Pull out your edition of Strunk’s Elements of Style, because it’s time to talk about a major headache for English writers: commonly misspelled words. The English language lacks uniform spelling patterns, so many words are easy to confuse and misspell—especially most commonly misused homophones.
Homophones are two words which sound similar but have different meanings.
Homophones are two words which sound similar but have different meanings. Many homophones have different spellings—hear and here, for example, or bear and bare. Though they are understandable errors, these frequently misspelled words will harm your credibility as a writer, making it harder to find publications that accept your work.
So, before a spelling faux pas prevents you from your next publication, these are some of the most commonly misspelled words in English due to misused homophones.
Most Commonly Misspelled Homophone Paires
Accept versus Except
Despite their different spellings, these often misspelled words get swapped for each other all the time.
The word accept means to receive, allow, or approve:
His living conditions weren’t the best, but he accepted them with gratitude.
She accepted the job offer graciously.
We should accept her into our friend group.
Conversely, except describes a seclusion from something. Except can be used as both a preposition and a verb; as a preposition, except means “with the absence of” something.
Except in the summertime, it’s pretty quiet here.
Everything was good except for the bread.
The verb form of except is used very infrequently, but it means the opposite of accept.
To exclude: We except you from our friend group. Be gone!
Since the verb use of except is rather rare, you can assume that “accept” is the correct spelling of the verb.
Affect versus Effect
Affect and effect have similar meanings, but they’re different parts of speech: affect is a verb, whereas effect is a noun. So, you affect something to cause an effect on it.
Here are uses of the verb affect:
This news will affect the stock market.
And here are uses of the noun effect:
This news will have an effect on the stock market.
Adding to the confusion, there is a verb, “affect,” that means “to display or put on,” and a related noun, affect (prounounced “AAH-fect”), that means someone’s demeanor:
Verb: Her affected remorse rang hollow.
Noun: He showed a flattened affect after the accident.
Noun: Like most comedians, she had an odd affect.
There is also a formal and somewhat uncommon use of effect as a verb, meaning “to bring about.”
It’s uncommon, but does show up in formal writing. However, “I was effected” doesn’t makes sense; the proper spelling is “I was affected.”
Allowed versus aloud
Allowed and aloud are different parts of speech, so although both are frequently misspelled words, the difference between them is easy to remember.
As a verb or an adjective, allowed means something is “permitted.” As a verb, allowed is often used in both the active and the passive voices.
Passive: He was allowed to use the computer for an hour each day.
Adjective: That is not an allowed use of the blender.
To do something aloud means to do it audibly, or with sound. “Aloud” does not have a verbal form; you can only use it as an adverb.
During the meeting, you may not have any conversations aloud; Slack chat is fine.
Often, you don’t need to use the word aloud: for example, if I wrote “he spoke his thoughts aloud,” the word “aloud” is redundant, because “spoke” implies sound. However, if you want to emphasize the importance of something being audible, then “aloud” can add that emphasis.
Bear versus bare
Hopefully you can bear a grammar lesson, as we will bare all in this article!
As commonly misspelled words, bear and bare trip up writers constantly. Since both words have multiple definitions, and since both words are anagrams, they are two of the most commonly misused homophones.
Bear can refer to either an animal or an action. A bear is a large omnivorous animal native to all continents of the world. The verb “to bear,” by contrast, means to uphold or endure something.
Verb (meaning endure): He was embarrassed, but all he could do was grin and bear it.
As a verb or an adjective, bare describes things being made naked or exposed. The adjective “bare” refers to something stripped down, naked, or exposed. “To bare,” by contrast, means to make something stripped down, naked, or exposed. Something will always be bare after being bared.
Adjective: This room feels rather bare without any furniture.
Verb: The dog bared its teeth when the man stepped too close.
Verb: We need you to bare all in this memoir.
Brake versus break
This is another tricky homophone set because the two words have the same letters, just slightly different spellings.
Brake can be both a noun and a verb, and it always refers to some form of slowing down. You’ll most likely use “brake” when referring to a mechanical device, such as the brakes in your car.
Always brake when you see taillights.
Don’t brake too quickly, or you could damage your brakes.
Break refers to a gap or disconnect. It can be used as both a noun and a verb.
Toys are too easy to break.
For some reason, there’s a break in my memory.
Would you like to take a coffee break?
In that last example, there’s a break in time or events—an interruption.
Capital versus capitol
These commonly misused homophones are tricky, because they’re both referring to the same thing: the ruling center of a nation-state. The key distinction is as follows: a capital is the place in general, whereas a capitol always refers to a government building.
The capital of the United States is Washington D.C.. The ruling body of America resides there, but because there are different executive branches and offices, the capital isn’t just one place—it’s the entire city. The same holds true for state capitals and provincial capitals, as well as for figurative capitals when a place is described as the capital of something non-governmental.
Figurative: Phi Delt is the unofficial capital of the party scene on campus.
Figurative: The Wisconsin Dells has earned its motto, “The Waterpark Capital of the World.”
Figurative: Japan, of course, remains the world capital of sumo.
The capitol building always resides inside the capital, and it is where the legislature—not the executive body—meets. So in the US, the Capitol Building is the building that houses Congress, not the White House. Most governing bodies, including states, provinces, and some counties and cities, have a capitol.
Capitol Hill is a metonym for the United States Congress.
Remember: a capital is always a place, and a capitol is always a building.
Complementary versus complimentary
Another set of homophones with a one-vowel difference. Additionally, this set of homophones originally shared the same meaning, but grew apart over time. How annoying can the English language get?
A compliment is praise: you can compliment others for their intelligence, their strength, etc. The adjective complimentary, then, describes speech or action which gives praise.
Complimentary also refers, completely separately, to something that’s free of cost.
Giving praise: They were complimentary throughout, but perhaps not sincere.
Free: These complimentary snacks are awful. What’s the deal with airplane food?
Free: These complimentary creative writing tips are a great resource from Writers.com!
Complementary means something different: it refers to something that “completes” something else. Complementary angles, for example, complete each other by adding up to 180º; a complementary watch might make your outfit perfect.
We complement each other; we’re soul mates. We’re complementary.
Farther versus further
These commonly misused homophones are very similar, but each word has its preferred usage. “Farther,” with an a, is best used for measurements of distance.
It’s farther than we can walk.
Further is better for abstract distances, or measurements of time or other quantities.
We boarded two hours late, and waited a further ninety minutes to actually take off.
We’ll need to take this project a lot further if we want to keep our jobs.
Its versus it’s
This is perhaps English’s greatest failing in its partnership with the human brain, so it’s important to focus up.
Its denotes possession; we use it rather than his or hers for a singular thing of unspecified sex:
It doesn’t get cold because its fur is soft and wicks moisture.
The house is losing its roof.
The baby duck thinks you’re its mother.
It’s is a contraction that means “it is.”
The test has been fine so far, but it’s about to get tricky.
It’s polka time!
If you can replace your meaning with “it is,” you always want “it’s.” If you’re talking about possession, you always want “its.”
Lie versus lay
This might be the trickiest homophone pair in the English language, simply because it’s so hard to explain the difference. To avoid one of the most common English writing mistakes, we need to take a step back with another brief grammar lesson.
Most verbs in the English language are transitive verbs. A transitive verb is a verb that has a direct object: the subject verbs something else. If you hit me, love me, or avoid me, those are all transitive verbs, because “me” receives each of these actions.
A few verbs in the English language, however, are intransitive. You can’t apply those verbs to other objects, you only do the action. For example, in the sentence “The boy slept,” slept is an intransitive verb. Nobody can receive the action of sleeping; you would never say “the boy slept him.” Make sense?
The verb lay is transitive: you can lay an object down.
He is laying bricks on the home’s foundation.
Lie, by contrast, is intransitive: you cannot “lie” an object down, but you can do the action represented by “lie.”
The cat lies down on the sofa.
Also tricky is the past tense for these verbs. The past tense of “lie” is “lay,” but the past tense of “lay” is “laid.” So, you need a bit of context to deduce whether you’re using the present intransitive “lay,” or the past transitive “lay.” Remember: if it’s transitive, then something is receiving the action; if it’s intransitive, then there is no direct object.
Principal versus principle
These commonly misspelled words are identical until their final two letters. Their meanings are related by the sense of “primary” in their shared Latin root, but are quite distinct.
A principle refers to a rule or standard.
He was stern, but he lived by his principles.
Entropy is a key principle in physics.
Principal, on the other hand, refers to something that is “first” or “primary.” Often, leaders are principal people in a group. The leader of a school is a principal, for example; the lead investigator of a crime can also be called the principal investigator.
Principal also has a financial definition. When paying off a loan, some of your payment goes to the remaining balance, and some of it pays off the interest that loan collects. So, a principal payment is money that pays off the loan, while the rest of the payment goes towards interest.
Meaning “primary”: My principal concern remains the health of those around me.
Meaning “primary”: Pride was his principal failing.
Financial: How do you calculate the principal balance?
Financial: We’ve paid the interest but not the principal.
Than versus then
This is another tricky homophone set. The only difference between the two words is the vowel, and there’s no easy way to remember which definition is which based solely on the spelling.
You’ll have to hammer this one into your head, and again, a powerful word processor can do wonders for your writing.
Than is a comparative word. You always use “than” to indicate differences in something, whether you’re comparing weight, height, time, looks, or other qualitative and quantitative measures.
I’m taller than him, but shorter than her.
I would much rather run than swim.
In the last example, two different possibilities are being compared; often, “than” coincides with some sort of preference.
Then is used solely to indicate time. It refers to another time than now—either past or future.
That was then; this is now.
Springtime is months away, but we’ll just have to wait until then.
Their versus they’re versus there
“They’re” and “their” are both pronouns, so they’re easy to confuse with each other.
Their is a possessive pronoun. Its most common use is to indicate possession among a plural group:
The wasps are still guarding their nest.
The audience found their seats in the darkening theater.
A more recent use of their refers to possession by a single person using the they pronoun:
They’re, by contrast, is a contraction: the word “they” and “are” are combined. You know that “they’re” is the right word if you can replace it with “they are” and the sentence has the same meaning.
It looks like they’re still outside.
“There” is a different word altogether—it has nothing to do with pronouns. We use the word there solely for expressing location. If I indicate that an object is “right there,” I’m probably doing something to point towards that location.
I’ve planted seeds here and there, but nothing grows.
There were a lot of false starts on this research project.
These are three of the most commonly misspelled words. Usually, your word processor will catch if you make this mistake; if not, you can always run your writing through an editing service like Grammarly.
To versus too versus two
Each of these often misspelled words are used in different parts of speech, but because the words themselves are tiny, many people confuse the three in writing.
Two refers to the number 2. You will only ever use “two” to mean 2.
There are two types of people: those who like cilantro and those who think it tastes like soap.
Too is an adverb. It means either “also” or “excessively,” depending on context:
Meaning “also”: I, too, signed the petition.
Meaning “excessively”: You think about blackberries too much.
Meaning “excessively”: Too many people found the petition too wordy.
To is a helper word with many different uses and parts of speech.
As a preposition, “to” can imply direction, indicating the relationship between two or more nouns.
We went to the park.
If we can make it to August, we’ll be fine.
“To” is also used when writing the infinitive form of a verb. An infinitive is a verb without tense; it is the “base” form of a verb, one which describes solely the action without referring to the past, present, or future.
To love is the most sacred act mankind can commit.
Finally, as an adverb, “to” indicates a general direction. Because this usage is an adverb, it must be used with a verb that implies motion.
Since “to” has so many uses, you might have an easier time remembering the definitions of “too” and “two,” then using “to” when the others don’t fit.
Tortuous versus Torturous
These commonly misused homophones are easy to confuse because they both sound rather sinister. However, only one of the two describes something evil.
Tortuous refers to something filled with twists and turns:
Torturous refers to something that brings the feeling of being tortured:
Weather versus whether
“Weather” and “whether” and are different parts of speech, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble with these frequently misspelled words.
“Weather” can be used as both a noun and a verb. As a noun, weather refers to the environment. As a verb, to weather is a synonym for “to endure.” The adjective weathered comes from the verb form and means “something that has endured things.”
Noun: Check the weather forecast.
Verb: We weathered the tornado in our basement.
Verb: We’re weathering a financial downturn.
Adjective: He grabbed a weathered denim jacket.
“Whether,” by contrast, is always used as a conjunction. Whether weighs between different possibilities.
Whether you like it or not, I’m the boss!
You will often see the word “whether” used with the words “or” or “should.” You can often replace “whether” with “if.”
Who’s versus whose
Since both of these words are pronouns, people often use them interchangeably, making them easily misspelled words. The difference between them mainly rests on the apostrophe!
Who’s is a contraction of “who is.”
Okay, but who’s watching the cats?
If you can replace “who’s” with “who is,” you’re using it correctly.
Conversely, you should use the word “whose” when referring to the person in possession of something. Whose is a possessive pronoun, so you always use it when the subject owns something in the sentence.
It is the humble man whose work fulfills him.
Your versus you’re
These words are among the most commonly misspelled in English, so get your mind ready, because you’re going to want to pay attention.
These commonly misused homophones cause the same confusion as “their versus they’re” does.
Your is possessive, like “their.” Use “your” to refer to something within the possession of the person being addressed.
Where did you get your ring?
It’s your decision.
“You’re,” like “they’re,” is a contraction. It means “you are.”
I hope you’re writing this down.
If you can replace “you’re” with “you are” and retain your sentence’s meaning, then you’re using it correctly!
These Commonly Misspelled Words Are Hard to Remember
If spelling is hard for you or English isn’t your first language, don’t be too hard on yourself. Most word processors, like Microsoft Word and Google Docs, will correct these mistakes for you. Always run your writing through a text editor before you submit it somewhere, even if you’re a spelling bee champion.
Another way to practice your writing is in a writing workshop. Creative writing classes help you master writing skills over time, so find a class that helps you fine-tune your craft, and get writing. You’ll be a master of grammar in no time!
Lie, by contrast, is intransitive: you cannot “lie” an object down, but you can do the action represented by “lie.”
You’ve written a helpful guide and addressed the errors I see all the time. Excellent, but there is an error here.
I lie on the bed. (This is correct)
The cat laid down on the sofa. (This is INCORRECT)
Trickier, still, are these homophones when used in the past tense.
The past tense of both verbs is “laid,” (This is INCORRECT)
Nonetheless, you just have to figure out which way “laid” is being used. (INCORRECT)
If it’s transitive, then something is receiving the action; if it’s intransitive, then there is no direct object.
The simple past of “to lie” (meaning to recline) is LAY.
PRESENT TENSE: The cat lies on the bed. PAST TENSE: The cat lay on the bed.