The English language is a confusing thing, with words that are spelt the same – or very similarly) but have different meanings, words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings, and words that are very similar but have totally different meanings. Getting the wrong one can alter the meaning of your sentence: this is usually merely an embarrassing nuisance, but can cause results that vary from comedic to catastrophic, depending on the context.
A few of the more frequent confusions I’ve seen:
Accept means ‘to agree’. Except means ‘not including’. (“I accept everything except getting words wrong.”)
Advice is a noun, advise is a verb: “She advised him to get some advice on his spelling.”
Affect is usually a verb: “His constant gossiping really affects our friendship”. Effect is usually a noun: “He seems to have that effect on most people.”*
An aisle is what you get in a supermarket or other building – a walkway between shelves or seats. An isle is an island, like the Isle of Wight.
Definitely means ‘for certain’. Defiantly means ‘with defiance’ – resisting authority or showing contempt. Web forums and the like seem to be a favoured residence of this mistake, for some reason: “I defiantly need help with…” and the like show up a lot.
Complement means to assist or look good with (“Your shoes really complement your outfit”). Compliment means to say something nice about someone or something. I think I have mentioned before a now-defunct university department called ‘Professions Complimentary to Dentistry’: while I’m sure dentists like a compliment as much as the next person, the word they wanted was ‘complementary’.
Enormity looks like it should mean something similar to ‘enormous’, but strictly speaking it means ‘horror’ or ‘atrocity’. The meaning of the word seems to be slowly changing to mean ‘large in size or scope’ – words only mean what people want them to mean, after all – but for now it is too easily misunderstood to be a safe choice of word. (I could comment on the enormity of the outcome of the ongoing Brexit negotiations, for example, and mean any number of things by it.)
Exacerbate means to make something worse. Exasperate means to annoy or irritate. You can exasperate a person – it’s a feeling I often get when I settle down to sleep only to hear the distinctive whine of a mosquito somewhere in the room – but if you’re talking about a situation the word you want is ‘exacerbate’.
Fulsome, despite the resemblance to ‘full’, doesn’t mean ‘enthusiastic’. It is actually related to the word ‘foul’ and means stinking or very unpleasant. Offering someone fulsome thanks is not a good thing.
Imply means to suggest something without saying it directly. Infer means to conclude from the evidence. (“He implied that she had left the shop without paying, from which I inferred he thought she was a thief.”)
Nought is a number (or an absence of number, if you’re being pedantic). Naught is an old-fashioned word meaning ‘nothing’. (I have seen a renowned professor get this one wrong, so you’re in good company if you do confuse the two!)
Stationary means not moving. Stationery is pens and stickers and folders (oh my). The key to remembering which is which is that it is ‘a’ for ‘automobile’ (a thing that often doesn’t move, particularly when travelling on the M25) and ‘e’ for ‘envelope’.
There is a description of position: “it’s over there”. Remember it as being like ‘here’, another description of position. They’re is simply an abbreviation of ‘they are’. Their means ‘belonging to them’.
Uninterested means bored or lacking interest in the subject. Disinterested means impartial. A good lawyer should be disinterested, but it is best that they don’t give the impression of being uninterested when talking to clients.
Weary means tired or fed-up; wary means cautious or nervous. Writers seem to mix up the two quite regularly, with confusing effect: compare “she was weary of her neighbour’s over-friendly dog” and “she was wary of her neighbour’s over-friendly dog” – the first suggests she is tired of doggy cuddles, the second that she is too nervous of of the dog to get close enough for cuddles to occur.
This is only a bare sampling** of the many possible confusions possible in the English language, so this may very well prove to be the first of many posts on this topic. No-one gets them all right all the time (even proofreaders!), but a bit of thought can reduce the likelihood of an embarrassing mistake. BTW: don’t rely on spell-checking software to always pick these up – sometimes it gets them right, sometimes it gets them wrong, and sometimes it misses them altogether. (But the joys of technology is a subject for another post!)
For now, here’s a bear sampling, just for you: