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Writing

This Guide was created as a joint project of the Academic Resource Center and the William H. Hannon Library.

Directed Learning: Confusing Words

We all have trouble confusing some of the words below. Read through this list of confusing words and their definitions. Take the practice quiz at the end to test what you’ve learned.


adapt, adopt Adapt means “make fit" or "become accustomed” and usually takes the preposition to. Adopt means “take by choice.” We adopted the dog because we knew he’d adapt to our home.

accept, except The verb accept means “receive” or “agree” to.” Except is usually a preposition that means “aside from” or “excluding.” All the plaintiffs except Mr. Kim decided to accept the settlement.

affect, effect Affect is usually a verb meaning “to influence.” Effect is usually a noun meaning “result.” The drug did not affect the disease and it had adverse side effects. Effect can also be a verb meaning “to bring about.” Only the president can effect such a dramatic change.

allude, elude Allude means “refer indirectly.” Elude means “avoid” or “escape from.” The candidate did not even allude to her opponent. The suspect eluded the police for several days.

allusion, illusion An allusion is an indirect reference. It is the noun form of the verb to allude. An illusion is a misconception or false impression. Did you catch my allusion to Shakespeare? Mirrors give the room an illusion of depth.

among, between In referring to two things or people, use between. In referring to three or more, generally use among. The relationship between the twins is different from that among the other children.

amoral, immoral Amoral means “neither moral nor immoral”; it also means “not caring about moral judgments.” Immoral means “morally wrong.” Until recently, most business courses were taught from an amoral perspective. Murder is immoral.

amount, number Use amount with quantities you cannot count; use number for quantities you can count. A small number of volunteers cleared a large amount of brush within a few hours.

assure, ensure, insure Assure means “convince” or “promise”; its direct object is usually a person or persons. She assured voters she would not raise taxes. Ensure and insure both mean “make certain,” but insure refers to protection against financial loss. When the city rationed water to ensure that the supply would last, the Browns could no longer afford to insure their car-wash business.

cite, site Cite means “to quote as an authority or example.” Site is usually a noun meaning “a particular place.” He cited the zoning law in his argument against the proposed site of the gas station. Locations on the Internet are usually referred to as sites. The library’s Web site improves every week.

comprise, compose Comprise means “contain.” Compose means “make up.” The class comprises twenty students. Twenty students compose the class.

criterion, criteria Criterion means “standard of judgment” or “necessary qualification.” Criteria is the plural form. Image is the wrong criterion for choosing a president. Leadership ability and past record are better criteria.

disinterested, uninterested Disinterested means “unbiased.” Uninterested means “indifferent.” Finding disinterested jurors was difficult. She was uninterested in the verdict.

explicit, implicit Explicit means “directly or openly expressed.” Implicit means “indirectly expressed or implied.” The explicit message of the ad urged consumers to buy the product, while the implicit message promised popularity if they did so.

elicit, illicit The verb elicit means “to draw out.” The adjective illicit means “illegal.” The police elicited from the criminal the names of others involved in illicit activities.

farther, further Farther refers to physical distance. How much farther is it to Munich? Further refers to time or degree. I want to avoid further delays.

its, it’s Its is the possessive form of it. It’s is a contractions for it is and it has. It’s important to observe that rat before it eats its meal.

imply, infer To imply is to suggest indirectly. To infer is to guess or conclude on the basis of an indirect suggestion. The note implied they were planning a small wedding; we inferred we would not be invited.

lay, lie Lay means “place” or “put.” Its main forms are lay, laid, laid. It generally has a direct object, specifying what has been placed. She laid her books on the desk. Lie means “recline” or “be positioned” and does not take a direct object. Its main forms are lie, lay, lain. Last night, she lay awake until two.

loose, lose Lose is a verb meaning “misplace.” Loose is an adjective that means “not securely attached.” Sew on that loose button before you lose it.

passed, past Passed is the past tense of the verb pass. Mother passed me another slice of cake. Past usually means “belonging to a former time” or “beyond a time or place.” Our past president spoke until past midnight. The hotel is just past the next intersection.

precede, proceed Precede means “come before”; proceed means “go forward.” Despite the storm that preceded the flooding of the park, we proceeded to our cars.

raise, rise Raise means “lift” or “move upward.” (Referring to children, it means “bring up.”) It takes a direct object; someone raises something. The guests raised their glasses to toast their host. Rise means “go upward.” It does not take a direct object; something rises by itself. She saw the steam rise from the pan.

supposed to, used to Both expressions require the final –d. He is supposed to sing. NOT-- He is suppose to sing.

than, then Use than in comparative statements. The cat was bigger than the dog. Use then when referring to a sequence of events. I won, and then I cried.

there, their, they’re There is an adverb specifying place; it is also an expletive. Adverb: Sylvia is lying there unconscious. Expletive: There are two plums left. Their is a possessive pronoun. Fred and Jane finally washed their car. They’re is a contraction of they are. They’re later than usual today.

who, whom Use who if the word is the subject of the clause and whom if the word is the object of the clause. Monica, who smokes incessantly, is my godmother. (Who is the subject of the clause; the verb is smokes.) Monica, whom I saw last winter, lives in Tucson.(Whom is the object of the verb saw.)

who’s, whose Who’s is a contraction for who is or who has. Who’s on the patio? Whose is a possessive form. Whose sculpture is in the garden? Whose is on the patio?

Directed Learning Activity: Confusing Words

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