Category Archives: Confusing Words

its or it’s?

What’s the difference between its and it’s?
A lot!

Its is a possessive pronoun meaning “belonging to it.” (If a pen belongs to Jay, then the pen is his. If a tail belongs to an animal, we can refer to its tail.) As with his, hers, theirs, yours, and ours, no apostrophe is needed for its.

This is mine and that is yours.

My dad let me borrow his car.

This strategy has its drawbacks.

The bike has been returned to its rightful owner.

The species became extinct after its habitat was destroyed.

It’s is a contraction, a shortened form of it is or it has. (Contractions are commonly used in informal speech and writing.)

It’s all been said before, but I’ll say it again.

It’s true. I’m a terrible host.

It’s her fault!

The apostrophe indicates missing letters.

“G’night,” said Marge.

When reading dialogue, we understand that the word “goodnight” is intended by the speaker, who did not fully enunciate the word.

If you are tempted to add an apostrophe to its (or wondering if you need one), ask yourself whether its can be replaced with “it is” or “it has”:

It’s your call.
It is your call.

See if it’s hurt.
See if it is hurt.

It’s all right.
It is all right.

It’s got nothing to do with you.
It has got nothing to do with you.

Don’t pull its tail!
Don’t pull it is tail! X

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

taut and taught

These two words sound alike, but taught and taut have different meanings. Taut is an adjective meaning tense or tight. Taught is the past (and past participle) form of the verb teach.

taut

(adjective): “The ad promised that the face cream would make my skin smooth and taut.”
Her nerves were taut as she awaited the results.

taught

(verb): “She taught me everything I know about photography.”
“I have been taught by renowned experts in the field.

Remember:

Taut is similar to tight (“Pull the rope taut.”)

The past tense of teach is NOT “teached.”

“He teached me how to play stickball.” X

“He taught me how to play stickball.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

mantel or mantle?

A mantel is a shelf above a fireplace.*

Mantle can be a noun or a verb and has a variety of meanings. Most commonly, mantle is used to refer to a cloak (as a garment or as “a figurative cloak symbolizing preeminence or authority”) or to the part of the earth’s interior that lies beneath the crust.

The mantle is approximately 1,800 miles thick and makes up 84% of the planet’s total volume. (National Geographic Society)

Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet is about the Russian writer and philosopher.

When she withdrew her mantle, I saw that her shoulders were bare.

Finally, a woman has taken on the mantle of leadership.

Mantle can also mean “something that covers, enfolds, or envelops.”

A mantle of snow covered the ground.

Our vision obscured by the thick mantle of smoke, we crept along the ground until we reached safety.

If you are a baseball fan, remember Mickey Mantle, the New York Yankee who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974:

The Mick wore the mantle of success with pride.

 

*Mantel can also mean “a beam, stone, or arch serving as a lintel to support the masonry above a fireplace” and “the finish around a fireplace,” but most references will be to the shelf above a fireplace. (Mantle is a variant spelling, but mantel is preferred.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

lead or led?

The past tense (and past participle) of the verb lead is led. Lead is often used (incorrectly) as the past tense, perhaps because the noun lead is pronounced the same way as the verb led—except when it’s not! Confused yet? Read on!

lead (noun, pronounced “led”)

Exposure to lead can be very harmful to young children.

The core of a “lead” pencil does not contain lead—but the painted wood might!*

Many lead pipes are being replaced with copper.

lead (noun, pronounced “leed”)

“The boss wants you to take the lead on this project.”

“Mary got the lead in the school play.”

Related: lead (adjective, pronounced “leed”)

“Barry is the lead singer of the Phobias.”

“The lead story in today’s paper will be of interest to aspiring screenwriters.”

lead (verb, pronounced “leed”)

“Mark will lead the discussion on Wednesday.”

“Lead the way!”

“Don’t lead me on.”

led (past tense and past participle of the verb to lead)

The suspect led investigators to the body.

“One thing led to another and before I knew it, I had a ring on my finger.”

“She’s been led astray.”

“Sharon has led this company for twenty years.”

Mistakes are easily made when we are in a hurry. For important matters, take time to proofread your work.

An investigation is underway to uncover the systems malfunctions that lead to this disaster. X

* See https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/kidspost/ever-wondered-about-the-lead-in-pencils/2014/11/26/f8b5869c-548a-11e4-809b-8cc0a295c773_story.html?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

desert and dessert

Don’t confuse a geographical region (desert) with the final course of a meal (dessert) or the act of desertion!

desert

(noun): The desert is uninhabited.

We found an oasis in the desert.

(adjective): The desert climate is harsh.

The desert island provided a temporary haven.

(verb): If you desert now, you will be marked a traitor.

You cannot desert your friend in her time of need.

dessert

(noun): Dessert was the highlight of the evening.

The dessert was sweet and rich.

(A term such as dessert wine is considered as a unit, so “dessert” here is not an adjective. In fact, dessertspoon is written as one word.)

Note: The expression “just deserts ” (what is deserved) is not spelled ‘desserts’–unless, of course, it’s the name of a business that only sells sweet treats!

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Are you content or contented?

Content is one of those words that can be pronounced in two different ways, depending on the meaning.

Content (pron. CON-tent), meaning “the things that are held, included, or provided” (as in “The wine’s alcohol content is listed on the label”), is often used in the plural:

The table of contents is part of the book’s front matter.

The contents of this blog are suitable for minors.

Content (pron. kən-TENT), meaning “satisfied,” can be used as a noun (“After I leave, you can sleep to your heart’s content!”), an adjective (“I’m content here.”), or a verb (“The show was sold out, so we had to content ourselves with a trip to the planetarium.”).

Contented is an adjective (meaning “satisfied,” as above, or “feeling or expressing satisfaction”):

“They don’t have chocolate ice cream. You will have to be contented with vanilla.”

Contentment is the state of being contented.

So when would you use content, and when would you use contented?

The words are synonymous, but according to Bryan A. Garner,* content is more common as a predicate adjective (“I am content just sitting here.”) and the adjective contented commonly precedes a noun (“The contented puppy fell asleep.”).

Adverb forms are contently and contentedly:

He lived contentedly among the natives.

The sheep were contently grazing in the pasture.

 

* Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2009).

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

discrete or discreet?

Discrete and discreet are both adjectives. The pronunciation is the same, and the spelling is similar, so they are easily confused.

Discrete means distinct and separate, whereas discreet means “intentionally unobtrusive” and inconspicuous or careful and circumspect (in speech or behavior).

Synonyms include subdued and understated for the first meaning of discreet and prudent for the second.

Examples

discrete

Discrete segments of the population have been identified as part of the study’s methodology.

The chronon has been proposed as a discrete and indivisible unit of time.

discreet

The discreet lighting and cozy furnishings helped me relax as I braced myself for a difficult conversation.

The discreet packaging gives no indication of the contents.

These different meanings are also reflected in the adverbs discretely and discreetly.

Time can be measured discretely or continuously.

John asked Chris a series of personal questions, knowing that a camera was discreetly recording their interaction.

They’d been meeting discreetly for over a year before I learned about their relationship.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

shined or shone?

The verb* to shine can mean:

♦ to emit or reflect light (The sun is shining.)

♦ to be eminent, conspicuous, or distinguished (When she’s onstage, she really shines.)

♦ to be evident or clear (The truth will shine through.)

In the above examples, shine is used as an intransitive verb (v.i.); the verb does not have a direct object. Shine can also be a transitive verb (v.t.), meaning:

♦ to light or direct a light (“Shine that light over here, would ya?”)

♦ to make bright by polishing (“Please iron my shirts and shine my shoes.”)

In these instances, “something” (the object) is being shined (light; shoes).

Or should that be shone?

Shined and shone are sometimes used interchangeably (i.e., neither is incorrect), especially when used as an intransitive verb (and especially in the U.S.):

The light shone in the distance.

The light shined in the distance.

Most commonly, shone is preferred as the past tense (and past participle) of the intransitive verb shine when referring to something that is luminous.

The moon shone brightly.

Multitalented, Mark shone in many different capacities.

The flashlight shone when Sue turned it on.

Shined is used when polishing or shining an object (transitive verb).

He has shined a light on corruption within the agency.

Sue shined the flashlight on the intruder.

I shined my shoes until they shone.

Usage outside of the United States may differ.

*Shine can also be a noun. (“Would you like a shine, mister?”)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

anytime or any time?

Languages evolve. New words and expressions gain acceptance; hyphens get added and then dropped as two words merge into one. (Search online for “step-daughter” and you will find two words (step daughter), a hyphenated version (step-daughter), and one word (stepdaughter).)

Which version you choose depends, in part, upon where you live, what you are writing, and where your writing will be published. If you are writing a blog post and you live in the United States, your readers probably won’t think twice about stepdaughter or step-daughter, and they’ll understand “step daughter” (though I’d advise against that choice). If you are submitting your work, follow the preferences of your editor or publisher on style matters, especially if the work will be published in different markets (e.g., North America or United Kingdom).

Two-word compounds tend to get hyphenated before they get merged, so if the unhyphenated version has made its way into a reputable dictionary (e.g., stepdaughter), then that is likely the most up-to-date choice, with step-daughter an acceptable variant. (Wellbeing, as one word, has not yet become standard in North America; the preferred form is well-being. Back seat, when used as an adjective, may be either hyphenated or merged: “Don’t be a backseat driver.”)

One word or two, back seat and backseat have the same meaning. Hyphenated or not, step-daughter and stepdaughter refer to the same person. In other instances, however, the meaning changes when two words are merged into one. Consider some time and sometime:

“I need some time to figure out what I want to write about.” (Here, “some” could easily be omitted; it could also be replaced with “more”: “I need more time.”)

“I’ll get around to finishing that novel sometime.” (Here, “someday” could be substituted for “sometime.”)

Similarly, “any” time can refer to a quantity or amount of time:

“I haven’t had any time this week to work on my project.”

“I haven’t had anytime this week to work on my project.” X

Anytime, an adverb, is a variation of any time and is often used in casual conversation and correspondence:

“This rain isn’t going to let up anytime soon.”

“Call me anytime, day or night.”

If I were writing an advertising slogan that included anywhere, then anytime might be the better stylistic choice:

Our experts are ready to help you—anytime, anywhere.

Anytime can also be used to mean “whenever”:

“Anytime I see an error, I point it out.” (“Whenever I see an error, I point it out.”)

(I consider this use of anytime informal, too. More accurately, I am saying: “Every time I see an error, I point it out.”)

“Anytime” is sometimes given as a response to “Thank you”:

“Thanks for the lift.”

“Anytime. Glad I could help.”

The two-word form is preferable in formal communications:

“I can see you any time next week, but this week my schedule is full.”

Always use the two-word form following the preposition at.

“If, at any time, you feel uncomfortable, please notify one of the assistants.”

“You can close your account at any time if you are not satisfied with the service.”

Take time to think about your intended meaning and ensure that your words reflect your intentions.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

loan and borrow

A loan (noun) is a sum of money that will be repaid, or permission to use something for a period of time.

“I have applied for a loan. I want to go back to school.”

The phrase “on loan” is an idiomatic expression.

The exhibit is on loan from the museum.

The verb loan is accepted in American English as a substitute for lend:

Can you loan me some money until my next paycheck?

Do not substitute loan for figurative uses of lend, such as:

Can I lend a hand?

Lend me your ears.

lend

The verb lend can be used in several ways:

We are not in a position to lend you money at this time.

The complexity of the subject does not lend itself to summary description.

Recent evidence lends credence to the theory.

Note: The past tense (and past participle) of lend is lent.

“Charles lent me his car while mine was in the shop.”

“I wish to thank my editor, who has lent considerable support and expertise to this project from the outset.”

loan or borrow?

When you wish to borrow something, you seek a loan, and you become the borrower:

Can I borrow your copy?

I borrowed the money for the operation.

When you allow someone to borrow something from you, (i.e., you lend it), you are the lender:

“I lent you money last month.”

Borrowed and loaned are not interchangeable!

Correct:

I borrowed money from the bank.

The bank loaned me money to buy a car.

Incorrect:

My sister borrowed me her coat. X

(My sister lent me her coat. Or: My sister loaned me her coat. )

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

eminent, immanent, imminent

Eminent, immanent, and imminent are all adjectives. (The noun forms are eminence, immanence, and imminence).

With a meaning similar to “inherent,” immanence is often part of philosophical discussions about whether divinity permeates (dwells within) or transcends (is separate from) a Supreme Being’s creations. Eminence is used in some religions (e.g., Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox) when addressing certain members of the clergy.

Something (or someone) eminent stands out (one meaning is to jut out or project); thus, an eminent person stands out from the crowd in some respect. A preeminent (sometimes hyphenated, pre-eminent) person is outstanding and superior to all others.

If something is imminent, it is about to happen (immediately!).

[Immanant is a mathematical term.]

Examples:

eminent

(adjective): The eminent scholar approached the podium.

A team of eminent researchers gathered to discuss the latest findings.

[Note that eminent domain (noun) is a legal doctrine that permits a government to take private property for public use.]

eminence

(noun): He rose to eminence during the Renaissance. (Prominence would also work here)

“Good morning, Your Eminence.”

imminent

(adjective): I was in imminent danger of being discovered and had to act quickly.

Her death is imminent.

immanent

(adjective): Do you believe that God is transcendent to creation or immanent throughout it?

The immanent beauty of nature could not be duplicated.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

evoke and invoke

Writers (and speakers) choose words to evoke a desired response, whether we seek to arouse sympathy or inspire action. The definition of evoke, according to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, is to “call forth or up” (conjure); to “cite especially with approval or for support” (invoke); to “bring to mind or recollection” and to “re-create imaginatively.”

The sight of the ring evoked memories of happier times.

Music evokes strong emotions in some listeners.

Invoke can have a similar meaning (“to make someone feel a particular emotion or see a particular image in their minds”) but is more commonly used when calling upon a rule (such as the Fifth Amendment) or deity for help or support:

The defendant plans to invoke her constitutional privilege to avoid self-incrimination.

The priestess invoked the spirits of the ancestors.

The writer has developed a ritual to invoke his muse.

Invocation refers to the act of asking for help or support, or to the prayer itself:

The meeting opened with an invocation.

The atheist’s invocations influenced the judges.

Invocative and evocative are adjectives. When something is evocative, it evokes (or is likely to evoke) an emotional response:

The photographer is known for his evocative images.

Invocative pertains to invocation. (Invocation is often used in the practice of magical rituals):

As her invocative powers declined, so too did the number of clients seeking her services.

Provoking someone also arouses a response (usually anger or another strong emotion), sometimes intentionally.

He was provoked into action by the taunts and jeers of the group.

Something that is provocative is stimulating or exciting (sexually or otherwise):

Her essay contained some thought-provoking ideas, but her provocative attire caused a stir.

Provocation is an act that incites or stimulates:

Without provocation, the man attacked a pedestrian.

Remember, your words are powerful; they can evoke, invoke, or provoke!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

affect and effect

Both affect and effect can be used as nouns or as verbs, though affect is most commonly used as a verb (to act upon or influence). The effect is the result produced.

affect

(verb): Will the drought affect the price of food?

The disorder affected his ability to perform his job.

The loss affected her deeply.

(noun): Blunted affect is often a sign of depression.

(Note that the pronunciation differs when affect refers to an emotional or psychological state.)

effect:

(noun): The effect of the drug was immediate.

Many drugs have side effects.

The special effects were spectacular!

The law will go into effect next year.

A tornado watch is in effect until midnight.

(verb): Therapy is designed to effect change.

Related:

affected

(adjective): Apply the ointment to the affected area.

Her kindness is sincere, not affected.

(This last use is similar to affectation (noun): Her affectations fooled no one.)

effective

(adjective): The new policy is effective immediately.

His methods are effective.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

immigrate/emigrate

“Immigration” is a hot topic in the news these days. A country’s immigration policy determines who may lawfully enter the country to live and work.

An immigrant is a person who has moved from another country.* (Note that the term does not denote legal status; an immigrant may have entered the country legally or illegally.)

Immigrate is the verb form, describing the action of immigrating.

My grandparents immigrated to the United States before I was born.

Migrate is a related word.

The Pilgrims migrated to North America to establish a new colony.

Migration, however, pertains more to geography than to politics and borders. (A person might migrate to a different region in search of work, for example.)

The miners migrated west in their search for gold.

Migration often refers to seasonal travel or movement.

The annual whale migration has begun.

Not all birds migrate.

A migrant is one who migrates, whether human or animal. Migrant is often used when referring to workers who are not living in a permanent residence during their employment.

Migrant farm workers are also known as migratory agricultural workers.

An emigrant is a person who has left his or her country of residence to settle elsewhere.

His parents emigrated from Germany to avoid persecution.

In short, you are an immigrant to your new country; you are an emigrant from your old country.

Many young men emigrated from the United States to Canada to avoid the draft.

My parents immigrated to the United States after they were married.

I plan to emigrate next year.

I immigrated last year.

 

*Immigrant can refer a person who relocates to a new country or to a plant or animal “that becomes estalished in an area where it was previously unknown.”
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

elicit and illicit

The words elicit and illicit sound similar, but they mean very different things!

Illicit means forbidden or unlawful; elicit is similar to evoke and means “to draw out.”

elicit

(verb): The announcement elicited cheers from the crowd.

Jack made a funny face, hoping to elicit a smile from Jennifer.

illicit

(adjective): The illicit photographs were removed soon after they were posted on the site.

Her illicit activities led to her downfall.

Licit is a word that means “permissible”; hence, with the addition of the prefix il- the meaning changes to not permissible, as with words such as illegal and illogical.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

premier or premiere?

If you are describing something (i.e., a noun) that is “first in position, rank, or importance,” then the adjective premier is the word you want.

The area’s premier golf club offers members many amenities.

If you are discussing a “first performance or exhibition” (e.g., of a play or motion picture) then the noun premiere is the correct choice.

The show’s Broadway premiere was last night.

In recent decades, the use of premiere as a verb has gained acceptance when used within the context of the entertainment industry.

The star’s new program will premiere this fall.

(Note that the New York Times has not adopted this usage. See The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 5th ed.)

The noun premier refers to a government official in some countries.

In Australia, the federal government is led by a prime minister; the head of each state’s government is known as the premier.

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, premier also means “first in time” (i.e., earliest). Hmm, that’s beginning to sound a bit like a “first showing,” and, indeed, the dictionary says that premiere is an alteration of premier. Further, the “chief actress of a theatrical cast” is a premiere. Doesn’t that seem very similar to “first in position, rank, or importance,” the definition of premier, without the -e? We have to look at the origins of both words to understand the confusion.

Premier was the earlier (French) word (meaning “first”), derived (in the15th century) from the Latin primarius (“of the first rank, chief, principal, excellent”).

The feminine form of premier, première (in French), also meaning “first,” appeared in the 19th century.

English, of course, has developed its own rules—which change over time.

So what are we to make of all that?

Don’t use premiere to refer to a government official.

Don’t use premier as a verb. (Although, when writing in the past tense, the result will be the same):

The show premiered on Broadway last night.

Using premiere (as a noun) to refer to a first showing is clearly correct, as is using premier to refer to something (or someone) that is “first and foremost.”

Just as the verb premiere has become widely used by the entertainment industry, premiere is sometimes used as an adjective by marketers who are advertising something. (“We are a premiere medical spa in Anytown, USA”). That usage may gain acceptance in time. (A recent article in Fortune magazine noted: “Bordeaux, of course, is one of the premiere wine regions in France,” but I frequently find spelling errors in publications.) For the present, premier is the correct spelling of the adjective.

 
 
 
 
 
 

rain/rein/reign

In spoken English, the words rain, rein, and reign all sound alike. Each can be used as a noun or as a verb.

Rain, of course, falls from the sky, just as other objects can rain down. Horses can be reined in or given free rein, as can emotions and people. Rulers reign, and their reign may be characterized by a particular quality or feature; that quality can also be said to reign. (The Reign of Terror occurred during the French Revolution.)

rain

(noun): “The forecast calls for rain this evening.”

The rains came early that year.

(verb) “Don’t rain on my parade!”

Debris from the explosion rained upon the unsuspecting crowd.

rein

(noun): “Grab hold of the reins!”

With free rein to experiment, the team developed innovative designs.

(verb): “Rein in your goons, please.”

Rein your horse as needed.

reign

(noun): During his reign, peace prevailed.

“The reign of tyranny must end!”

(verb): Chaos reigns supreme.

She reigned at a time of great change.

When you understand the differences, you will not only know how to use each word correctly, you might also devise humorous or satirical titles, headlines, or phrases.

The Reign of Error

The queen rains on plans for a palace party.

Is the rain still free?

 
 
 
 
 
 

rap or wrap?

“That’s a wrap!” is what a director says when filming is complete.

You can wrap a gift or wrap yourself in silk; your beloved might have you wrapped around his or her finger. But you don’t get a bad wrap (unless it’s at a sandwich shop)!

gets a bad wrap

Incorrect usage as seen on a website

In addition to referring to a style of music, rap is slang for an accusation of criminal activity:

“I’m not will to take the rap for something I didn’t do.”

(A rap sheet refers to a criminal record.)

A bad rap can refer to any kind of negative charge or reputation.

gets a bad rap

A “bad rap” or “bum rap” is a slang expression used in the US

Rap can also mean a sharp blow:

The judge rapped her gavel to quell the unrest in the courtroom.

“Rap on the door later and we can go for a walk.”

In conclusion:

Doug gets a bad rap for being too wrapped up in his work, but he’s very good at what he does.

 
 
 
 
 
 

sulfur or sulphur?

As an editor, I read about many subjects.

In this editorial, an editor of the journal Nature Chemistry explains the choice to use sulfur, not sulphur, in that publication.

In brief, the naming of chemical elements is determined by an international organization (much as an international group of astronomers decided that Pluto should no longer be classified as a “planet”), so the differences in spelling that are frequently found in the U.S. and the U.K. (e.g., color/colour) are irrelevant.

As the article notes, the chemical element phosphorus (a noun) is often confused with phosphorous, which is the adjective used to refer to something “relating to or containing phosphorus.” (To further confuse things, there is also a “phosphorous acid”!)

I frequently advise people to look up the spelling (and meaning) of words they don’t use often if they have any doubts about correctness. But in this instance, so many reputable publications use “phosphorous” instead of “phosphorus” that a quick search would not reveal the error.

Correct:

phosphorus

sulfur

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

wrack or rack?

These two words have confused enough people over the centuries that they have become somewhat interchangeable.

When referring to a frame that holds and stores things (such as a magazine rack), always use rack. When you are wracked with pain, or you are racking your brain, either use is acceptable. Racking is probably more common, though preferences may vary for North American and British spelling.

As a noun, wrack can mean seaweed and other debris that accumulates on beaches; as a verb, wrack has a similar meaning to wreck.

Commonly used phrase: wrack and ruin

The neighborhood has gone to wrack and ruin since I left.

wrack

We searched the beach wrack for interesting seashells.

Bladder wrack (also bladderwrack) is a good source of iodine.

A careless driver, he wracked his new car within a week of purchasing it.

rack

“I’ll pick up a rack of lamb for the party,” Henrietta told her husband.

“Please place these brochures in the rack on the wall.”

“Rack ’em up!” Jared said as he grabbed a pool cue.

“I’ll rack my brain until I remember that woman’s name!”

The rack was an early instrument of torture used to extract information and confessions.

racking

Driving in a blizzard is a nerve-racking experience.