Oct 6, 2022

Commonly Confused Words and Misused Phrases in English

open dictionary with golden tassel sitting on top

English is woven from threads of many different languages and dialects. It therefore contains many easily confused words and phrases–those similar to other words and phrases and therefore used incorrectly or mixed up by non-native–and native–English speakers. Some words are spelled like other words, while other words sound just like other words. Knowing the difference between these similar words and phrases can be tricky. 

But have no fear–this article breaks down some commonly confused word pairs and phrases and provides definitions and examples of each to show you how to use them correctly. This is not a comprehensive list, but it will hopefully help you recognize particular differences and even some patterns between common English words and phrases.

Commonly Confused Words in English 

Here are some of the most commonly confused words in English, listed in alphabetical order. See if there are any words here that you might be using incorrectly.

“Adverse” and “averse”

Both of these words are adjectives. An adverse effect prevents one’s success or progress toward an objective, while averse means something you’re strongly opposed to.

Adverse vs. Averse examples:

“I just got adverse news about my health goals from my doctor yesterday.”

“I’m not averse to taking another health test if I have to.”

Affect vs. Effect

Affect is a verb meaning to influence. Effect is a noun that means a result or cause of some event or action.

Affect vs Effect examples:

“Dumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere affects the climate situation in a negative way.”

“What is the exact effect of dumping CO2 into the atmosphere?”

Elicit vs. Illicit

Elicit is a verb that means to obtain something from someone (e.g., money, gifts, information). Illicit is an adjective that means “illegal” or prohibited.

Elicit vs Illicit examples:

“The job of a good political campaign manager is to elicit donations from supporters.” 

“The black-market handbag gang  made over $10 million in illicit product sales last year.”

Farther vs. Further

There is much disagreement about how these two words should be used. Both further and farther are often used as comparative adjectives and sometimes used as adverbs, and the part of speech they fill in for can help determine their use.

The simplest rules to follow are 1) use farther only when referring to distance, in a literal or figurative sense; and 2) use further only to mean “more.” These uses are further complicated by the fact that Americans tend to use farther in the same way that other English speakers use further, so there is some difference depending on which English type you are applying.

Farther vs. Further examples:

“That guy can throw a ball farther than any athlete I have ever seen.”

“The water well is a bit further down the road, according to my map.”

Implied vs. Inferred

These verbs (written here in the past tense) are often confused both in academic settings and casual, everyday usage. In the most basic sense, implied (“to imply”) means that someone stated or wrote something and meant something else that was left unsaid. Inferred (“to infer”) usually means that a listener or reader understood a statement as having a certain meaning or implication. These confused words are actually different sides of the same rhetorical coin.

Implied vs. Inferred examples: 

“When the speaker said that bats are the most spectacular flying creatures, he implied that they are even more spectacular than birds.”

“I inferred from the speaker’s statement about bats that he thinks they are more interesting than birds.”

Lie vs. Lay

These confused words are often used interchangeably in everyday speech, especially by speakers of American English. Lie is a verb meaning to recline on a surface, usually in a recumbent or supine position. Lay is a verb meaning to put or place, usually referring to an object, animal, or small person. 

Lie vs. Lay examples: 

“Rebecca lies down to take a nap every afternoon at 2 PM. She usually falls asleep within five minutes.”

“Tim told Mary to lay down the hammer on the table, as she was swinging it a bit too wildly.”

Lose vs. Loose

Lose is a verb meaning to misplace something or someone or not be able to find it/them; it also forfeit or the opposite of win in some circumstances. Loose is an adjective meaning slack, flexible, or not well-fitting. As with many adjectives, loose can also have several other meanings depending on the context and region. These words are often confused in written English.

Lose vs. Loose examples: 

“Jim loses his sunglasses every time he goes to the beach.”

“They always manage to lose the game at the last minute.”

“This bottle cap is too loose–the soda is spilling out onto my pants!”

“Her dance moves are much looser than they were last time I saw her at the club.”

Regardless vs. Irregardless 

There is some controversy surrounding these confused words and whether one is even a misused word at all. Regardless is the “correct” adjective that means “despite any accepted or potential circumstances.” Irregardless has traditionally been seen as the “incorrect” formation of regardless, but there are cases of its usage throughout the last couple hundred years. Irregardless is now accepted as standard usage in most English dictionaries. 

Regardless vs. Irregardless examples: 

Regardless of the weather conditions, we are going to play that baseball game tomorrow.”

Irregardless of the difficulties I might face, I still have to pay rent at the end of the month.”

Their vs. There vs. They’re

These three confused words can be found all over internet forums and comment sections, and people love to correct others on their misuse of the given terms. Their is a plural possessive pronoun. There is an adverbial that means “place.” They’re is a contraction (a combination of two words using an apostrophe) that means “they are.”

Their vs. There vs. They’re examples: 

“Their house is the largest one on the block.”

There is a haunted house over there at the end of the street.”

“Who are these people? They’re not living in this house now, are they?”.

Who vs. Whom

These relative pronouns are used to point to two different elements in the sentence. Who refers to the subject and can be used in a question or in a phrase. Whom can be used in the same places in a question or sentence but refers to the direct object or indirect object (either in the current sentence or in another place). 

Who vs. Whom examples: 

“Who owns that shiny new sports car?”

“I don’t know who owns it, but I know who is renting it.”

“To whom did you give all of our money?”

“I don’t remember whom I gave the money to.”

One-word vs. Two-word Combinations

Many people confuse words that seem to be one word as two words, or vice versa. What does that mean exactly? Well, many English words (compound nouns) are composed of two separate words put together. Knowing when these words are written as one word or as two separate words takes an understanding of the context of the sentence, and learning when to use both versions will improve your writing quality. 

Examples of one-word/two-word pairs include anyway vs. any way; everyday vs. every day; and altogether vs. all together. As with most of these pairs, the spoken versions of these combinations sound almost identical to one another.

Anyway vs. Any way

Anyway is an adverb that means “regardless” or “to sum up,” or it can be used as a place-filler in casual conversation (sort of like a sigh). Any way is a phrase that means “any manner or method.” As with

Anyway vs. Any way examples: 

“Anyway, my overall point is that there are too many regulations in kids’ sports these days.”

“You can trim your bushes in any way you choose, just as long as it follows the housing association guidelines.”

Altogether vs. All together

Alltogether is an adverb that means “overall” or “all things taken together.” All together is a phrase that means multiple parts or parties are doing something together at the same time. 

Altogether vs. All together examples: 

“Altogether, the cost of replacing the roof will cost at lesat $12,000.”

“Let’s sing the fourth verse of the Christmas carol. All together now!”

Everyday vs. Every day

Everyday is an adjective that means “normal” or “common.” Every day is an adverb that describes doing something daily or almost daily.

Everyday vs. Every day examples: 

The everyday items we buy at the store are largely composed of petroleum-based plastics.” 

“The family spends at least $50 on food supplies every day during their vacations.”

girl whispering into boy's ear, commonly confused words
Many English expressions and idioms simply get lost in translation.

Commonly Misused Phrases and Confusing Expressions

In addition to confused words, speakers of English often make mistakes in how they use phrases and expressions, including idioms and colloquial phrases. You can go through decades of life thinking you know a common expression, only to find out one day that you have been using it totally wrong this whole time. 

To avoid these kinds of mistakes, try to learn the confusing expressions below by heart so that you don’t make a faux pas at your next social gathering by saying some truly incoherent statements.

Wrong: “By in large”

Right: “By and large”

When you intend to say “overall,” or “everything considered,” make sure you don’t say by in large instead. The correct phrasing is by and large.

“By and large” example in a sentence:

By and large, everything in the meeting went according to plan.”

Wrong: “For all intensive purposes”

Right: “For all intents and purposes”

People use this phrase incorrectly when they want to say “in almost every case” or “for all practical purposes.” The correct phrase is “for all intents and purposes.” When you say it out loud, it does sound pretty similar…

“For all intents and purposes” example in a sentence:

“He said he will call the manager tomorrow, but for all intents and purposes, the deal is dead.”

Wrong: “One in the same”

Right: “One and the same”

What does “one in the same” mean? It’s difficult to tell since the prepositional phrase “in the same” is a bit vague when it goes together with the abstract noun “one.” The correct phrase,“one and the same,” is used to imply that two seemingly different people or items are actually (basically) the same person or thing.

“One and the same” example in a sentence:

“Isn’t it obvious,” Sherlock asked Holmes. “The woman wearing the red shawl and the mysterious dinner guest are one and the same–and she committed the murder.”

Wrong: “Tow the line”

Right: “Toe the line”

Many of these confused expressions and misused phrases come from pretty archaic origins. Thus, to “tow the line” might make sense, as a tugboat might pull a ship. However, the correct expression, to “toe the line,” means to follow instructions of a leader or group no matter what. The expression is though to come from the image of soldiers standing in a very straight line and not moving an inch away from it during their maneuvers.

“Toe the line” example in a sentence:

“We don’t always want to do what the head manager says, but we usually toe the line and do whatever work we are asked to do just to keep our jobs.”

Comparison of Common Phrases in English

In addition to misused and confusing phrases, there are also many commonly used phrases and expressions that are used instead of other phrases. Unlike the “misused” phrases, these phrase pairs are both correct in many cases, but one phrase is more popular than the other. 

The common phrase comparisons below give an idea of how flexible the English language can be, and they show how important context is when determining meaning and usage.

more than vs. more then

“more than” is used to compare two things or sets of things. “more then” is a sequence of words that could appear within any given sentence but which doesn’t have any meaning by itself

more than or more than examples:

“It seems like we have more than enough food to go around this time.”

“What could be more fun than a picnic on a nice summer day?”

“We go for more and then we go even further.”

which number vs. what number

Both phrases have a similar or identical meaning depending on usage. “what number” refers to an individual number without context or other numbers. “which number” usually indicates that it is one number among many others in a series. But these phrases are often used interchangeably.

which number or what number examples: 

“Which number is it? Look and find the correct number to answer the question.”

“What number should come next? A. (1/3),  B. (1/8), or C (1/4)?

what happened to vs. what happened with

In these phrases, “to” and “with” have different meanings depending on the circumstance in which this phrase is used. “What happened to” is usually used in reference to a specific person, group of people, or a specific place. “What happened with” is usually used to refer to a situation or event.

what happened to or what happened with examples: 

You saw what happened to Terry, right?”

So, what happened to the car last night? I heard a huge crash at 2AM.”

“Look what happened with Ultron and Wonderman.”

“I forgot to tell you what happened with Rachel and me at school today.”

simpler vs. more simply

The word “simpler” is a comparative adjective, while “more simply” is a comparative adverb. “Simpler” is used to compare two or more things or actions, while “simply” is used to compare the way in which two or more actions are done. 

simpler or more simply examples: 

“Did you know that there is a simpler way to make cheese?”

“I need a simpler method for this task.”

“Could you figure out a way to do this more simply?”

“More simply speaking, tell him he’s not invited.”

sounds great vs. sound great

Both of these phrases have the same meaning. “sound great” is usually used with a plural noun; “sounds great” usually applies to an idea or suggestion, or is used with a singular noun. Non-native English speakers should be careful to follow subject-verb agreement rules–singular nouns take singular verb forms, while plural nouns take plural verb forms. These are some of the most commonly confused word errors ESL writers make.

sounds great or sound great examples:

“Community power sounds great, but how do we do this?”

“This band sounds great! What is their name?”

“Broadband rebates may sound great, but Labour needs to remember 5G.”

“These new speakers sound great! Where did you buy them?”

I like you vs. I’m like you

“I like you” means the speaker has a positive view of the person they are speaking to. “I’m like you” means that the speaker believes they are similar in some way to the person they are speaking to. As you can see, these commonly confused phrases have quite different meanings, so be careful when using “I” versus “I’m.”

I like you or I’m like you examples: 

“Didn’t the president always say “I like you” to his supporters?”

“Why would you hurt me when I’m just like you?”

I’m like you in my preference for colder weather.”

every day vs. on a daily basis

Both phrases have the same meaning in most cases. “on a daily basis” usually referes to something planned, as part of a regime. “every day” is more commonly used in everyday speech. Remember not to confuse the adverb “every day” with the adjective “everyday.” 

every day or on a daily basis examples: 

“I eat cereal for breakfast every day.”

“Daily” pretty much means the same thing every time: occurring every day.”

“I eat apples on a daily basis.”

“How do we engage with tracking on a daily basis and what happens to our data?”

Correcting Errors in Words and Phrases

The examples of commonly confused words and phrases presented in this article barely scratch the surface of all the word choice errors people tend to make in their writing. So you might be wondering how to correct these errors before someone else catches them. 

We recommend learning these English rules on your own to improve your writing quality. Check out our editing guide to see how the revision process works. There are also online AI Text Editors and professional proofreading services available that can provide a higher level of correction and revision–for grammar and punctuation issues, as well as errors in style and natural expression. 

We hope these examples of commonly confused words and phrases help clear up some questions and set you on the path to writing in English more naturally and effectively. Happy Writing! 

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