I am a writer and for some reason, grammar and spelling have always come naturally to me. It’s my superpower and party trick. Give me a word and I will spell it (as long as it is in English, not so great with other languages). Show me your sentence, and I will know if it is correct or not, even if I can’t name all the grammar rules. I just can, but I know many people really struggle with this topic. So, I am going to share some secret tricks I use to keep things straight when it comes to trickier words. English is a conglomeration of many different languages, so similar words found their way in, some with similar meanings, and some with widely different meanings, but similar sounds. I like to use little mind tricks to keep some of the more commonly mixed up words straight. I am hoping they will help you as well avoid those embarrassing grammar moments.
Affect and Effect
This is an easy one for me, because it is all in the beginning letters of the word.
- Affect is something that is going to act (see the first letter in both words is “A”) His eyes were affected by the high pollen count. His eyes were “acted on” by the pollen.
- Effect is a result of some action (again, I use the “E” at the beginning of word and connect it to the “e” in result). As a side effect of the high pollen count, his eyes were red and swollen.
Advice and Advise
These two get mixed up a lot, because they are just one little letter off – when do you use the one with a “c” and when do you use the one with an “s”?
- Advice is providing (hopefully) good recommendations to someone, as in, “I gave my brother some good advice on dating” – so I connect the word recommendation (with a “c”) to the word Advice (with a “c”) advice = recommendation. Easy, peasy…
- Advise is to provide help or assistance through a recommendation, such as “I advised him to always open the door for the girl”. So, advise is a verb – something you “do”, rather than noun, which is a “thing”. So I picture giving assistance (with an “s”) when thinking about the word advise (also with an “s”).
Appraise and Apprise
Another pair that sounds similar, but has different meanings. I use the same technique for these – I use the word itself to help me remember.
- Appraise is to assess – both have “a” and “s” – so appraise = assess
- Apprise it to inform someone – these both have an “I” – so apprise = inform.
Bare and Bear
I see these mixed up a lot when not in context of the actual animal – a “bear,” but as we know, the English language can’t just leave well enough alone, so the word bear has another meaning as well. No wonder English is a difficult language to master!
- Bare means naked, so I use the same trick as above – Bare has an “a” and naked has an “a”, so Bare = Naked
- Bear means to carry or put up with, think “bear the burden”. Since the letter trick doesn’t really work here, I just picture a real bear wearing a backpack, as in a “burden.” It might work for you too – try it.
Amoral and Immoral
Ok, this one is a distinction by type, so it is tough. Usually, amoral is something specific to a person, where immoral is associated with a thing or object.
- Amoral means “not concerned with right or wrong,” as in, the killer was amoral. My trick here is I break the word into two parts – “A” and “Moral” – I associate the “a” with “a person” – not perfect, but it is a trick that works for me.
- Immoral means “not following accepted moral standards,” as in, the law was immoral and is usually associate with a thing. For this one, I use the first word, knowing if the sentence doesn’t refer to a person, but a concept or thing, it must be the other, such as “he had immoral”
Broach and Brooch
Another pair where one is a thing, a “noun” and the other is an action, a “verb.”
- Broach is the verb, as in, “I broached the subject,” and it means to raise a subject for discussion. I use the same approach as I do with the first few – I use the letters to guide me. Broach has an “a” and raise has an “a”, so broach = raise.
- Brooch is a thing, it is a piece of jewelry. I just remember the meaning of broach and know I use this for anything else, and to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever needed to write about a person’s brooch
Complement and Compliment
These two are difficult for a lot, but I use my letter linking technique to keep them straight.
- Complement means “an addition that improves something,” as in “The throw pillows complemented the couch fabric nicely.” Complement has an “e” and something has an “e,” so I link the two by mentally thinking complement = something (and not someone).
- Compliment is to give a person praise or approval, it is provided to a person, not a thing. So, I mentally link the ‘I” in compliment to the word “I.”, so my link is compliment = “I” (a person, not a thing.”
Desert and Dessert
These two get mixed up all the time. One is a barren waste land, the other a tasty treat. Definitely don’t want to mix those up when making a wish!
- Desert is a barren wasteland. Notice it only has one “s” – that is my secret to remembering, it has lost its extra “s” and so is less than the other – “a barren wasteland” if you must associate further.
- Dessert is a wonderful treat. Notice it has two “s,” so I associate it with more and who doesn’t want more dessert!
Elicit and Illicit
These are two similar sounding words with vastly different meanings and very easy to mix up.
- Elicit means to draw out a reply or a reaction. It is a verb, so it must work as an action word, “The reported elicited a strong reaction to his question.” Elicit starts with an “e” and I link this to the “e’s” in reply and reaction. So, elicit = reply or react.
- Illicit means it is not allowed by law or rules – usually seen as “illicit behavior” in the news these days. I don’t have a good word link to this one, so I just associate illicit with “ill”, so illicit = ill, which in my mind is bad.
Prescribe and Proscribe
Ok, these two again. Does anyone else think the English language makes no sense at all some days?
- Prescribe means to order or to authorize the use of medicine. I keep these straight by remembering to link the “e” in prescribe to the “e” in medicine. It is just easiest for me – prescribe = medicine.
- Proscribe means to officially forbid something. For this one, I use the “o” as my trigger word – proscribe = forbid.
Principle and Principal
Can this get any more confusing?
- Principle is a thing – a fundamental rule or belief.
- Principal is a person or the most important person. I remember these by just remembering the meaning of this word and using it to rule out the other. My device is to see the “pal” in principal as a person, so principal = pal, my buddy, my friend, get it? That’s it. It’s not all that clever, but I never mix these up.
Sight and Site
They sound exactly the same, but aren’t. English is messing with us again.
- Sight is the ability to see. There are no good letter tricks with this one. I use a rhyme to remember, “Sight is Light” because they are both spelled the same, with one letter change.
- Site is a place. I remember the rhyme for “sight” and know that everything else must be spelled this way.
Now and Know
These two do get mixed up, but they don’t have to.
- Now is a time frame, “do it right now!”.
- Know is to understand or have “knowledge.” I simply link know = knowledge and remember this word to rule out the other.
There, Their, and They’re
You hate these three, don’t you? It’s ok, you can admit it. I did too, until I put together this little trick.
- There is just “here” to someone else, the word contains the word “here.” – Get that? There is a location – Go over there. We were there.
- Their is not mine, but yours. See how I did that – the word has an “I” in it – so it a person’s possession. It’s not mine – it’s theirs. Their job is to make sure your grammar is correct.
- They’re together, but apart. I use the apostrophe to remind myself someone is in between. This one isn’t really a word, but two words – They are. They are going to the store. They’re going to buy ice cream.
These are just a few of the commonly mixed up words, but I tend to see them more than others. Want a way to check your work on everything you do on the web? Check out Grammarly, a cool little application that installs and works with your browser to identify grammar and spelling mistakes and help correct them before you send them to the world. Grammarly is free for the basic version and they have a paid version if you want more in-depth help. I use Grammarly on this blog site to keep me in check because even a person who writes for a living can mess up the English language once in a while!
Join the conversation…
What about you? What are the words you mix up the most or see mixed up on forums, blog posts, or in the newspapers? It is tough out there, my fellow English speakers and writers.