Commonly Confused Words – Tutor Roundtable #2

For the month of April, we have been sharing resources about commonly confused words – homographs and homophones that we see students struggling to understand the differences between.

For our last post, we have another roundtable discussion with four of our writing tutors, Alec, Brock, Michael, and Daymon, who share their thoughts about why these word pairs or groups can be so confusing, which ones they see students struggling to distinguish, and what students can do to improve their writing. Check it out below!

Thanks for your support over the month of April! Check out our handout with some information about commonly confused words below!

Commonly Confused Words – Allusion vs Illusion

by Michael

The Difference Between a
Reference & a Mind Trip

Today’s commonly confusing duo is none other than allusion and illusion. The former can best be seen in trashy reality television programming when contestants or personalities take passive jabs at each other, also known as throwing shade. The latter is usually associated with magic, hallucinations after taking one too many shots, and is also the title of an underrated, yet slightly misogynistic Edward Norton and Jessica Biel film, The Illusionist.

Allusion (n)

An indirect reference; calling something to attention without stating it outright.

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Illusion (n)

A misinterpreted perception or presentation of an image that confuses the senses.

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Resources

Hope you enjoyed, or at the very least, understood learning the difference between these commonly confused words. Don’t forget to check out the resources to learn more about allusion and illusion and other words they are confused with! Stay tuned throughout April for more confusing pairs.

Commonly Confused Words – Insure vs Ensure!

By Daymon

The English language never misses an opportunity to try to confuse us. Today, we’re looking at two words with a one letter difference.

Ensure

ENSURE has two Es

just like all good GUARANTEES

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When we ensure something, we’re making it certain, guaranteeing something, or keeping it safe.

Keeping it safe?! That sounds like the meaning of the other word!

Insure

INSURE and insurance both start with I,

which is something I’m sure to buy

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When we insure something, we purchase insurance for it or we make something certain.

Both of these words can mean to make something certain?!

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Yes, there’s some overlap there. But generally you can use INSURE for financial transactions of any sort and ENSURE for guarantees.

Resources

Good luck as you work on managing the differences in these commonly confused words! Stay tuned for more resources throughout the month of April on other commonly confused word pairs and combos!

Commonly Confused Words – Accept vs Except

by Raven

So, we’ve all been in the position when we were in the writing groove. You know, that brief moment when your fingers dance powerfully over the keys and the thoughts look just as good on the screen as they did in your brain? Then, all of a sudden, your fingers still like twittering birds do the moment before the first clap of thunder hits. However, it wasn’t mother nature that has caused your lack of finger jitterbugging; it turns out that you’ve hit a word that has stumped you. Not just any word; you’ve hit the word “accept.” Which one do you use? Accept? Except? As you grapple with the earth-shattering problem, the moment of blissful confidence fades away, and the flow dissolves like those zero-calorie water bottle Kool-aid pouches.

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Ok, so it may not be as dramatic as I see it, but confusing a word can throw you off your game. If you are aware of the confusion, it can distract you from the true goal of your assignment: getting your ideas across to your audience. If you don’t realize the confusion and you use the wrong word, then it can cloud your ideas and disorient your readers. There is a way we can avoid this though.

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First, let’s examine what each of these words mean.

Accept is a noun that, according to dictionary.com, means “To take or receive… to give an affirmative reply to… to take on the responsibilities, duties, etc… To receive with approval or admit… To tolerate or accommodate oneself to.” The word except (as a preposition) is defined as “with the exclusion of.” Except as a verb means “to object” (dictionary.com).

Now that we understand the basic definitions of those words, it will be a bit easier to see the confusion they can cause when they are mixed up. Examine the following sentence:

I got everything on the grocery list accept milk.

If you hadn’t noticed already, I used the wrong word. Even though these words sound the same and, more than likely, your reader will understand what you’re trying to say, there is still room for misinterpretation, which is something you want to avoid in your writing.

Grammatically, this sentence says that the person got everything on the list and they received/approved of the milk. However, syntactically, that doesn’t make any sense.

Looking at the organization of the sentence, we can make out that the author meant that they got everything on the list but the milk. Sure, this doesn’t seem like a huge mistake, but the time it takes for the reader to determine what the sentence is supposed to mean takes their focus away from the purpose of the sentence.

So now you’re wondering how to avoid these tiny mistakes. Never fear; there a few useful tips that you should keep in mind and utilize at every opportunity.

Proofread

If it is just a typo, you can catch it at the editing stage of your writing process. Don’t rely on your word processor’s spell check or grammar check. It more often than not will miss those errors, or cause more errors than you originally had. The best way to catch the greatest number of mistakes is to read through your writings. Reading out loud or using free screen readers will help you to catch mistakes.

Pneumonic Devices

If you struggle with understanding the differences between accept and except, then a pneumonic device can be helpful. One helpful device is to use the first letters of each word to associate them with other words with similar meanings. For example: Accept and agree, and except and exclude.

Another useful device is to come up with rhymes to help you remember what each word means and how it should be used. For example:

I will accept this sweet lemonade because everyone except me spent the day in the shade.

Yes, it’s cheesy, but it could help the difference between the words stick in your memory.

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As long as you stay vigilant, you can avoid a majority of commonly confused word errors. The above tips can work for other errors as well. For more information on commonly confused words, see the Learning Hub’s Handy-Dandy handout.

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Commonly Confused Words – Then vs Than

by Kaylan

Circle with a horizontal line through the middle. At the top it says "then" equal sign and a basic drawing of a clock. At the bottom it says "then" equal sign and then a drawing of an apple, "vs" and a drawing of an orange.

If you commonly mistake “then” for “than” or vice versa, you are not alone.  There are many people who make this common mistake but there are a lot of helpful tips out there to help you alleviate the stress of deciding between one measly letter.  You may be asking if one measly letter really does make a difference in the point you are trying to make in your sentence.  The answer to that question is a firm “yes.”  Not only is it distracting to read a paper that commonly confuses these two very similar sounding words, but it is also very easy to learn how to distinguish when to use each word.  This graphic is a pretty simplistic breakdown of the usage of the two words:

Then vs. Than infographic: Left side has a plate of eggs and bacon, "then" and a person staring at a computer screen, and below that it says "Then indicates time, as in a chronological sequence, e.g., "I ate breakfast and then I went to work." On the right it has an image of an orange, "than," and an image of an apple, and beneath that it says "Than signifies comparison, as in something preferred to something else, e.g., "I'd rather eat oranges than apples."

In general, when you are talking about a sequence of events, then will be used.  For example:

“I have class at noon and then I have work.”

Here we can see that “then” represents a movement of events from one to another.

On the other hand, “than” is used to indicate preference when two items are placed against each other. For example:

“I am more of a winter person than a summer person.”

Here we can see that a choice is being made of one option over another and therefore we indicate this preferential choice with “than.”

There are great articles and helpful tips that go in-depth explaining the difference between these two commonly confused words.  This article provides a nice thorough look into the difference between the two words and when to use each word in a sentence:

Writing Explained

I wish you all the best of luck in correcting this error if you are making it. If you were not aware that this was an issue prior to reading this entry, then I hope this will stick with you. In any case, please stay tuned for more entries on commonly confused words in our April web series!

Commonly Confused Words – Capitol vs Capital

by Brock

Black background, graphic eagle holding several arrows, and text reading "This is a special message from The Capitol" with a credit at the bottom left to Funny or Die

The Capitol of Panem in the Hunger Games universe raises an important question: Is the capital of Panem The Capitol?  Does the capital have a capitol or is all of the capital The Capitol itself?

To answer this, let’s get to the bottom of what the differences between capitol and capital.

While the word capitol rather explicitly refers to the building where legislative business and political shenanigans occur, capital refers to a variety of things.

Capital can refer to:

  • Seat or city of government (Washington D.C.; Springfield, IL; Boise, ID.; etc.)
  • A sum of money (Ask Karl Marx about his feelings on this one)
  • A letter used at the beginning of sentences and proper nouns
  • Morally questionable punishment used for severe crimes

Capitol refers to:

  • Buildings

These words are only separated by one single letter, so think of a way to use that to your advantage and create a saying based on that letter.  For capitol: “Oh wow, look at the beautiful domed building!” For capital: “Capital has A lot of different meanings.”

So, back to The Hunger Games. Now that we know the difference, we see that Panem has a capital city and its name is simply “The Capitol.”  We know this because if you look at The Capitol’s wikia page, Capitol is distinguished as a pronoun with a capital “C.”

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So there you have it. Hopefully that will help you distinguish between these two tricky words and use them properly in your writing in the future! Here are some other resources that explain the differences as well that you might find useful:

Good luck as you work on managing the differences in these commonly confused words! Stay tuned for more resources throughout the month of April on other commonly confused word pairs and combos!

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Commonly Confused Words – Desert vs Dessert

by Sidney

One Won’t Find a lot of Desserts in the Desert!

One is a place characterized by sand and cacti and scorpions; the other the sweetest and final course in a meal. Still, often these two are confused because, though they have little in common, they are spelled quite similarly.

Image of Desert

Desert (n)

a geographical location with a harsh climate characterized by little rain and high temperatures. Or…

Image of Kitten with text: Come back! Don't leave me like this!

Desert (v)

to leave or abandon

Image of a delicious piece of chocolate cake

Dessert (n)

a sweet and not terribly nutritious food often containing sugar

Tip:

Dessert is something you want more of so it has two ss’.

A desert, on the other hand, has very little water and really nothing in the way of desserts. It has one s.

Cartoon of two men on a tiny island covered in desserts. One man says "Lucky for us, the cartoonist is a lousy speller."

Resources:

Good luck as you work on managing the differences in these commonly confused words! Stay tuned for more resources throughout the month of April on other commonly confused word pairs and combos!