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Commonly Misused Words & Homophones

Updated: March 16, 2023

Commonly Misused Words & Homophones that Even Smart People Get Wrong

The image shows a woman hitting her head with her hand and the title "12 misused words & homophones

She ran as fast as lightening.

I love the smell of my partner’s colon.

Wear gloves! The weather’s too cold for bear hands.

So, eagle-eyed readers, what do these sentences all have in common?

These examples display every writer’s worst enemy: homophone pairs. Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but have entirely different spellings and meanings. When misused in a sentence, homophones make for some insanely awkward yet hilarious results, as seen above — “lightening” should be “lightning,” “Colon” should (hopefully) be “cologne,” and I don’t remember humans having grizzly paws.

Using the wrong word in the wrong place can change your sentence’s meaning entirely, and these mistakes are rarely caught by spelling apps like Grammarly (and no, forking out for Grammarly Premium won’t help you either). I guess AI can’t replace human proofreaders after all 😉

Words, especially homophones, are often confused in everyday writing. It’s easy to mix up words when they sound similar, and many misused words have even slipped into common usage. 

For example, “hone in” is used, incorrectly, in place of “home in.” “Home in” means to find and move toward a goal or destination (think homing pigeons), while “hone” means to polish a skill.

We’re all guilty of misusing words and homophones. Heck, even native speakers fumble up here and there, but making these easily avoidable mistakes can seriously affect your credibility. So, it’s vital to refresh regularly to catch misused words that have slipped into your vocabulary.

Commonly Misused Words & Homophones

Below is a list of words and English homophones that are mixed up on a daily basis. You’re probably familiar with more than a handful of these words, whether you’ve caught someone misusing them or have misused them yourself. Some of the most commonly misused words and homophones include affect and effect, alumni, insure and ensure, fewer, and scan.

Affect vs. Effect

The misuse of effect and affect is by far the most pervasive mix-up and, honestly, just understanding the difference between “affect” and “effect” is challenging! The words sound the same, are nearly spelled the same, and even have similar meanings.

“Affect” is commonly used as a verb, and means to “influence,” “act on,” “alter,” or “produce a change in something.” The word is often used interchangeably with impact. The verb’s meaning can refer to something physical, such as rain affecting plant growth. The word can also be associated with moving the feelings or thoughts of someone, as in “he was deeply affected by the horrifying news.” The key here is that something influences something else.

“Effect” is typically used as a noun and describes an outcome or end result. Simply put, “effect” is usually interchangeable with a consequence verb or another noun.

Imagine a cat pushing a vase off of a table (something that happens much too often in my house). The cat is affecting the vase, and the effect is that the ANTIQUE vase is now broken.

The image shows the difference between affect and effect. One image shows a cat pushing over a vase and says "The cat affected the stability of the vase." The second image shows a broken vase with the sentence "The cat's behavior had a bad effect on the vase." The image also shows the title "affect vs effect" showing that affect is a verb and effect is a noun.

In a strict sense, affect is used as a verb, and effect is used as a noun, but here are some exceptions: 

  • “Affect” can be used as a noun in certain contexts, typically in reference to a specific feeling that happens in response to an experience, thought, or other stimuli.
    • “The sound of glass breaking gave the woman’s face a shocked affect.” 
  • “Effect” can also be used as a verb to refer to accomplishing something.
    • “Teachers want to effect positive changes on their students.” 

Examples of Affect

In most cases, if you’re using the verb “affect” correctly, the sentence should still make sense when you substitute a different verb.

  • The cold weather deeply affected his mood — Correct because a different verb can substitute “affected.” For example, “the cold weather deeply changed his mood”
  • Habitat loss has affected the nearby wildlife — Correct
  • Pollution negatively affects vegetation — Correct
  • The most common side affect of the medication is stomach pain — Incorrect. The correct word is “effect” because this sentence refers to an end result or outcome of taking the medication

Examples of Effect

Misusing “effect” and “affect” can have a negative effect on how clear and understandable a written text is. Here are a few more examples:

  • The effects of the storm were devastating — Correct
  • They resigned with immediate effectCorrect
  • Stopping smoking had a positive effect on his health — Correct
  • The rising crime rate will effect the housing prices — Incorrect because the crime rate is influencing (affecting) the housing prices

How to Remember the Difference Between Affect and Effect: RAVEN

A fun, easy way to remember the difference between “affect” and “effect” is to use the “RAVEN” acronym:

The image shows a backdrop of a raven in a tree and the words "Affect vs Effect: If you forget, think RAVEN Remember Affect is a Verb Effect is a Noun"

  • Remember
  • Affect is a
  • Verb

  • Effect is a
  • Noun

You can also remember that “affect” starts with “A” for action, while effect starts with “E” for” “end result.”

Gray vs. Grey

“Gray” and “grey” are two different spellings of the same word. “Gray” is the common spelling in American English, and “grey” is used in other English-speaking countries like Canada and the UK.

The image shows the title "Gray vs Grey" Above images of the united states and the statue of liberty, shows the sentence "remember A is for America" and above a map of England and big ben shows the phrase "E is for England"

In general, you should use the spelling version that caters to your audience — the US uses “gray” with an A, and the UK uses “grey” with an E. However, be aware that proper names retain their original spelling (think Earl Grey), regardless of where your audience is based.

  • The sky looked gray (in American English) — Correct
  • Her dress was a deep grey (in British English) — Correct
  • She served up a cup of Earl GrayIncorrect because Earl Grey is a proper noun. The spelling shouldn’t be changed


Whether you went through the grueling, but rewarding, experience of college or have simply proofread endless resumes throughout your career, you’ve no doubt come across the Latin term “alumni.”

However, what you might not realize is that this word is often confused with its other grammatical forms: “alumna,” “alumnae,” and “alumnus.”

Below are the differences between each form of “alumni:”

How to Pluralize Alumni

The image shows a group of college-aged students with the title "How do you use alumni" A chart shows that "1 man = almunus, 1 woman = alumna, +1 women = alumnae, +1 men = alumni, a mixed group = alumni, and a gender neutral term = alum or alums"

“Alumni” is a plural noun used to describe a group of male or female and male graduates. It’s technically a masculine word and should be changed to the lesser-known plural feminine term, “alumnae,” to refer to two or more female graduates. “Alumna” is one female graduate, and the masculine singular form is “alumnus.”

  • He’s an alumnus of the University of Massachusetts — Correct Refers to one male graduate
  • She’s an alumna of Harvard University — Correct Refers to one female graduate
  • Congratulations to the alumni of 2020 — Correct Refers to a group of male and female graduates

Some style guidelines recognize the more modern, informal terms “alum” and “alums.” “Alum” is the gender-neutral singular form of alumni, while “alums” is the gender-neutral plural form. If the style guideline you’re using doesn’t accept these forms, opt for “graduate” or “former pupils” for a gender-neutral option.

Cite, Site, and Sight

“Cite,” “site,” and “sight” are tongue-twisting combos! Though these similar-sounding words can be easy to mix up, each homophone has a distinct meaning and spelling.

The image shows the words Cite, Site, and Sight with the sentences "Cite: College students need to cite their resources to avoid plagarism" "Site: Vineyards are common sites for weddings and parties" "Sight: To improve his sight, Steven wears glasses everyday".

Cite: Refers to something or credits the source of an idea — also short for “citation”

  • The article cited an expert in the medical field — Correct

Site: Refers to a specific area or location — also short for “website”

  • The building sight was in a poor state — Incorrect because it refers to a specific place. The correct word is “site”

Sight: Refers to what someone can see or something within view

  • He came into her sightCorrect

Adverse and Averse

“Adverse” and “averse” are super easy to confuse because they’re both adjectives, have a negative connotation, and are spelled and pronounced similarly.

“Averse” describes a strong dislike or opposition, while “adverse” most commonly refers to a harmful, detrimental, or unfavorable effect and is often applied to things or situations rather than people. “Adverse” is also used in an attributive sense before a noun, like in “adverse weather conditions.”

  • She has a strong aversion to learning grammar rules — Correct
  • Heavy drinking can have an adverse effect on your health — Correct
  • He is adverse to Italian cuisine — Incorrect (and not just because Italian food is delicious). The correct word is “averse” because the sentence describes a dislike of something

Principle and Principal

These words mean different things, but they’re often mixed up because they both originate from the Latin word “principium” and they’re pronounced the same — prin-suh-pul.

“Principle” is a noun that generally refers to a moral rule or belief that influences a person’s actions. However, it can also describe a fundamental truth, idea, or theory upon which a system of beliefs is based. The word takes on yet another meaning when used in the phrase “in principle” — something theoretically possible yet unlikely, or a general idea or plan.

“Principal” is most commonly used as a noun and refers to a person of authority. In its adjective form, “principal” is used as a synonym of “leading” or “primary.”

  • He was a man of principleCorrect
  • Mr. Smith is the principal of the school — Correct
  • Chicken is the principle ingredient in the pasta dish — Incorrect. The correct word is “principal” because this sentence refers to a primary ingredient

A trick for remembering the difference between these words is the phrase “the principal has his principles!”

The image shows a woman pointing to a list of rules along with the title "Principal vs Principle" and the sentence "The elementary school principal is a woman with strong principles"

Slight and Sleight

These sound-alike words are easy to jumble up and misuse. Many English speakers tend to forget about “sleight” and use “slight” regardless of the context. In fact, a quick Google search reveals over 400,000 results using the exact (but incorrect) phrase “slight of hand”… that’s slightly awkward!

The image shows a graph with increasing money and a photo of a thief with the title "Slight vs Sleight" and the sentences, "Investment banks saw a slight increase in revenue during the economic boom." and "Ensure online security by using strong passwords to avoid being sleighted by cybercriminals."

“Slight” describes something small in degree. The word can also be used as a synonym for “unimportant.” “Sleight” is used specifically to describe an act of cunning or dexterity that’s intended to deceive.

  • She raised her voice slightlyCorrect
  • Sleight of hand — Correct
  • He was sleight and nimble — Incorrect. The correct word is “slight” because this sentence describes the man’s physical build

Ensure and Insure

“Ensure” and “insure” are both transitive verbs with similar spellings and sounds, so it’s totally understandable why these words are often confused.

“Ensure” means to guarantee or make something certain. “Insure” has a more specific definition, meaning to protect something financially with insurance. In other words, I can ensure that insuring your house will protect you in the long run.

  • The new system ensures work will go more smoothly — Correct
  • He insured his car against theft — Correct
  • We must take steps to insure this doesn’t happen again — Incorrect because this sentence doesn’t refer to financial protection. The correct transitive verb is “ensure”

Proceed and Precede

These words don’t make an exact homophone pair, but their similarity in pronunciation and, in some cases, their meanings make them easy to mix up.

“Precede” means to come before something in time, position, or order, while “proceed” means to move forward, carry on, or continue an action.

  • The presentation was preceded by a brief meet and greet — Correct
  • The work project was proceeding smoothly — Correct
  • Precede carefully because the road ahead is treacherous! — Incorrect because this sentence describes physical forward movement. The correct word is “proceed”

Skim and Scan

“Skim” and “scan” are one-syllable words that are often used interchangeably. However, the two words actually refer to two distinct speed reading techniques. “Scan” refers to a quick read to find a specific fact or piece of information, and “skim” refers to the act of reading rapidly to gain a general overview of the content’s meaning.

For example, sifting through this article to find a definition of a certain word would be scan reading, while reading the whole article rapidly would be skim reading.

  • He scanned through the paper to find the citation — Correct
  • She skim-read the textbook in a last-ditch effort to get a good grade — Correct
  • He skim-read the study to find the experiment’s results — Incorrect because the reader is looking for a specific piece of information. The correct word is “scan”

“Skim” can also be used to describe the process of removing a substance from a liquid’s surface, to move quickly upon or over a surface or through the air. “Scan” can refer to an image produced by electronic equipment or the act of scanning a poem.

Fewer and Less

It’s no surprise that many people use these words interchangeably. “Fewer” is listed as a synonym of “less” in virtually every thesaurus, however, there’s a subtle difference to be aware of.

The image shows an angry teacher with the sentence "I don't know why my teacher was so angry. I promised that I would try to make less grammar mistakes!

This grammar rule is super simple:

“Fewer” means “not as many” and is used with countable nouns (think foods, items, and people).

“Less” means “not as much” and is used for everything that isn’t countable.

  • Fewer people are entering the area since construction began — Correct
  • She had less patience than her kid — Correct
  • The workers want to work less hours on Fridays — Incorrect because “hours” is a countable noun. The appropriate word is “fewer”

Flesh Out and Flush Out

These are two similar-sounding phrases you definitely don’t want to mix up! Otherwise, you’ll end up with disastrous (though hilarious) sentences. “Flesh out” means to provide more information or details about something, like a story, plan, or argument.

In comparison, “flush out” generally refers to the unpleasant act of cleaning or emptying — ahem — something with a flow of water. Rarely, “flush out” can also describe the act of causing someone or something to leave its hiding place. It’s sometimes used on a figurative level, too, as in to “flush out the truth.”

  • You need to flesh out this idea a bit more — Correct
  • The plumber flushed out the pipes — Correct
  • He needed to flush out his plans — Incorrect because this sentence refers to adding more details to a plan. The correct phrase is “flesh out”

The image shows a person pulling apart an idea with the text "To flesh out an idea: to apply fresh to an idea, to put more meat on its bones, etc." Another image shows an idea being pushed down a toilet with the sentence, "To flush out an idea: to angrily coerce it down a toilet"
Source: The Oatmeal

Our Take

So, what do you think of our list? Have you ever misused any of the words or homophones above? We’re all guilty of making silly mistakes, whether by misusing a word, slipping on funny dangling modifiers, or confusing single quotes versus double quotes. What’s important is that we learn from our mistakes! Hopefully, you now know how to use the words and homophones above, properly.

We’ve only covered a few misused words here, but there are plenty more that trick people up. The Look Better in Writing™ Handbook of Commonly Misused (and Abused!) Words covers over 2,500 misused words, so it’s definitely a resource to skim-read when you have time. (See what I did there?)

Your Turn

Want to take your English language knowledge even further? Watch ourFREE Proofreading Workshop, which covers how you can make a career out of being a spelling and grammar pro.

Or, if you’re already an eagle-eyed proofreader, check out our FREE 7-day Transcript Proofreading Intro Course instead. The course will help you take your technical proofreading skills to another level and specialize in a lucrative market.

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