Never Confuse These Words Again

orangutanAh, the English language. You would think one’s native tongue would be easier to master. But alas, there are simply too many land mines in our little lexicon.

Just today I read an email in which the writer hoped I “excepted” his submission, and another in which someone wanted to pay me a “complement.” It got me thinking about the many words I commonly see misused in manuscripts. So I thought today I’d give you a little list and some tips on correct word usage.


You can lead a horse to water. (verb, present tense)
She led the class in a song. (verb, past tense)
Pencils used to be made of lead. (noun)


Time to lie down for a nap. (verb, present tense)
Yesterday she lay on the grass and daydreamed. (verb, past tense)

If you are going to use “lay” as present tense, it’s only if you are going to lay something down. The present tense verb “lay” needs to have an object.


Will this post affect the way you write? (verb)
If so, I hope it has a positive effect. (noun)
I’m trying to effect a change in the way writers use grammar. (transitive verb meaning to cause or bring about)


I passed by Starbucks and didn’t stop! (verb, past tense)
I can’t drive past Starbucks without being tempted. (preposition)
The one-dollar cup of coffee is in the past. (noun)


It’s time for a lesson in grammar. (contraction for “it is”)
Choosing the appropriate word has its difficulties. (possessive form, adjective)

The ONLY time you use an apostrophe is when you want a contraction meaning “it is.” There is NO apostrophe in the possessive form.


Help – I need some advice! (noun)
Please advise me on my publishing journey.


They stood in front of the altar to get married. (noun)
Before the wedding, she had to alter her dress. (verb)


When you’re on a horse, you should hold the reins. (noun)
Please try to rein in your feelings. (verb)
The king reigns over his country. (verb)

(Note that when you “rein in” your feelings or you try to “rein in” your kids, it’s a metaphorical use of the original “rein” which pertains to horseback riding.)


This blog has several discrete parts. (adjective meaning separate or distinct.)
Please be discreet when discussing details of your contract. (adjective meaning to be prudent or use discernment; or to be unobtrusive or unnoticeable)

* * *

This list is specifically taken from my own notes on mistakes I’ve seen lately, but obviously there are many more confusing words! A book I highly recommend is 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses by the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary. It’s fun reading and a great resource to keep on your shelf.

All you grammar police out there: Feel free to add your two cents (and good sense).

What words do you have trouble getting right in your writing?



Never confuse these words again! (Click to Tweet)

Yesterday you lay, but today you lie. A few commonly confused words. (Click to Tweet)

Can you “except” a “complement”? Words we commonly confuse. (Click to Tweet)

What’s the difference between “discrete” and “discreet”? Confusing words: (Click to Tweet)


  1. Jeff Kent says:

    I got hit by this one yesterday: councilor , counselor

  2. Annecdotist says:

    My grammar isn’t perfect, but it’s not that bad, but since I’m reliant on voice activated software for all my writing due to repetitive strain injury I can get some very strange gremlins in the text. Anyone else have that problem?

  3. Stephanie says:

    One of my biggest pet peeves is piqued, peeked, peaked. Drives me nuts. And the biggest mistake, which is also the most distrubing is that I see college educated people misusing their, there and they’re. That was taught in second grade.

  4. Dannie Morin says:

    With “alter” don’t forget there is also personality alter. For example, “The patient presented with dissociative identity disorder, including four distinct alters: a little girl, an old man, an alien, and a dog. We were unsure which personality was his original identity, though we had ruled out the dog.”

  5. Sandy Vander Zicht says:

    less – fewer

    I have less money than I had yesterday, but fewer coins.

  6. nuku says:

    I can’t think at the moment of anything I have a hard time with, but I do know something that annoys me.

    Why do objects get laid down, but people lay down. What if I want to say “He layed there” as in past tense, had already done it? Because when I say “He lay there” I can only think that it’s in the process of being done.

    Does anyone else have this problem? Or am I just weird?

    Also, if I use “layed” enough, do you think that it will soon be accepted as a normal word in the dictionary like when people used “guesstimate” and things like that?

  7. Matt Davies says:

    Hi Rachelle

    Great post!
    Just one thing I disagree with (regarding “it’s”):

    The ONLY time you use an apostrophe is when you want a contraction meaning “it is.”

    “It’s” can also be a contraction for “it has” — “It’s been a tough day.”

  8. I think I’m going to read this EVERY day until they all sink into my head.

    Thank you for the concise list to clear up those words I do have a lot of trouble with.

  9. Connie Berry says:

    If tact fails you, you’d better take another tack.

  10. Peter DeHaan says:

    I’ll need to discrete/discreet to my list of words to be careful of when using.

    One that recently tripped me up was intention/intension. My critique group caught it for me.

  11. Steve Harz says:

    further – farther
    each other – one another

  12. M.R. Anglin says:

    I’ve had trouble with “device” and “devise” as well as “liar” and “lair”

    • M.R. Anglin says:

      And I actually had a list of my commonly confused words hanging over my computer desk to help me remember. I really need to put that list back up . . .

  13. It’s and its confuse me. Thank goodness for spell check and auto correct!

    I see a lot of “lose” and “loose” confusion. For some reason that one annoys me when I see it misused.

  14. Rachelle,

    I love this post and only have one addition/comment to the lead/led/lead section:

    Pencils used to be made of lead. (noun)

    Actually plumbing used to be made of lead (noun). Pencils have always been made of graphite (unless you are refering to a stylus, which, historically was made from lead).

    Combine a scientist with a writer and what do you get? An occasional pain in the neck. 🙂

    Thanks again for a great post.

  15. One that I’ve seen a lot in manuscripts from my critique group is confusing set and sit.

  16. Hmm, I’ll just lay this one out there. It’s correct or am I lying?

    Jeff’s lying about the money that is lying on the table. He always lies about laying money around. It lay there all day and lies there still. I have lain all evening thinking I should have laid it in my pocket.

  17. Brian Henwood says:

    I often sea mistakes like these in writing; especially in today’s fast paste blog-o-rama web cite articles.
    I for one think hour society has gotten a way from detailed editing. If spell check doesn’t catch it, then it slips right on bye.
    And don’t get me started on the pour influence texting has. OMG, LOL. I’ve actually herd people using those acronyms in speech; SHM.
    Perhaps the only thing worse then hour pity full use of language, is hour awe full use of punctuation. Its worse then I have scene in ages.
    Happy Thursday!

  18. Just this week I received an email from Writers Digest. It stressed the necessity of never submitting until your manuscript is perfect (beta readers, etc.) and carefully proofed, because nothing will brand you as an amateur more than errors in your ms.

    Then a book was offered. I forget the title, but the description contained it’s/its, and a word was missing!

    I don’t think anybody proofed THAT one, and it went out to thousands and writers.

  19. Toward/towards. Towards is more commonly used in the UK. This is problematic when writing a series set in Britain for an American audience: I have to be sure to use the correct version in dialogue depending on who’s speaking.

  20. Lisa M. Airey says:

    Council and counsel! And, dare I ask… how do you all feel about fish (plural) vs. fishes?

  21. All good!
    I always have to stop myself and check WHOSE and WHO’S

  22. Jared says:

    Great, now I’ll never hear the song “Lay Lady Lay” again without thinking about its grammatical inaccuracy. “Lie lady lie, lie across my big brass bed,” just wouldn’t sound as nice, and it wouldn’t rhyme with “stay.”

  23. Nancy Cleary says:

    Every day I am bothered by the misuse of everyday words. =) I can’t believe how many TV ads incorrectly use “everyday” and “every day.” Drives me nuts. Are you describing something that is common or something that happens every single day?

  24. Janet Smart says:

    I’ve always been told that only a person (not an object) can lie. That is one way I remember that.

  25. A good list, but you forgot my favorite. Not long ago a friend wrote a series of blog posts about choosing colors, and she explained all about using the complimentary color schemes based on the color wheel.

    That said, lie vs. lay is still a rough one for me. It’s even harder while I’m trying my hand at an erotic story, because those words, um, show up more often there. It wouldn’t do for the protagonista to get lied.


  26. Jerry says:

    I won’t lie. Lay,lie,lain…trouble.

  27. Rick Barry says:

    Another gaffe I spotted this week: using “insure” (to protect against financial loss) for “ensure” (to guarantee, make sure of).

    It’s vital for wordsmiths to master these tools of their trade, but I trust my wonderful colleagues here don’t fall into a pride-filled “more grammatical than thou” attitude. That, too, can become wearisome. 😉

  28. Cindy Wade says:

    The words which have me thinking hard is quiet and quite. I really have to think about it. There are many words which start with the letter Q giving me a bit of a headache.

  29. Currently, the wanton use of “that” when it should be “who” is driving me crazy. Mr. Marks is the teacher “who” gave the assignment, not “that” gave the assignment. People are “who” and things are “that.” Or have schools started teaching the use of “that” under all circumstances?

    “have went” is another one on my hit list.
    The onslaught of bad grammar is sometimes too much to bear (as opposed to bare).

  30. Alison says:

    Some more homophone mix ups

    Isle is a small island – Aisle is in a church

    Site is a location – Sight is to do with your eyes

    I have often come across woman/women mixed up

    There (there it is), Their (their house), They’re (contraction of They Are)

  31. It’s not that I don’t make the mistakes but I KNOW what’s correct. It’s just in rushing or fatigue or something. HOWEVER, I have never been able to learn lay and laid and lie. I have tried and when I read the explanation, it just seems like gibberish. I will actually avoid the words if I can.

    Affect and effect I completely understand but am unable to think about it or explain how I know which to use. I just know that Mr. Moore taught me how to be sure in 8th grade and it stuck.

  32. I should refer to my Skunk and Wite more often.
    Hahaha…Rachelle, I love this stuff.

  33. David Todd says:

    The lie-lay scenario is definitely the worst for me.

    Another big one I see is insure-ensure-assure. So many people insure (protect against risk) when them mean ensure (make sure something happens).

  34. LC Plaunt says:

    Rachelle, I always enjoy your posts, but this one delights my soul. People who like correct grammar and usage seem to be criticized a lot these days, but I still see the value in structured language. Using the right word will certainly help to avoid misunderstandings.

    Probably the most common mistake I see in comments on your blog is using Rachel instead of Rachelle. I find it surprising since your name is printed in at least four places on this page, two of which are visible from where I am typing this comment. A person wouldn’t have to look far to get it right. I often wonder if it bothers you as much as it bothers me.

    Thanks for your willingness to share your wisdom.

  35. Great post! I have to admit that the lie/lay one is one of my pet peeves (and a mistake that I’m always paranoid I’ll make by accident).

    One of my favorite online compilations of grammar info is Common Errors in English Usage. It explains all these confusing mistakes. I keep this link bookmarked. 🙂

  36. Heather says:

    There are a bunch that I learned in my specification course that are kind of interesting:

    As per: as and per mean the same thing so would you say “as as”?

    Practice and Practise: Maybe one day I’ll have my own architectural practice (noun in Canada). I really need to practise my guitar (verb in Canada).

  37. Tyrean says:

    My writing class and I play Homonym Pictionary to try to sort through these words.

  38. Love the comments today. 🙂

  39. There’s a solution. Just write in vernacular, and blame it on the characters.

    I’m not sure about altar/alter…the wedding altar sure did alter my life.

  40. Anita says:

    I love a good grammar lesson! The one that I always have to think about is passed/past. Recently, I had to explain lie and lay to my daughter. She was saying “She lied down yesterday.”
    I’m tempted to find that book; it does indeed sound informative, as well as fun.

  41. Amy Mac says:

    Lightening versus lightning. One makes something less heavy or dark, the other – if not treated with proper respect – can kill you.

  42. I still struggle with lay/lie and farther/further. And I’ve never figured out which vs. that. But when I see people misuse loose/lose, it drives me batty.

    I’m never going to get used to the new “s’s” rule. “I petted Chris’s dog.” It looks so wrong, but it’s what they’re teaching in schools now.

  43. Jan Thompson says:

    Good checklist! Thanks!

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” – Lewis Carroll


  44. James Ziskin says:

    Rachelle, I love your posts. You’re incredibly helpful and generous with your advice. And prolific. We never have to wait long to benefit from your experience and expertise.

    I post thoughts on language, which often include this kind of confusion. Have a look if you’re interested. I add to it regularly.


  45. Barb says:

    We have a poster of misused and abused homophones in my 5th grade class. Our personal favs are your/you’re and their, there, and they’re. I see the former ALL THE TIME in print and cringe. Yikes. This was a fun post!

  46. ROFLOL…I love people who mix up “to_too_two” because I’ve been known to do it a time or two too 🙂

  47. Ron Estrada says:

    Affect and effect gets me often. I need a cheat sheet to keep them straight.

  48. Shontrell says:

    peek – peak
    sale – sell
    their – there – they’re

  49. Who and whom? English is so confusing even for us who(?) speak it and write it.

  50. Colin says:

    These are very common mistakes, and well-illustrated, Rachelle! 🙂

    It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that both spelling and grammar are actually social conventions, not hard-wired laws written into the fabric of the universe. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. The purpose of both spelling and grammar is to help the speaker/writer to communicate with clarity. But what constitutes clear communication to one generation might be an incoherent mess to the next (which is, perhaps, why Sparks Notes sell so well).

    I would certainly advocate correct use of spelling and grammatical conventions (especially for formal letters, papers, etc.). But I think we should remember that language is about communication, and bad–or creative–spelling and grammar can still communicate, even if it irks the Grammar Police. 😉

  51. I still get lie and lay confused. It’s a bit embarrassing when my homeschooled children ask which is correct. Thanks for the information on the book, Rachelle. I’m definitely getting that one.

  52. I always tend to confuse “lie” and “lay” and have to look up the proper usage every time. I think I just have a mental block where those words are concerned.

    It also drives me nuts when I see someone write, “I’m waiting with baited breath!” instead of “bated breath.” Really? Eating minnows now, are you?

  53. Jeanne T says:

    I still get confused with “lie-lay,” so I’m glad you included it. 🙂 Some that I see confused are “their” “they’re” and “there.” English can be a confusing language.

  54. I consistently have to look up “lay” and “laid,” and am still not sure that I use them correctly.

    I’m more prone to mangling my grammar when speaking than when writing. My mouth and my brain aren’t always synchronized.

    • Dee Bright says:

      I’m with you on this one, Carol. I learned it incorrectly — as in, she laid in the grass yesterday — so now writing it the correct way sounds so wrong to me!

      • Donna Chubb says:

        I thought lay was to place or set down while lie was to recline, but my editor changed some of mine, so I got part of it wrong I guess. It’s a tough one.

        • James Ziskin says:

          Many people confuse the present indicative of “to lie” (to assume a flat or horizontal position) with the verb “to lay” (to cause to lie down or to produce an egg). e.g. “I want to lay down” when “I want to lie down” is what the doctor ordered. Why this confusion? Lay and lie are not all that similar, after all. No more than “buy” and “bay”, and no one confuses those. The answer lies in the irregularity of the past tense of “to lie”: I lay, you lay, he lay, etc. The form is identical to the present indicative of “to lay”, whence the muddle. The homonym of “to lie” (to tell a falsehood) does not suffer the same fate. No one says “I lay about my age because I want people to think I’m younger than I am.” The reason for this is that when the verb means to tell a falsehood, it shares no common forms with “to lay”. So the fibbing variety of “to lie” is quite stable and will not be changing for the foreseeable future. The horizontal variety of the verb is fast being trampled by “lay” and should not take it lying down. But what about that old prayer, you ask: “Now I lay me down to sleep…” Could so many supplicants be wrong? Of course not, their prayer is perfect to our ears, to Miss Grundy’s, and — presumably — to God’s. The presence of “me” as a reflexive pronoun changes everything. The person praying intends to put him- or herself down to sleep. Equally correct would be “Now I lie down to sleep” but not “Now I lie me down to sleep.”

          “To lie” (assume a flat position) suffers from even more confusion in its past participle. Once you get the hang of “I lay on the bed all day yesterday,” you stumble over the present perfect tense. “I have lain” is correct, though many people think it sounds recherché and opt for “I have laid.” “Laid”, however, is the past participle of “to lay”.

          • Donna Chubb says:

            Thanks, I’m guessing you’re an English professor? So lie, present tense could me tell a falsehood or recline. Future tense to recline you use lay. So, what about, “He is laying/lying down.”

          • James Ziskin says:

            I think you wrote future instead of past by mistake.

            To lie (to assume or be in a horizontal position) can apply to people or things. The future tense of to lie, whether it means to tell a falsehood or to assume/be a horizontal position, is the following:

            I will lie (or I’ll lie) down and take a nap.
            You will lie down and close your eyes.
            She will lie there until she’s ready to get up.
            The dirty clothes will lie on the floor until someone picks them up.
            And so on.

            To lay has two principal meanings: 1.) to CAUSE someone or something else to lie down 2.) to produce an egg.

            The future of to lay is the following:

            I will lay the book on the table.
            You will lay your guns down now!
            The chicken will lay an egg before morning.

            Your question about he was laying/lying depends on the action. Consider these examples:

            1.) He was laying the groundwork for his plan.
            2.) He was lying on the ground.

            The first example is the verb to lay and the second is the verb to lie. If you want to be correct according to the grammar books, you should not say, “He was laying on the ground.” It is incorrect. By the same token, you wouldn’t say, “He was lying the groundwork for his plan.” Doesn’t make sense.

            People have posted here that the past tense of to lie is confusing and sounds wrong. just try repeating to yourself over and over, “I lay down two hours ago for a nap.” It is correct, and after a while, it should start to sound that way to you.

            Remember too, that people do NOT confuse to lay with to lie, only to lie with to lay. No one says, “That chicken sure lies a lot of eggs!” But they do say, “Go lay down,” which is incorrect.

  55. Plural words don’t take an apostrophe, either.

    “Book’s for sale!” – Not!

  56. Joi (@Joi_the_Artist) says:

    There’s a wonderful blog called “Homophones Weakly” that illustrates common homophones and how to use them correctly. It’s quite brilliant, especially for those of us who are highly visual.

  57. Sue Harrison says:

    I used to teach creative and advanced creative writing at a small university that drew students from both Canada and the US. I allowed both British and US spelling with the only requirement being consistency within each paper.

    My students did well; however, since then I have been beset with the tendency to mix US and British spelling and useage. If I were grading my own writing, I’d have trouble giving myself an A!!

    • Sue, I have read so many English novels that I find myself spelling some words “wrong” by American standards. There are a few that just look better in British. 😉

      • Sue Harrison says:

        I agree Charise. I love those extra “U”s thrown in thither and yon!!

        • Harriet says:

          Colour… Hehehe!

          At school in England, the exam board for science wants us to spell ‘Sulphuric’ as ‘Sulfuric’ and other words with ‘ph’ to be spelt with ‘f’. (Can’t think of any other examples. This is stupid.) We get angry and upset… We like our way of spelling. It’s unnecessary but fun to confuse American/Canadian people! (Well, I’m just saying that.)

    • Donna Chubb says:

      Wouldn’t that be, my students did good? Just wondering.

      • Sue Harrison says:

        Hmmm, good question, Donna. Here’s my take. “My students did good” would mean that my students did good works, with good being a noun. I could have said, “My students did good work.” Good would be an adjective. In “My students did well,” well is an adverb modifying the verb did.

        Ok, I’d love to hear another take on this, because I know that I always get mixed up when it comes to grammar!

  58. Jo Murphey says:

    English is probably the hardest language I’ve ever had to learn, So many words sound the same, but are spelled differently and mean different things.

    That being said, English grammar learned by second language students is better than people who have spoken, read, and written it all their lives.

  59. Ted Cross says:

    I think the one I see most commonly misused is lose and loose.

    I like the ones that have slight differences in use between the US and Britain, such as further/farther, or ones where you think there should be a difference but there isn’t, such as flammable/inflammable

    • Ted Cross: it took my 84 year-old mother to point out that I had consistently misused “lose” and “loose” in my manuscript — and this was after two self-professed grammar police had reviewed it.

    • jeffo says:

      Loose/Lose confusion is a major pet peeve of mine. It drives me crazy.

      • I struggled for a while going from dreamt to dreamed, while still using meant?
        My crit group still catches British phrases I don’t realize I’m using 🙂 But now I have a British character so I’m having fun with expressions.

  60. Alana Terry says:

    If I chose another set of words to add to your list, I’d try to choose something clever that hadn’t already been chosen.

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