By: English Professor
Some words sound so similar, it's easy to confuse or misuse them when writing. Computer spell check won't catch these mistakes! Use this list as a reference whenever you're unsure about which word fits in the context.
affect / effect
Effect is usually a noun that means a result or the power to produce a result: “The sound of the falling rain had a calming effect, nearly putting me to sleep.” Affect is usually a verb that means to have an influence on: “His loud humming was affecting my ability to concentrate.” Note that effect can also be a verb meaning to bring about or execute: “The speaker's somber tone effected a dampening in the general mood of the audience.”
all right / alright
Although alright is widely used, it is considered nonstandard English. As the American Heritage Dictionary notes, it's not “all right to use alright.”
all together / altogether
All together is applied to people or things that are being treated as a group. “We put the pots and pans all together on the shelf.” All together is the form that must be used if the sentence can be reworded so that all and together are separated by other words: “We put all the pots and pans together on the shelf.” Altogether is used to mean entirely: “I am altogether pleased to be receiving this award.”
allusion / illusion
Allusion is a noun that means an indirect reference: “The speech made allusions to the final report.” Illusion is a noun that means a misconception: “The policy is designed to give an illusion of reform.”
alternately / alternatively
Alternately is an adverb that means in turn; one after the other: “We alternately spun the wheel in the game.” Alternatively is an adverb that means on the other hand; one or the other: “You can choose a large bookcase or, alternatively, you can buy two small ones.”
beside / besides
Beside is a preposition that means next to: “Stand here beside me.” Besides is an adverb that means also: “Besides, I need to tell you about the new products my company offers.”
bimonthly / semimonthly
Bimonthly is an adjective that means every two months: “I brought the cake for the bimonthly office party.” Bimonthly is also a noun that means a publication issued every two months: “The company publishes several popular bimonthlies.” Semimonthly is an adjective that means happening twice a month: “We have semimonthly meetings on the 1st and the 15th.”
capital / capitol
The city or town that is the seat of government is called the capital; the building in which the legislative assembly meets is the capitol. The term capital can also refer to an accumulation of wealthor to a capital letter.
cite / site
Cite is a verb that means to quote as an authority or example: “I cited several eminent scholars in my study of water resources.” It also means to recognize formally: “The public official was cited for service to the city.” It can also mean to summon before a court of law: “Last year the company was cited for pollution violations.” Site is a noun meaning location: “They chose a new site for the factory just outside town.”
complement / compliment
Complement is a noun or verb that means something that completes or makes up a whole: “The red sweater is a perfect complement to the outfit.” Compliment is a noun or verb that means an expression of praise or admiration: “I received compliments about my new outfit.”
comprise / compose
According to the traditional rule, the whole comprises the parts, and the parts compose the whole. Thus, the board comprises five members, whereas five members compose (or make up) the board. It is also correct to say that the board is composed (not comprised) of five members.
concurrent / consecutive
Concurrent is an adjective that means simultaneous or happening at the same time as something else: “The concurrent strikes of several unions crippled the economy.” Consecutive means successive or following one after the other: “The union called three consecutive strikes in one year.”
convince / persuade
Strictly speaking, one convinces a person that something is true but persuades a person to do something. “Pointing out that I was overworked, my friends persuaded [not convinced] me to take a vacation. Now that I'm relaxing on the beach with my book, I am convinced [not persuaded] that they were right.” Following this rule, convince should not be used with an infinitive.
council / councilor / counsel / counselor
A councilor is a member of a council, which is an assembly called together for discussion or deliberation. A counselor is one who gives counsel, which is advice or guidance. More specifically, a counselor can be an attorney or a supervisor at camp.
discreet / discrete
Discreet is an adjective that means prudent, circumspect, or modest: “Her discreet handling of the touchy situation put him at ease.” Discrete is an adjective that means separate or individually distinct: “Each company in the conglomerate operates as a discrete entity.”
disinterested / uninterested
Disinterested is an adjective that means unbiased or impartial: “We appealed to the disinterested mediator to facilitate the negotiations.” Uninterested is an adjective that means not interested or indifferent: “They seemed uninterested in our offer.”
elicit / illicit
Elicit is a verb that means to draw out. Illicit is an adjective meaning unlawful. “No matter how hard I tried to elicit a few scandalous stories from her, she kept all knowledge of illicit goings-on discreetly to herself.”
emigrant / immigrant
Emigrant is a noun that means one who leaves one's native country to settle in another: “The emigrants spent four weeks aboard ship before landing in Los Angeles.” Immigrant is a noun that means one who enters and settles in a new country: “Most of the immigrants easily found jobs.” One emigrates from a place; one immigrates to another.
farther / further
Farther is an adjective and adverb that means to or at a more distant point: “We drove 50 miles today; tomorrow, we will travel 100 miles farther.” Further is an adjective and adverb that means to or at a greater extent or degree: “We won't be able to suggest a solution until we are further along in our evaluation of the problem.” It can also mean in addition or moreover: “They stated further that they would not change the policy.”
(...to be continued)