English grammar isn’t for everyone. If sentence diagramming and arguing in favor of the Oxford comma sound like a good time to you, we can be friends and live happily ever after. But if you’d rather skip happy hour than have a conversation about grammar, you could probably stand to sharpen your writing skills.

Regardless of your ardent love or hate for grammar — or writing in general — there’s no denying its significance. If your resume contains errors or your co-workers snicker behind your back because you thoughtlessly send emails plagued with spelling mistakes, you might be wise to recognize the connection between grammar and promotions.

Here are 30 commonly confused words that will help you earn a raise and avoid looking like the office idiot.



Advice is something you give to someone in need of guidance. Advise is the act of giving someone advice. I advise you to give her advice about her poor grammar in work emails.


These two words are eerily similar, and they’re used in different ways. Affect is a verb, meaning to have an effect on, to influence, or to stir emotions. Effect is a noun that’s used to indicate something that was brought on by a cause or agent. The negative effects of his poor grammar will affect future employees for years to come.

A lot/allot

A lot is always two words. Period. Alot is not a word, and allot means something completely different. It’s when you give something to someone, as in a share or task. He allotted her a lot of time to work on the business proposal.


An award is something you win, usually as a result of a contest or competition. A reward is something given in return for effort or achievement. If your kid comes home with the Student of the Month award, you’d reward him or her with a prize.

Awhile/A While

Awhile (adverb) means for a short time, such as in, “The grammar police tend to stay awhile.” (Awhile modifies the verb “to stay.”) Two words, a while (noun), mean the same thing as “awhile,” but the words are used as the object of the preposition, as in “The grammar police tend to stay for a while.”


Don’t be a fool and try to use this word, and end up using it incorrectly. If you’re compelled to do something, it means you’re forced to do it. It does not mean to willingly do something or feel like you should do something. Even the brutal force of the grammar police couldn’t compel her to use the right preposition.


A compliment is something nice you say to someone, acknowledging something positive. As in, you gave me a compliment for writing this amazing post on commonly confused words. A complement is something that goes well with something else, as in this sentence: Her post about grammar complemented the helpful feedback I received from the editor. The post and the feedback worked nicely together to help the poor individual struggling with grammar, so they complemented one another.


Compose means to make up, as in “the company is composed of individuals from various backgrounds.” Comprise means to contain, as in “the company building comprises a meeting room and 43 cubicles.” It’s never right to say “comprised of,” so train yourself out of that habit.


Both words mean for a certain duration, but continuous involves an uninterrupted amount of time. Continual means it happens on and off and with interruptions. The continuous humming of the neon lights annoyed her that day, but not as much as Jack’s continual lateness.


These two are often confused and couldn’t be any more different. A desert is a dry, sandy place, like the Sahara. A dessert is crème brulee, hot fudge sundae or red velvet cake. No sand in the cake, please. An easy way to remember this is that people often want seconds when it comes to dessert, and there is a second s in the word.


Except means with exception, or to exclude. Accept means to receive something. She accepted every gift with a smile except the one in the red box.


Elicit is a verb that means to obtain, draw out, deduce, or extract. Illicit means illegal or contrary to what’s morally acceptable. Illicit behavior often elicits feelings of disgust or remorse.

Everyday/Every day

Everyday is an adjective that means common, as in “The everyday English teacher had better know the difference between its and it’s.” Every day (two words) means it happens each day. Every day, the English teacher’s red pen runs out of ink.


Evoke means to call forth, while invoke means to summon into action or bring into existence. The grammar-loving politician invoked a law that would keep all English teachers happy, but this evoked feelings of fear in the students.


Farther refers to physical distance, and further is metaphorical or figurative distance. That couldn’t be further from the truth; the business is farther than a mile down the road.


The simple rule is that fewer refers to things you can actually count, and less refers to things you don’t count. There are exceptions, of course, like when you’re talking about money, time, distance and weight – but that’s the general rule. If you can count it, use fewer.


E.g. is the abbreviation for the Latin term exempli gratia, and it stands for “for example.” I.e. stands for id est, which means “that is.”


People incorrectly use irony to describe a funny coincidence, but it actually means “contrary to what you might expect.” Alanis got it wrong. A rainy wedding day isn’t necessarily ironic. It can be ironic, however, if you move your wedding to an indoor venue because the forecast called for rain, but then the sprinkler system goes off and soaks everyone anyway.


These words are used frequently and unfortunately used incorrectly. It’s is simply a contraction for “it is.” Its is a possessive pronoun. It’s never too late for a dog to forgive its owner.


Lie means to recline or rest on a surface, but lay means to put something somewhere. She wanted to lie on the floor after I told her to lay her coat on the counter.


Lose is something that happens if you don’t win. If something becomes loose, it’s not tight.


Peek is what you do if you’re sneakily glancing around or taking a quick look at something. Peak is the highest or topmost point. And pique is to upset or excite someone. On the mountain peak, she piqued my interest as she ran after the gnome that peeked around the corner.


Peruse does not mean to quickly glimpse or scan something. It means to review something carefully. If someone borrows a book from you and says they’re going to peruse it, don’t expect it back right away. (If they’re using the word correctly.)


Both are nouns, but a principle is a fundamental truth, a law or a doctrine. A principal is a person with the highest authority. It’s the principle of the matter, said the principal.


Than is a conjunction used to make comparisons. She is taller than me. He is meaner than her. Then is an adverb used to situate actions in time. He ate then went to bed. The baby screamed then threw the rattle.


There is a noun that signifies a place or point. Where? There. They’re is simply a contraction for “they are.” Their is the possessive form of “they.” Look at them over there! They’re wearing their ugliest sweaters.


You should know these three, but too means also, two is a number, and to is a proposition. Two people went to the store, too.


There is no excuse for this common error. You’re is a contraction for “you are,” and your is a word that sits in front of a noun to say it belongs to you. Your mom said you’re a sweetheart.


Who’s is a contraction for who is, and whose is a pronoun that shows something is associated with a person. Who’s the person whose grammar landed them in the slammer?


If you want to seriously impress someone reading your writing, use these words correctly. Which is used before non-restrictive clauses or words than can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence. Writing, which is something anyone can do, comes with a lot stress if you let it.

That is used before a restrictive clause, so you can’t take it out of the sentence without altering the meaning. He asked a grammar question that confused me.

Remember, your writing is a direction reflection of you. If it’s sloppy, it sends a strong signal you don’t care. You don’t have to be a grammarian to appreciate a sparkling end product. Your audience will thank you for adding those finishing touches — and you might even get a raise or a promotion.


Image Credit: Hello Giggles

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

5 Comments on Avoid Embarrassment and Master These Commonly Confused Words

  1. Ferg
    March 30, 2015 at 2:10 pm (6 years ago)

    Really enjoyed the article, but was a little disappointed with error in last paragraph! Keep up good work.

    • Sarah
      March 30, 2015 at 2:30 pm (6 years ago)

      You caught me! I have to admit, I’m a little embarrassed. I’m glad you enjoyed the article, though!


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