Learning English can be a rewarding but challenging experience, and even native speakers stumble over some words that seem alike. Misusing these words can lead to misunderstandings and even convey the wrong impression. This article aims to help you navigate the tricky landscape of commonly misused words in English. We’ll break down 10 words that often get confused, offering straightforward explanations and real-world examples to help you use them correctly. Whether you’re a language learner or just looking to brush up on your skills, this guide is for you.
1. Affect vs. Effect
Affect is typically used as a verb meaning “to influence.”
- The weather can greatly affect your mood.
- Social media can greatly affect public opinion.
- Exercise can positively affect your mental health.
- The new law will affect how businesses operate.
- Your eating habits can affect your energy levels.
- Economic downturns affect both big and small companies.
These examples are designed to illustrate the various contexts and scenarios where you might use the word “affect,” focusing on its role as a verb meaning “to influence.”
Effect, on the other hand, is usually a noun that refers to a result or outcome.
- The effect of the new policy was immediate.
- The effect of regular exercise on your well-being can be transformative.
- The effect of the medication should be apparent within an hour.
- The special effects in the movie were astonishing.
- The butterfly effect suggests that small actions can have large consequences.
- Her speech had a powerful effect on everyone in the room.
These examples aim to broaden your understanding of the word “effect,” showcasing its application in different contexts to denote a result or outcome.
There’s a longer discussion on “affect” vs “effect” here.
2. Lay vs. Lie
Lay is a transitive verb, meaning it requires a direct object. It means “to place something down.”
- Please lay the book on the table.
- Can you lay the napkins next to the plates?
- She decided to lay her cards on the table and be honest about her feelings.
- Lay your coat on the bed when you come in.
- The hen will lay eggs in the morning.
- The construction workers will lay the foundation for the new building next week.
Each example showcases how “lay” is used as a transitive verb, meaning it requires a direct object to complete its meaning. The action is being performed on something else—like napkins, cards, a coat, etc.
Lie is an intransitive verb, so it doesn’t require a direct object. It means “to recline.”
- I want to lie down for a few minutes.
- I think I’ll lie down after dinner to rest a bit.
- The cat likes to lie in the sun all day.
- Sometimes it’s nice to just lie on the beach and relax.
- You should lie flat on your back while doing this exercise.
- The town lies at the foot of the mountain.
Each of these examples uses “lie” as an intransitive verb, meaning it does not require a direct object. The action is being performed by the subject itself, and there is no object receiving the action.
3. Then vs. Than
Then is an adverb used to indicate a sequence in time.
- First we’ll go shopping, then we’ll eat.
- I’ll finish my homework, then I can watch TV.
- She put on her shoes, then she grabbed her keys.
- He stirred the soup, then added some salt.
- First, we’ll have the appetizer, then the main course, and then dessert.
- If you pass this test, then you’ll be qualified for the job.
These examples aim to show the different ways “then” can be used to specify a sequence of events or actions in time.
Than is a conjunction used for comparisons.
- Apples are healthier than chips.
- She is taller than her brother.
- The exam was easier than I expected.
- I’d rather have tea than coffee.
- It’s better to be early than late.
- His new book is even more exciting than his last one.
Each example uses “than” to compare one thing to another in various contexts. Whether you’re comparing height, difficulty, preferences, or quantities, “than” is the conjunction you’ll use.
4. Compliment vs. Complement
A compliment is a polite expression of praise or admiration.
- She gave me a compliment on my new haircut.
- He paid her a compliment by saying she was the best public speaker he had ever heard.
- Your boss may give you a compliment for a job well done during the team meeting.
- She received many compliments on her wedding dress.
- “Your cooking is delicious,” is a compliment you might hear at a dinner party.
- It’s nice to give your friends compliments when they help you out.
Each of these examples uses “compliment” as a noun or a verb to express praise or admiration towards someone for their skills, appearance, actions, or other qualities.
Complement refers to something that completes or goes well with something else.
- The wine is a perfect complement to the meal.
- Her shoes perfectly complement her dress.
- The new software is designed to complement existing systems, not replace them.
- Your skills complement mine; we make a great team.
- A side salad would be a good complement to the main dish.
- His calm demeanour is a perfect complement to her energetic personality.
Each example shows how “complement” is used either as a noun or a verb to indicate something that completes or enhances something else, whether it be in terms of fashion, skills, food, or other elements.
5. Loose vs. Lose
Loose is an adjective that describes something not tightly fitted.
- The screw is loose; you should tighten it.
- My shoes are loose; I need to tie the laces.
- She wore a loose sweater for comfort.
- The dog got out because the gate was loose.
- Be careful with that loose wire; it could be dangerous.
- The pages in this old book are loose; I should be careful while reading it.
Each of these examples uses “loose” as an adjective to describe something that is not tightly fitted or securely in place. The word can apply to various contexts, including clothing, mechanical parts, and physical conditions.
Lose is a verb that means to misplace something or to fail in gaining.
- Don’t lose your keys again!
- If you lose focus during the game, you might miss a critical shot.
- He didn’t want to lose the opportunity to make a good impression.
- She was afraid she would lose her job if the project failed.
- I always seem to lose my glasses when I need them the most.
- You will lose weight if you exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet.
Each of these examples showcases “lose” as a verb that means either to misplace something or to fail in gaining or maintaining something, be it an opportunity, a game, or a condition.
6. Its vs. It’s
Its is a possessive form of “it.”
- The cat licked its paw.
- The dog wagged its tail when it saw its owner.
- The company is known for its excellent customer service.
- The tree shed its leaves in the fall.
- The baby held onto its mother’s finger.
- The planet has completed its orbit around the sun.
Each example uses “its” to indicate possession, belonging, or a particular characteristic of a subject, which could be an animal, object, or even an abstract entity. You can read about possessive form here.
It’s is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.”
- It’s going to rain today.
- It’s getting late; we should head home. (=it is)
- It’s been a long time since we last met. (=it has)
- It’s a beautiful day outside. (=it is)
- It’s not easy to solve this problem. (=it is)
- It’s my turn to cook dinner tonight. (=it is)
Each of these examples uses “it’s” as a contraction to stand for “it is” or “it has,” simplifying the sentence while retaining its meaning. These sorts of contractions are used in informal language.
7. Stationary vs. Stationery
Stationary refers to something that is not moving.
- The car remained stationary.
- The stationary bike is a good option for indoor exercise.
- Despite the wind, the flag remained stationary.
- The Earth rotates, but the North Star appears stationary in the sky.
- Please place the package on the stationary table.
- The soldier was ordered to remain stationary until further notice.
Each of these examples uses “stationary” to describe something that is not moving, either by its nature or due to specific conditions.
Stationery refers to writing materials, like paper and envelopes.
- I bought some new stationery for my office.
- The stationery store offers a variety of pens, paper, and notebooks.
- She likes to write letters on her personalised stationery.
- The hotel provides complimentary stationery in each room for guests.
- He ordered corporate stationery with the company’s logo printed on it.
- For her birthday, she received a set of stationery that included matching paper and envelopes.
Each example uses “stationery” to refer to different types of writing materials, whether they are for professional, personal, or specific occasions.
8. Principal vs. Principle
Principal can be a noun or an adjective, referring to a person or the most important aspect of something.
- The principal reason for my visit is to see you.
- As a principal, she is responsible for the entire school.
- The principal amount of the loan is $10,000.
- His principal concern was the safety of his family.
- The violinist was the principal performer at the concert.
- The principal ingredients in the recipe are flour, sugar, and eggs.
Each example uses “principal” either as a noun referring to a person in a position of authority (e.g., a school principal) or as an adjective to describe something that is the most important, primary, or chief in rank or importance.
Principle is a noun that refers to a fundamental truth or law.
- The law of gravity is a basic principle of physics.
- The principle of supply and demand governs the market.
- Honesty is a key principle that should be upheld in all relationships.
- The conservation of energy is a principle in physics that is widely applied.
- He refused to lie, citing his moral principles.
- The Golden Rule is a principle that advises treating others as you wish to be treated.
Each of these examples uses “principle” to refer to an established rule, law, or ethical guideline that serves as a foundational basis for understanding or decision-making.
9. Discreet vs. Discrete
Discreet means careful or unobtrusive.
- Be discreet when talking about sensitive topics.
- She made a discreet exit from the party, not wanting to disturb anyone.
- The detective conducted a discreet investigation to avoid alerting the suspect.
- He made a discreet donation to the charity, without drawing attention to himself.
- She sent a discreet message to warn her friend about the surprise party.
- The company offers discreet packaging for sensitive products.
Each example uses “discreet” to describe actions, decisions, or manners that are careful, unobtrusive, or confidential.
Discrete means separate or distinct.
- These are two discrete issues.
- The robot has several discrete functions, including vacuuming and mopping.
- The report is divided into discrete sections to make it easier to understand.
- The designer used discrete colour palettes for each room in the house.
- In mathematics, discrete variables are those that have distinct, separate values.
- The company has discrete teams working on software and hardware development.
Each of these examples uses “discrete” to describe something that is separate, distinct, or individually categorised from others.
10. Accept vs. Except
Accept is a verb that means to receive or to agree to something.
- I accept your apology.
- Please accept this gift as a token of my appreciation.
- He was thrilled to accept the job offer from the prestigious company.
- They decided to accept the terms of the contract after lengthy negotiations.
- The university is excited to accept new students into its programs next semester.
- The committee will accept submissions until the end of the month.
Each example uses “accept” to indicate a willingness to receive something or agree to certain conditions or terms.
Except is generally used as a preposition or conjunction to exclude something.
- I like all fruits except for durian.
- Everyone except Tim showed up on time for the meeting.
- I eat all vegetables except Brussels sprouts.
- The store is open every day except Sunday.
- She’s completed all the assignments except the final essay.
- The museum is free to visitors except on weekends.
Each example uses “except” to indicate exclusion, specifying what is not included in a particular set or category.
In summary, understanding the correct usage of these words can go a long way in enhancing your English language skills. While the list is by no means exhaustive, it should provide you with a good foundation for avoiding some common mistakes.
So the next time you find yourself hesitating between “then” and “than,” or “affect” and “effect,” refer back to this guide. Happy learning!
P.S. You can see 10 common grammatical errors here.