Similar-sounding words often have very different meanings! Think of the likes of two/to/too accept/except there/their/they’re
Some commonly-confused homonyms are:
complement (the flavour of the basil complements the tomato) *See below for more info about the use of complementary.
compliments (I get all the compliments) – think about it as ‘I’ get all the compliments
dependant someone who depends on somebody for support (noun)
dependent (you are dependent on me to pick you up from school even though you are a very independent child)
it’s (only ever used for it is or it has) It’s a lovely day
its (plural or ownership – the badger wagged its tail – never has a possessive apostrophe)
licence formal permission from an authority to do something
license to give permission or licence to do (a club is licensed to serve alcohol)
practice (ice is a noun – a doctor’s practice)
practise (practise your spelling)
principal (the school principal is my pal – a handy way to remember this)
stationery (e in envelopes) stationary – the car was stationary
Similar sounding words
Pour and pore You pore over words in a book. You pour yourself a glass of wine while poring through magazines.
Lose and Loose. If you lose your passport, you’ll need to advise the Embassy. The passport fell out when the strap came loose.
Quiet and quite. Please be quiet, the baby is asleep. The baby is quite a good sleeper
Your and You’re. Your phone is ringing. You’re (You are) taking your time to pick up your phone.
Prostate = men can suffer prostate problems (or cancer) from this gland. Example: Being over 50, he had his prostate checked by the doctor. Prostrate = to lie on the ground facing downwards. Example: She lay prostrate on the timber floor.
Elicit and illicit. They may sound the same, but you don’t want to be caught with the wrong one. Elicit s to evoke or draw out. Illicit is forbidden. Examples: The joke elicited chuckles from the audience. The bag full of illicit drugs was no laughing matter.
Ellipsis and Ellipses
Ellipsis is a punctuation mark of three dots, used to indicate either missing text or that a sentence is incomplete. Example: “I enjoyed the weekend … best time in a while,” said Jo. Example: This final page reveals whether this story continues…
Ellipse is a regular symmetrical oval shape. Example: The ellipse has a radius of 4cm.
Ellipses is the plural form for both of the above! Example: Use ellipses sparingly in your writing. Example: She drew repeating ellipses alongside squares and triangles.
Canon and cannon
Cannon: this is a weapon typically defined by a cylindrical bore, explosive charge and some kind of projectile.
Canon: this is a rule by which something is judged, or a collection of sacred books.
Canon: a brand of camera.
Breech, breach, broach, brooch
Breech: when referring to ‘breech’ birth.
Breach: to break through a barrier or the surface of water (whales).
Broach: to raise for discussion.
Brooch: an ornament or piece of jewellery attached with a pin.
What about Affect vs. Effect?
Affect To have an influence on or cause a change in: Inflation affects the buying power of the dollar/To act on the emotions of; touch or move/To attack or infect, as a disease: Rheumatic fever can affect the heart.
Effect Something brought about by a cause or agent; a result/The power to produce an outcome or achieve a result; influence: The drug had an immediate effect on the pain. The government’s action had no effect on the trade imbalance/ A scientific law, hypothesis, or phenomenon: the photovoltaic effect. |Advantage; avail: used her words to great effect in influencing the jury.
Grammar Rules for Affect and Effect
If you are talking about a result, then use the word “effect.”
- Example: What effect did the loss have on the team?
Use the word “effect” if one of these words is used immediately before the word: into, on, take, the, any, an, or and.
- Example: The prescribed medication had an effect on the patient’s symptoms.
- Example: In analyzing a situation, it is important to take the concepts of cause and effect into consideration.
To describe something that was caused or brought about, the right word to use is effect.
- Example: The new manager effected some positive changes in the office. (This means that the new manager caused some positive changes to take place in the office.)
Affect can be used as a noun to describe facial expression.
- Example: The young man with schizophrenia had a flat affect.
- Example: The woman took the news of her husband’s sudden death with little affect.
Affect can also be used as a verb. Use it when trying to describe influencing someone or something rather than causing it.
- Example: How does the crime rate affect hiring levels by local police forces?
- Example: The weather conditions will affect the number of people who come to the county fair this year.
Complementary and Complimentary (from the Oxford Dictionary)
Unsurprisingly, the adjectives relating to compliment and complement also cause confusion. Complimentary has two meanings. It can mean ‘expressing admiration or praise’:
- I have received many complimentary remarks from members of the audience.
- The vast majority of our patients are extremely complimentary about the care they have received.
It can also mean ‘given or supplied free of charge’, as in the following sentences:
- Complimentary light refreshments will be available.
- Most theatres offer complimentary tickets if you review their show for the paper.
- We offer a complimentary shuttle service to the airport and historic old town.
- Guestrooms offer complimentary bottled water and fresh fruit daily.
It’s common to see complementary used in these sorts of contexts, but this is a mistake. For instance, both the following examples are using the wrong spelling:
X There will be an opportunity to meet the artists and have a complementary glass of wine.
X The winner will receive two complementary tickets to a performance of their choice.
Complementary should instead be used to describe things that combine in such a way as to enhance or emphasize each other’s good qualities:
- They had different but complementary skills.
- We view this proposal as complementary to existing policing services.
- Interior design and architecture are two complementary professions.
Easily mixed-up F words
- Fiancée is a female engaged to be married.
- Fiancé is a male engaged to be married.
- Flak is strong criticism, not flack.
- Flounder is to struggle clumsily (and a fish).
- Founder is to wreck or sink, as well as someone who founds something.
- Forego means to precede.
- Forgo means to go without.
- Forever is one word, not two
- Full-time is best with a hyphen, not as two words
Easily mixed-up G words
- Gibe is a mocking remark (not a JIBE, which you do in sailing)
- Goal is considered outdated now – spell as Jail instead
- GOOGLE – use uppercase G for the noun (e.g. “I looked it up on GOOGLE”) but lowercase for the verb (e.g. “I googled my name and was shocked”).
- Grey is how we spell the colour in Australia (GRAY is used in the USA).
When to use Italics
- Use italics for things that can stand by themselves such as the name of books, plays, movies, radio/TV shows, albums, newspapers, magazines, paintings and ship names.
- Do NOT use italics for things that belong to a bigger, standalone thing – such as chapter titles, articles and songs. Use single quotes instead.
- Use “maximal capitalisation” for all – this is where all words begin with a capital. Example: The RMS Titanic sank in 1912 – as depicted in the movie Titanic. Example: Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ is from the movie soundtrack and also appears on her album, Let’s Talk About Love.
The hanging hyphen
These are used to connect two words to a base word that they share.
Examples: Small- to medium-sized businesses qualify. Pre- and post-lockdown procedures. The five- to eight-year-old children went back to school.
When using fractions with a measurement, use the numerals. Eg: 2½ years
When using fractions without a measurement, spell out and hyphenate the fraction. Eg: Three-quarters of the crowd went to the display village.