31 commonly confused words to watch out for
Let’s be honest: English can be a really confusing language. There are pairs upon pairs of words that seem specially designed to torment – sometimes differing by just a single letter – it’s not just language learners who have to be wary but also native speakers of English. Here is a collection of some of the commonly confused words that you often encounter.
1-2. elicit or illicit
Would you elicit an illicit reply, or vice versa?
When it comes to this confusing pair, the crucial thing to remember is that elicit is a verb and illicit is an adjective. Elicit means ‘to evoke or draw out a response’ and illicit refers to something that is ‘forbidden by law, rules, or custom’. One trick to remembering the distinction is by remembering that ill – another adjective – is part of illicit, also an adjective.
3-4. hoard or horde
He told me to horde/hoard my books.
Hoard refers to a ‘stock of money or valued objects, typically one that is secret or carefully guarded’ and is also a verb that means ‘to amass (money or valued objects) and hide or store away’ or ‘reserve in the mind for future use’. The word horde refers to a ‘large group of people’, usually in a derogatory sense. Given that horde only applies to people, hoard should be used in the example sentence above.
5-6. farther or further
Are we going much further or farther?
The difference between further and farther is an ongoing debate in the language world. Some say that the distinction has to do with figurative and literal distances, meaning that you would walk farther to the school but think further about something. In practice, though, further can be used to describe both figurative and literal distances, while farther is typically used to describe just literal ones. For further language arguments, see 5 language arguments you can stop having.
7-8. flaunt or flout
Do you flaunt your wealth or flout your wealth?
Flaunt means ‘to display ostentatiously’ whereas flout means ‘to openly disregard a rule or convention’. This means that you would ‘flaunt your wealth’ (display ostentatiously) but ‘flout the laws’ (disregard them).
9-10. historic or historical
The opening was a historic/historical event.
You might have thought that these two words meant the same thing, but they convey two separate ideas about how something relates to history. The word historic means ‘famous or important in history’, whereas historical means ‘concerning history or historical events’. Hence, something that simply has happened in history is ‘historical’, but something important or momentous to history is ‘historic’.
11-12. diffuse or defuse
Do you defuse or diffuse a situation?
The word defuse means either ‘to remove the fuse (from an explosive device) in order to prevent it from exploding’ or ‘to reduce the danger or tension in a difficult situation’. Diffuse usually means ‘to spread or cause to spread over a wide area or among a large number of people’. Given this, you would defuse (reduce the danger in) a situation. However, it’s common to see diffuse used in this sense, as in ‘only peaceful dialogue between the two countries can diffuse the tension’, with diffuse referring to the dispersal of that tension. You would not, however, ‘diffuse a situation’.
13-14. pour or pore
Did sweat pour out of his pores?
Pour means ‘to flow rapidly in a steady stream’ or to cause something to do this, and ‘to come and go in a steady stream and in large numbers’. On the other hand, a pore is one of the minute openings you’d find on your skin, while the verb pore means ‘to be absorbed in the reading or study of’, usually with the prepositions over or through, as in ‘he pored over the dictionary’.
15-16. adverse or averse
Was he averse or adverse to the idea of getting ice cream?
Averse means ‘having a strong dislike of or opposition to something’, whereas adverse means ‘preventing success or development’, ‘harmful’, or ‘unfavourable’. Averse is usually used to describe a person’s attitude, whereas adverse is used to describe situations, conditions, or events. The person above would (sadly) be ‘averse’ to having that dessert.
17-18. flair or flare
She dressed with flair/flare, wearing a blouse with a stylish flair/flare at the ends of her sleeves.
The word flare refers to a ‘sudden burst of bright flame or light’ or ‘a burst of emotion’, as well as to ‘a gradual widening, especially of a skirt or pants’. Flair, on the other hand, refers to ‘a special or instinctive aptitude or ability for doing something well’ or ‘stylishness and originality’. That means that you would dress ‘with flair’ but wear a skirt that has ‘a stylish flare’.
19-20. discreet or discrete
Did you mean a discrete voice or a discreet voice?
Discrete refers to something that is ‘individually separate and distinct’ whereas discreet refers to someone who is ‘careful in one’s speech or actions’ or to something that is ‘intentionally unobtrusive’. A helpful way to remember which is which is that the ‘e’s are separate from each other in discrete.
21-23. cite, site, or sight
He caught sight/site of the page he had sighted/cited in his report.
These three words are pronounced the same, which lends them to mix-ups. Cite means ‘to refer to (a passage, book, author, or source) as evidence’, and tends to get confused less frequently than the other two homophones, site and sight. Site refers to ‘an area of ground on which a town, building, or monument is constructed’ or ‘a place where a particular event or activity is occurring or has occurred’. The noun form of sight refers to ‘the action or faculty of seeing’ or ‘a thing that one sees or that can be seen’.
24-25. cereal or serial
She ate serial/cereal while listening to the radio serial/cereal.
This confusion is pretty easy to avoid. Cereal refers to grains such as wheat or rye, or to breakfast food made from roasted grains, whereas serial refers to something that is ‘taking place in a series or sequence’ or a person who is ‘repeatedly following a behavior pattern’, as in ‘a serial offender’.
26-27. breach or breech
Did the army breach or breech the castle walls?
In its noun form breach refers to ‘an act of breaking or failing to observe a law, agreement, or code of conduct’, and in verb form it means ‘to make a gap in and break through (a wall, barrier, or defence)’. Breech usually refers to the back part of something, such as that of a rifle or gun, and in its plural form breeches refers to short trousers fastened just below the knee.
28-29. appraise or apprise
He was apprised/appraised of the situation.
Appraise means ‘to assess the value or quality of’ or ‘set a price on; value’. On the other hand, apprise means ‘to inform or tell (someone)’. This means that you would ‘apprise someone of the appraisal’.
30-31. tortuous or torturous
Are you talking about the tortuous or torturous scenes?
If war film was ‘full of twists and turns’, then it was probably tortuous. But if it was also ‘involving or causing torture’, you should be wary about what aspect of the film you’re actually commenting on.