Using commonly confused words correctly makes your writing stronger — and you a more trustworthy writer
The terrific Grammar Girl website presents volumes of insights on the ins and outs of grammar. A search for a Grammar Girl article on the wonders of homophones, homographs, and homonyms immediately leads to this aptly named guest post by Neal Whitman, PhD, of the Literal-Minded blog. To put it very simply, homophones sound alike but have different meanings, homographs share the same spelling but have different meanings, and homonyms sound alike and share the same spelling but have different meanings. Whitman’s post provides many more details and even includes a controversy related to this seemingly unremarkable topic.
Homophones, homographs, and homonyms are confused all the time. As a writer, it’s your job to not only be aware of the correct uses of such tricky terms, but to use them correctly every time you include them in a sentence. Using any words incorrectly equates to a broken promise to your audience — whether you’re working on a piece of creative writing or a business presentation. The people you’re addressing when your piece is published, broadcast, or presented are giving you their time and attention in exchange for your insights. Pay them back by proving through your polished writing that you’re a detail-oriented, professional writer as well as a trustworthy source of information on the topic at hand.
A Google search for commonly confused words leads to a collection of lists from a variety of sources. Another tried-and-true source related to grammar, the Grammarly blog, features one of the best lists on this topic in its post “Top 30 Commonly Confused Words in English.” Among the top 30 are the usual suspects “it’s, its;” “there, their, they’re;” “to, too;” and “who’s, whose.” While you certainly need to know the differences among these words, a few of the more challenging contenders deserve even more of your attention:
Certain tricks can really help a writer remember which similar word to use in any instance, and the Grammarly post presents a great example of such a trick in its discussion of “affect” versus “effect.” Bottom line: substitute the word “alter” in the sentence in which you want to use “affect” or “effect” correctly. If the word “alter” works, “affect” is correct. Since both “alter” and “affect” start with the letter “a,” this trick is even more easy to remember. Consider this example: “The heat wave affected/effected attendance.” Since it would be correct to say, “The heat wave altered attendance,” “affected” is the correct choice.
Keep in mind that, as in the example above, “affect” is usually used as a verb while “effect” is usually used as a noun (as in “The heat wave had an effect on attendance.”). Once you’re comfortable using “affect” and “effect” correctly in this way, consider diving into how both words can be used in other ways. Your writing will become even stronger once you master such uncommon alternatives.
Both “compliment” and “complement” can be used as a noun or a verb. While the noun “compliment” generally means an admiring comment, the verb “compliment” means to say such a comment. And while the noun “complement” generally means something that completes or goes well with something else, the verb “complement” means to complete or go well with something else. A trick to knowing which spelling is correct in any instance is to keep in mind the “complement/complete” connection. Both words mean the same thing, and neither contains the letter “i.” So if you’re trying to decide whether to use “complement” or “compliment” in a sentence, substitute “complete” and see if it works. Consider this example: “Her colorful high-tops complemented/complimented her outfit.” Since high-tops can’t talk, it’s fairly simple to guess that “complimented” would be incorrect, but if you’re still unsure, substituting “completed” (as in “Her colorful high-tops completed her outfit.”) provides extra assurance that “complemented” is the correct choice.
The above “complete” trick came from a Thoughtco.com discussion of “complimentary” versus “complementary.” This article defines the two adjectives this way: While “complementary” describes “separate elements that together equal perfection, make a whole, or are supplementary or reciprocal,” “complimentary” refers to someone who is “flattering or praising someone” (or something) or something that is “given away free as a courtesy.” That’s why you often see “complimentary” used in signs or ads for a deal that includes something free. A “complimentary” glass of wine with your meal isn’t complementing, or completing, your meal — it’s simply free.
Many elementary school students have been taught the trick to remembering to spell “principal” correctly because it includes the word “pal,” which is a person just like a school principal. Another trick is to think of a “principle” as a “rule” — another word that ends in “le.” But what about when “principal” is used as an adjective meaning “most important”? Try substituting the word “primary,” which, like “principal” (and unlike “principle”) has an “a” in it. Consider this example: “The principal/principle question remained unanswered.” Since it would be correct to say, “The primary question remained unanswered,” “principal” is the correct choice.
In finance, “principal” is also known as the “original sum of money borrowed in a loan or put into an investment” according to Investopedia.com. Again, thinking of “the original sum” as “the primary sum” can help you remember that “principal” is the correct spelling in such references.
The trick to remembering whether to use “stationary” or “stationery” in a sentence is a bit more imaginative than some of the other tricks mentioned above. If you think of the “a” toward the end of “stationary” as a solider standing straight and tall, it’s easy to remember that “stationary” means “unmoving.” The only option when spelling the word that means writing paper, then, is “stationery.”
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I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction when I’m not working as a copy editor. Author of the novel One Sister’s Song.