Common Misused Words

Misused Words

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Following are common misused words. They are not really misspelled words. The words are spelled correctly. Students just use the wrong word. This means that spell-check often will not identify and correct these mistakes. You have to do that.

Be careful to avoid these mistakes!


Junior High Words

To – Preposition. “She went to the library.”

Too – Too Much or Also. “He put too much salt on his French fries.” “He went to the library too.”

Two – The Number. “There are two more days until Christmas vacation.”


There – Place. “Put your homework in the basket over there.”

Their – Possessive, Belonging to Them. “That beagle is their dog.”

They’re – Contraction, “They are”. “They’re both going to the movies.”



Than – Conjunction. Used to make comparisons. “She was faster than her brother.”

Then – Explains when, relates to time. “Eat your vegetables, and then you can have ice cream.”


Its – Possessive, Belonging to It. “Its home is under that rock.”

It’s – Contraction, “It is”. “It’s time to do your homework.”


Your – Possessive, Belonging to You. “It’s your turn to do the dishes.”

You’re – Contraction, “You are”. “You’re going the wrong way.”


Additional List of Misused Words

Accept, Except

Accept is a verb meaning to receive. Except is usually a preposition meaning excluding. “I will accept all the packages except that one.”

Adverse and Averse

Adverse means harmful or unfavorable Averse refers to feelings of dislike or opposition. But you can feel free to have an aversion to adverse conditions.

Affect and Effect

Verbs first. Affect means to influence: Effect means to accomplish something: How you use effect or affect can be tricky. For example, someone can affect changes by influencing them, or can effect changes by implementing them. Use effect if you’re making it happen, and affect if you’re having an impact on something someone else is trying to make happen.

As for nouns, effect is almost always correct: Affect refers to an emotional state, so unless you’re a psychologist, you probably should not be using it.

Alternate and Alternative

Alternate means “every other time.” “The cake had alternate layers of vanilla and chocolate.” Alternative means “another possibility or option.” “There was an alternative way of driving to school.”

Among and Amongst

There’s no difference between among and amongst. They are both prepositions meaning in the middle of a group.

Compliment and Complement

Compliment is to say something nice. Complement is to add to, enhance, improve, complete, or bring close to perfection. So, I can compliment your staff and their service, but if you have no current openings you have a full complement of staff. And your new app may complement your website.

For which I may decide to compliment you.

Criteria and Criterion

“We made the decision based on one overriding criteria” sounds pretty impressive but is wrong.

Remember: one criterion, two or more criteria, although you could always use “reason” or “factors” and not worry about getting it wrong.

A similar difference exists between phenomena (one) and phenomenon (more than one).

Desert and Dessert

A desert is a dry place with sand. Dessert is the treat you get after a meal.

Discreet and Discrete

Discreet means careful, cautious, showing good judgment:

Discrete means individual, separate, or distinct. And if you get confused, remember you don’t use discreetion to work through sensitive issues; you exercise discretion.

Elicit and Illicit

Elicit means to draw out or coax. Think of elicit as the mildest form of extract or, even worse, extort. So if one lucky survey respondent will win a trip to the Bahamas, the prize is designed to elicit responses.

Illicit means illegal or unlawful. I suppose you could “illicit” a response at gunpoint … but you best not.

Farther and Further

Farther involves a physical distance: “Florida is farther from New York than Tennessee.” Further involves a figurative distance: “We can take our idea no further.” So, as we say in the South, “I don’t trust you any farther than I can throw you.” Or, “I ain’t gonna trust you no further.”

Historic and Historical

Historic means ‘famous or important in history’, as in a historic occasion, whereas historical means ‘concerning history or historical events’, as in historical evidence. A historic event is one that was very important, whereas a historical event is something that happened in the past.

Imply and Infer

The speaker or writer implies. The listener or reader infers. Imply means to suggest, while infer means to deduce (whether correctly or not). So, I might imply you’re going to receive a raise. You might infer that a pay increase is imminent. (But not eminent, unless the raise will be prominent and distinguished.)

Insure and Ensure

This one’s easy. Insure refers to insurance. Ensure means to make sure. So if you promise an order will ship on time, ensure it actually happens. Unless, of course, you plan to arrange for compensation if the package is damaged or lost–then feel free to insure away.

Laid and Lain

Lay is the present tense of a verb whose basic meaning is ‘place something in a more or less horizontal position’, with the past tense and participle laid.

Lay is also the past tense of the verb lie (‘assume a horizontal or resting position’); while lain is the past participle.

So the proper use is:



present tense Please lay it on the floor. Go and lie down.
past tense She laid the book on the desk. She went and lay down.
past participle They had laid it on the floor. The body had lain in the field for some time

Number and Amount

Use number when you can count what you refer to. Amount refers to a quantity of something that can’t be counted. A similar difference exists between fewer (amount) and less (number).

Precede and Proceed

Precede means to come before. Proceed means to begin or continue. Where it gets confusing is when an ing comes into play. “The proceeding announcement was brought to you by…” sounds fine, but preceding is correct since the announcement came before.

If it helps, think precedence: Anything that takes precedence is more important and therefore comes first.

Principal and Principle

A principle is a fundamental: “We’ve created a culture where we all share certain principles.” Principal means primary or of first importance: “Our principal goal is to teach faith.” (Sometimes you’ll also see the plural, principals, used to refer to executives or (relatively) co-equals at the top of a particular food chain.)

Principal can also refer to the most important item in a particular set.

Principal can also refer to money, normally a sum that was borrowed, but can be extended to refer to the amount you owe–hence principal and interest.

If you’re referring to laws, rules, guidelines, ethics, etc., use principle. If you’re referring to the individual in charge, use principal.

Than, Then

Than is a contraction used in comparisons. “He was slower than a turtle.” Then specifies time. “Finish your homework, and then you can play video games.”

Who, Whom

This one is a lost cause, but let’s go down swinging. The way to deal with the who versus whom quandary is a simple substitution method.

First, a refresher on subjects and objects.

Subjects do the action:

“He/she/we like(s) to rock the house.”

Objects receive the action:

“The rock star sneered at him/her/us.”

Use who for subjects and whom for objects.


  • Who wrote this blog post?
  • Who is speaking at the conference?
  • Who is going to clean up this mess?


  • Whom are you going to write about?
  • Whom did he blame for the Google Slap?
  • Whom did he bait for the links?


And now for those dreaded apostrophes.

It’s and Its

It’s is the contraction of it is. That means it’s doesn’t own anything. Here’s an easy test to apply. Whenever you use an apostrophe, un-contract the word to see how it sounds. In this case, turn it’s into it is: “It’s sunny” becomes “It is sunny.” Sounds good to me.

They’re and Their

Same with these: They’re is the contraction for they are. Again, the apostrophe doesn’t own anything. “We’re going to their house, and I sure hope they’re home.”

Who’s and Whose

“Whose password hasn’t been changed in six months?” is correct. “Who is (the non-contracted version of who’s) password hasn’t been changed in six months?” sounds silly.

You’re and Your

One more. You’re is the contraction of you are. Your means you own it; the apostrophe in you’re doesn’t own anything. For a long time a local building had a huge sign that said “You’re Community Place.”

Hmm. “You Are Community Place”?

Probably not