Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part II. Knowing What Your Words Mean and What They Don’t

Chapter 6. Commonly Confused Words

Words that are pronounced the same way (even though they have different spellings) or that are spelled exactly the same way but can have two different meanings are known as homophones.

I know. Homophones make it seem like the first English speakers were being cruel in the way they developed the language.

I’m going to go through some of the most common problem pairs (and trios!) for you, along with some tricks to help you keep them straight.

I’m also going to provide you with a little editor’s secret at the end.

TO/TOO/TWO

Not only do these all sound the same, but they’re only one letter different from each other.

Two is a number.

Example: If you already have one chocolate bar and I give you mine, then you have two chocolate bars and I’m going to be asking you to share.

Memory Trick: Hold up two fingers. They form half a WTo and too don’t have that shape in them. They are not numbers. If that doesn’t work for you, remember that two (as a number) starts the same way as twins.

Too is an adverb expressing the idea of “excessively,” “also,” or “as well.”

Example: This word has one too many o’s in it.

Memory Trick: And that’s the trick to remembering it. It has an excessive number of o’s.

To is a preposition. It’s used to begin a prepositional phrase or an infinitive.

The best way to remember to is to place it where neither two nor too will work.

Example 1: I went to church on Sunday. (preposition)

Example 2: I want to eat your chocolate. (infinitive)

(And no, you don’t need to worry about what adverbs, prepositions, or infinitives are for the most part. Writing isn’t like an English class where you’re going to need to diagram a sentence. As we go along, we’ll tell you the parts you need to remember.)

OTHER NOT-SO-FUN COMBOS

Tick/Tic

tick is a small creature you want to pick off as quickly as possible. (See how pick and tick are only one letter different?) A tic is a muscle spasm or unconscious action.

Reign/Rein

Reign is what a sovereign does. Reins are what you use to control a horse when you’re riding.

The king wants a long reign (the longer word). You want to keep a tight rein on a rebellious horse (the shorter word) so it doesn’t run away with you.

Principle/Principal

These both have various definitions, so my recommendation is that you turn to your dictionary if you’re not 100% sure which to use.

Principle is most commonly used to refer to the standards by which a person acts.

His principles wouldn’t allow him to shoot an unarmed man.

Principal most commonly refers to the administrator who runs a school.

Remember that the one with pal in it usually refers to a person. You can’t be pals with a standard.

Desert/Dessert

Dessert has two s’s. You want more of a dessert (because it’s good to eat) than you would of a desert (where you might die of thirst).

Affect/Effect

These two are annoying because of the nuances involved. I’m going to give you a general guideline that’s going to allow you to get it right 99.9% of the time.

Affect is generally used as a verb (an action word) meaning “to influence.”

The icy roads affected the way I drove yesterday.

I could just as easily have written “The icy roads influenced the way I drove yesterday.”

Effect is generally used as a noun meaning “a result.”

The effect of the sleepless night on her mood was startling.

I could have written this as “The result of her sleepless night on her mood was startling.”

Grammar Girl has a helpful little mnemonic for this one that I’m going to borrow because I haven’t heard or been able to come up with a better one.

The arrow affected the aardvark. (The arrow influenced the aardvark makes sense. The arrow resulted the aardvark doesn’t. Therefore, affect = influence.)

The effect was eye-popping. (The result was eye-popping makes sense. The influence was eye-popping doesn’t. Therefore, effect = result.)

Lose/Loose

Lose is what happens when you’re not the winner or when you can’t find something. Loose is another way of saying that something is freed from its restraints or not bound in any way.

Loose has two o’s. If you lose one, you get…lose.

Bear/Bare

bear is an animal. Bare is what you are when you’re naked.

Naked = bare. The vowels are in the same order.

Where/Wear/Were

Wear is what you do with your clothes so that you’re not naked. Where refers to a place, a location, or a source.

Here’s the quick way to remember the difference.

Where are you going? I’m going here.

Were gets confused with the others because it looks like it should be pronounced the same way but it isn’t. Were is the plural form of was. You don’t pronounce it like werewolf. You pronounce it as whir.

As long as you remember how were is pronounced, you won’t confuse it with wear and where. To do this, you can use a silly little mnemonic:

Were you bitten by a werewolf?

When you say that sentence aloud, you won’t be tempted to pronounce it incorrectly.

THE EDITOR’S SECRET

I could go on like this for pages, but…

Here’s the dirty little editor’s secret I promised.

Even editors can’t keep the meanings of all the confusable words in the English language straight. We don’t need to, and neither do you.

You just have to know when you’re using a word that’s easily confused with another and then look it up.

I recommend that writers buy a copy of The Dictionary of Confusable Words and spend a little time flipping through it. (You’ll find a lot of options when you search for this on Amazon. It doesn’t really matter which one you get.) Try to familiarize yourself with the words that can be easily confused. To get you started, we’ve also included a list of 200 sets of commonly confused words.