Special Report

50 Words People Get Wrong All the Time

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We all make mistakes in our daily speech and writing. Sometimes mistakes are even made for us — as with autocorrect-mangled emails and text. Even people who reach the top of their fields use words incorrectly, mispronounce them, or even invent their own.

One former Washington resident, President George W. Bush, was so well known for this he inspired a word himself — Bushisms. Even when he used words correctly he sometimes mispronounced them. Like Homer Simpson, he said “nucular” instead of “nuclear.” Yogi Berra was also famous for saying odd things, which became known as Yogi-isms. Not all of these were unique to him. For example, people sometimes confuse learn and teach, as Yogi did when he said, “Bill Dickey is learning me his experience.”

Most of the entries on our list are pairs of words that are frequently confused. Many are homophones — words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings, such as compliment and complement.

There are also words we get wrong because they are closely associated. Congress meets in the United States Capitol, one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. The Capitol is located in the United States capital, Washington, D.C. — and people often mix up the two.

We shouldn’t be too judgmental, though. Words evolve and take on new meanings and are used differently in different places. Technology is accelerating the pace of change. The word “smartphone” hasn’t been around for long, and it has given new meaning to the word “text,” which brings us back to another word of recent origin, “autocorrect.”

To compile a list of words people often use incorrectly, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed numerous articles on the subject as well as style guides and dictionaries.

Click here to read about 50 words people get wrong all the time.

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1. Abstain and In Absentia

People often confuse abstain, which means to not do something, with in absentia, which means not present. They often end up combining the two to write abstentia. A Google search yields more than 60,000 results for this non-existent word.

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2. Adverse and Averse

Averse means dislike or opposed to. Add a “d” and you get adverse, which means harmful, which is a reason to be opposed to something. People should be averse to the possible adverse effects of using the wrong spelling.

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3. Advise and Advice

These words are often confused, but the difference is simple: advise is a verb and advice is a noun. I’d advise you to make note of this advice.

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4. Affect and Effect

The difference between these two words is a simple matter of cause and effect. Affect is usually a verb, and it means to impact or change, and the effect is the result.

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5. Allusion and Illusion

An allusion is a reference; an illusion is something imagined or deceptive.

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6. Amused and Bemused

This is an interesting pair because bemused originally meant bewildered or confused — not in an amusing sense. Bemused, however, sounds so much like amused and has been used mistakenly as a synonym so often that some dictionaries have come to accept this additional meaning.

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7. Assurance and Insurance

Insurance is a means of guaranteeing protection or safety in case something happens, such as with car insurance. Assurance provides a guarantee that something will happen, like assuring an applicant he or she would be accepted to college. In the financial world, a life insurance usually pays out only in the event a person dies during a set term, say a decade. A life assurance policy, however, pays out at death, no matter when, thus assuring the payment.

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Aural and Oral

These two have related meanings: aural refers to the ear or hearing, and oral to the mouth or speaking.


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Baited and Bated

“With bated breath” means nervously or anxiously; bated is hardly ever used in any other context, and people often wrongly spell it with an “i.” Baited is the past principle of bait, which means to tease or put a trap.

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Bear and Bare

People often confuse bear and bare. Although they are short and simple words, they mean very different things — and each has more than one meaning. Bear can mean carry or endure, bear with someone, or even give birth. It’s also a furry animal. As an adjective, bare can mean uncovered or simple; as a verb it means to expose.

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Bazaar and Bizarre

A bazaar is a market. A bizarre bazaar is a strange market indeed. The former has Persian roots, the latter Spanish.


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Berth and Birth

These words are pronounced the same but have very different meanings. A berth is where a ship moors or a passenger sleeps. Birth can be used as a noun, adjective, and verb in relation to having offspring.

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Biannual and Biennial

These words are easily confused. Biannual means twice a year, while biennial means every two years.


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Bloc and Block

Bloc means a group of nations or people united by a common interest. Block has a number of meanings, including prevent, as in block a bloc from working together.

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Canvas and Canvass

Canvas is something you paint on or sleep under. To canvass means to solicit votes or support. One “s” makes all the difference.

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Capitol and Capital

Congress meets in the United States Capitol, one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, which is located in the United States capital, Washington, D.C. — and people often mix up the two.


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Censor and Censure

Censor means to remove or suppress content, while censure means to criticize.

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Compliment and Complement

Compliment is a verb and noun meaning praise. Complement means goes well with. “My compliments to the chef. The eggs complement the bacon.”


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Comprise and Compose

These two words have different meanings depending on whether you are talking about the whole or the parts: “The pizza is composed of dough and cheese and comprises eight slices.” (Some people say “comprised of,” although the “of” is redundant.)

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Continuous and Continual

These words look very similar and are used interchangeably, but there’s an important difference — continual means with interruptions, continuous means without.

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Council and Counsel

Counsel means advice or the person giving it, whereas a council is a group of people that advises or decides on different matters.


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Criteria and Criterion

The difference is simple — criteria is the plural of criterion, although the singular is falling out of use in everyday English.

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Desert and Dessert

People often confuse desert, the sandy place, and dessert, the sweet treat. The difference is only an “s,” but with desert, the first syllable is stressed, and with dessert, the second.


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Discreet and Discrete

Discreet means unobtrusive, low key, whereas discrete means separate, individual. You can have discreet and discrete conversations.

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Elicit and Illicit

Elicit means to draw out or evoke. You wouldn’t elicit praise for something that was illicit, however, as that means illegal or unapproved.

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Evoke and Invoke

To evoke means to summon or call to mind, while to invoke means to call upon, as in, to invoke a rule of law.


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Disinterested and Uninterested

These words are often used interchangeably, but disinterested means neutral or not having a stake in the outcome, whereas uninterested means you just don’t care.

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Ensure and Insure

To ensure means to make sure something happens; to insure means to cover something with an insurance policy, which almost always means you don’t want it to happen.

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Faint and Feint

As a verb, to faint means to pass out, while to feint means to fake something, such as an attack. As an adjective, faint means slight or imperceptible.


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Fewer and Less

It’s not a super strict rule, but fewer should be used for things that can be counted, while less should be used for things that can’t be counted or don’t have a plural. Fewer grammar mistakes mean less embarrassment.

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Flaunt and Flout

To flaunt means to show off, whereas to flout means to openly disregard a rule. You could flout convention by flaunting your wealth.

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Flounder and Founder

To flounder means to struggle whereas to founder means to sink. Of course, flounder is also a fish, and they’re pretty good swimmers, so that might help you remember the distinction between the two. However, founder can also mean someone who builds something up, which is almost the opposite of to sink.


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Forbear and Forebear

Forbear is a verb meaning to refrain from something. Forebear is a noun meaning ancestor. You wouldn’t be reading this if your forebears had decided to forbear.

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Infer and Imply

The difference between these words is simple. To infer means to draw a conclusion, while to imply means to suggest something. Put simply, infer relates to getting information and drawing a conclusion from it, while implying is suggesting information.


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Irregardless means the same as regardless. It bothers language purists, however. Some even argue that there’s no such word.

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Learn and Teach

People sometimes confuse learn and teach, as Yogi Berra did when he said, “Bill Dickey is learning me his experience.” In standard English, Dickey was teaching and Berra was learning.

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Literally literally means actually, but people often use it when they mean figuratively, which is something entirely different. We’ve all heard statements like, “I literally laughed my head off,” or “I literally died with embarrassment.”


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Moral and Morale

A moral is a lesson you draw from something. Morals are your standards or ethics. Morale is your mental or emotional state. It’s probably good for your morale to be a moral person.

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Nuclear is incorrectly pronounced “nucular” by some people, including former President George W. Bush and Homer Simpson.


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Peak and Peek and Pique

A peak is the top of something, such as a mountain. To peek means to look briefly or glance at. Pique can mean to stimulate interest, but it can also mean to upset somebody. We hope we have piqued your interest and not piqued you.

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Perpetrate and Perpetuate

Perpetrate means to commit or carry out something, such as a crime. Perpetuate means to prolong the existence of, possibly forever.

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Pored and Poured

To pore means to read or focus on something carefully. I could pour you a drink while you pore over this.


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Premier and Premiere

As an adjective, premier means first or most prominent. As a noun, it can be a synonym for prime minister. A premiere is the first time a movie or play is shown. A premier could attend a premiere.

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Prescribe and Proscribe

These look-alike words can have opposite meanings. To prescribe means to order or recommend something, as doctors might do. To proscribe means to forbid something, as dictators might do.


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Principle and Principal

A principle is a fundamental idea or rule, such as a principle of justice. Principal as an adjective means the most important as in, the principal principle. Principal as a noun means the head of an organization or institution, such as a company or school. The principal should be principled.

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Rain and Rein and Reign

These words are sometimes mixed up. Rain falls from the sky; a rein is used to control a horse; and a monarch reigns over a country.


Sank and Sunk

Sank is the past tense of sink, as in the ship sank, while sunk is the past participle, as in the ship has sunk.


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Stationary and Stationery

Stationary means standing still, while stationery relates to paper and other office supplies.

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Systematic and Systemic

Systematic relates to the process or procedure by which something happens, while systemic means ingrained in the system.


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People often say “very unique,” but strictly speaking nothing is very unique. Something is either unique, which means one of a kind, or not — there aren’t degrees of uniqueness.

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