/Isle

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/Elude

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.

Allude/Refer

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/Allowed

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/Alter

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/Alternative

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/Immoral

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/Appraise

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/Ascent

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/Presume

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/Ensure/Insure

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/Oral/Verbal

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/Avert/Avoid

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.

Bad/Badly

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/Bear

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/Bizarre

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/Beech

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/Beet

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/Boor/Bore

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/Birth

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/Besides

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.

Biennial/Biannual

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/Borne

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/Bow

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/Break

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/Breech

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/Brooch

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.

References:

    • 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.

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