Picture it: You’re having a conversation in English when, all of a sudden, you hesitate. You begin to question if the word you’re about to use is the right one.
Does that sound like you? No worries; this is super common for people learning English as a second language and also for native-level speakers.
Whether they’re spelled similarly or they’re homophones, English has lots of confusing words that are ready to trip you up.
But what are the most commonly confused words?
Below, we uncover the difference between 10 sets of easily confused words so you never have to wonder again.
- Advise vs. Advice
- Affect vs. Effect
- Breath vs. Breathe
- Complement vs. Compliment
- Emigrate vs. Immigrate
- Ensure vs. Insure
- Lay vs. Lie
- Lead vs. Lead vs. Led
- Loose vs. Lose
- Principle vs. Principal
1. Advise vs. Advice
“Advise” and “advice” are frequently confused because their spelling is so similar—after all, “s” and “c” can often make the same sound. However, these words are actually pronounced differently and one can’t be used in the place of the other.
Meaning: To give a suggestion
Example: “I feel like I’m always making bad decisions. I’d love to speak to someone who could advise me on how to live my life!”
Meaning: An opinion or suggestion
Example: “I took your advice and asked my boss for a raise. She agreed!”
2. Affect vs. Effect
These words are very commonly mixed up; sometimes they’re even pronounced the same way. But they’re not interchangeable, so make sure you know which is which.
Meaning: To cause something to change
Example: “If you work all the time and never take time to relax, it will affect your mental health.”
Meaning: The change that happens to something as the result of an action
Example: “Inflation has had a major effect on the price of everything from gas to groceries.”
3. Breath vs. Breathe
With the addition of just one letter, the pronunciation of “breathe” becomes quite different from “breath.”
Meaning: The air that you inhale and exhale through your mouth or nose
Example: “Whenever you start to feel upset or stressed, just take a few deep breaths and you’ll calm down.”
Meaning: To inhale and exhale air through your nose or mouth
Example: “When the air is too hot and humid, I find it hard to breathe.”
4. Complement vs. Compliment
“Complement” and “compliment” are a couple of the most confusing words in English. As homophones, they share the same pronunciation; their spellings also differ by only one letter. Who can blame you if you get them mixed up once in a while?
1. To make something complete or better (verb)
2. Something that makes something else complete or better (noun)
Example: “I think tomatoes are the perfect complement to cheese—they just taste so good together!”
1. To say something nice about someone or something (verb)
2. An expression of praise for someone or something (noun)
Example: “My neighbor is so sweet. Every time I see her, she compliments my hair or clothes.”
5. Emigrate vs. Immigrate
It’s pretty common for people to use “immigrate” when they actually mean “emigrate.” While these two words refer to a similar context, they have really specific uses.
Meaning: To leave your country to live somewhere else (usually used with “from”)
Example: “When my grandpa was five, his family emigrated from Italy.”
Meaning: To move to a new country to live (typically used with “to”)
Example: “I’m a second-generation American. My parents immigrated to the United States in their 20s.”
6. Ensure vs. Insure
The pronunciation difference between “ensure” and “insure” is so slight that you might not even notice it. What you should take note of, however, are their very different meanings.
Meaning: To make certain
Example: “To ensure we send your delivery to the correct building, can you please confirm your address?”
Meaning: To protect something against damage or risk by purchasing insurance
Example: “That’s a really expensive bike. I recommend insuring it in case it gets damaged or stolen.”
7. Lay vs. Lie
“Lay” vs. “lie”: The confusion is real. Here’s the thing about these two words: “Lay” is a transitive verb, meaning the action needs to be done to an object in order to make sense. “Lie,” however, is intransitive, which means it makes sense without an object.
Meaning: To gently put someone or something down in a flat position (used with an object)
Example: “The baby fell asleep in her stroller. I’m going to lay her down in her crib.”
Meaning: To be in a flat position on a surface (used without an object)
Example: “I love Saturday mornings because I get to lie in bed as long as I want.”
8. Lead vs. Lead vs. Led
You’re probably wondering why there are three words here. Bear with us:
First of all, we have the noun “lead,” which is a type of metal. Then, we have the present and past tense of the verb “to lead.” Because the metal “lead” has the same pronunciation as “led”—which is the past tense of “to lead”—it’s common for people to mistakenly write “lead” when they’re referring to the past tense verb. For example, “Yesterday, the tour guide lead us to the historical site” (it should be “led”).
It would kind of make sense if the present and past tenses were both spelled “lead”; just take the present verb “read” (pronounced “reed”) and the past verb “read” (pronounced “red”)!
Meaning: A heavy, soft metal (noun)
Example: “People think pencils contain lead, but they’re actually made of graphite and clay.”
Meaning: To go in a particular direction and have others follow you
Example: “I know where the restaurant is. Follow me—I’ll lead the way.”
Meaning: The past tense of the verb “to lead”
Example: “It was really dark when we got lost, but the forest ranger found us and led us to safety.”
9. Loose vs. Lose
“Loose” and “lose” have different pronunciations and super different meanings. However, as you can see, they’re spelled quite similarly. It’s easy to mix up these two.
Meaning: Not tight or secure
Example: “I don’t think you know how to tie your shoes properly. The laces are always coming loose.”
1. To fail at winning a game or competition
2. To be unable to find something that has been misplaced
Example: “Whenever I lose my glasses, it takes me forever to find them because I can’t see!”
10. Principle vs. Principal
Have you ever heard the saying that you can remember the spelling of “principal” because it has the word “pal” in it, and the principal is your friend (pal)? It’s pretty ridiculous, but it does clear things up a bit. However, that doesn’t cover everything, as “principal” has more than one meaning—and, to add another layer of confusion, it’s also pronounced the same way as “principle.”
Meaning: Something you believe that helps you decide what is right and wrong
Example: “I would never eat meat. It’s against my principles.”
1. The person in charge of a school (noun)
2. Main; most important (adjective)
Example: “My principal reason for getting a new job was to make more money.”
Get the hang of these commonly confused words
We’ve thrown a lot of information at you, so don’t be discouraged if you need a little more practice. Just take our advice: Reviewing this confusing vocabulary regularly will ensure that you know it inside and out!
Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.