20 Commonly Confused Words to Avoid Mixing Up in Work Emails & Everyday Life

published Dec 28, 2023
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Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Prop Styling: Carla Gonzalez Hart; Nails: Mamie Onishi; Rug: Courtesy of Aelfie

If you’re ever typed out an email to a hiring manager multiple times, obsessing over whether you have a skill set that’s complementary to the role or complimentary, then you know the frustration of commonly confused words. These could be homophones where they sound the same but are different words, like principal and principle. Or they could be two similar words that have ever-so-slightly different meanings, like collaborate and corroborate. 

Seriously, sometimes it just feels like the grammar police are out to trip you up. But luckily this list of 20 commonly confused words is one to keep bookmarked, ready to refer to next time you’re second guessing yourself on a WFH email (or accepting that next big job offer!).

1. Disinterested and Uninterested 

You’ll often hear these two words used interchangeably, and no one will bat an eye. But they do have different meanings. If you are disinterested, you have zero feelings about something. You are neutral. Meanwhile, uninterested means you are actively not interested in something. You are not impartial — you don’t want to be involved.

2. Stationary and Stationery

Unless you’re into paper, this one might have flown under the radar for you. Stationary with an “a” means something that is stuck in place. Stationery with an “e” is the paper you use to send an invitation or write a letter.

3. Principal and Principle

Both of these words are nouns and they’re pronounced the same, but they have different meanings. A principal is the head of a school or organization. You didn’t want to go to the principal’s office in elementary school, or you’re delighted to be promoted to a principal at the design firm where you work. Meanwhile, a principle is a belief that you hold to be true. 

4. Penultimate and Ultimate

If the ultimate is good, penultimate must be better, right? Not so fast. Penultimate actually means the second from the last. This is because ultimate, beyond meaning the best or most incredible of something, also means the final iteration of something. Penultimate would be what comes right before that.

5. Regardless and Irregardless

According to Merriam-Webster, regardless simply means “despite everything.” Which is exactly how people use irregardless, too. There have been rumors over the years that irregardless is not actually a word, but it is. It’s just that it means exactly the same thing as regardless.

6. Collaborate and Corroborate

While collaborate and corroborate sound similar (and have a similarly tricky spelling!), these two words have different meanings. Collaborate means that you’re working with another person or group on something, like a group project. Corroborate means you’re providing information that helps prove something, like a witness providing testimony to prove a defendant’s story.

7. Affect and Effect

These commonly confused words trip up even the most savvy grammar nerds. If you are looking at whether a thunderstorm impacted traffic, you’d ask whether the thunderstorm affected traffic. But if you’re talking about the impact of the thunderstorm on traffic, you’d ask whether there were any effects of the thunderstorm on traffic. It’s the difference in affect, which is a verb that means to influence, vs. effect, which is a noun that refers to results.

8. Than and Then

When you’re comparing two items, you would use than, but if you’re indicating something happened after another event, you use then. For example, you might like vanilla better than chocolate, while you might be going to get dinner then ice cream.

9. Allusion and Illusion

Allusion and illusion are similar sounding nouns, but allusion is when you indirectly refer to something without actually saying the words, and illusion is something that looks one way, but it’s actually something else. 

10. Imply and Infer

Two “i” words, both having to do with communicating information? It’s what makes for commonly confused words, but the difference with these two is who you are. If you’re the one sharing the information, you’re implying. If you’re the one receiving information and drawing conclusions, you’re inferring.

11. Advice and Advise

This is a tricky one because advice and advise have similar meanings. But you give someone advice on what to do, which is a noun, and you advise someone on what to do, which is a verb. It’s a subtle distinction and one letter makes all the difference.

12. Hoard and Horde

Both hoard and horde refer to large numbers of things and both are nouns, but they are not the same. A hoard is when you have a lot of something, like a hoard of food. You can also use it as a verb, like when you hoard your favorite seasonal candy. Meanwhile, a horde is a large group of people, like a horde of Swifites waiting outside the Kansas City game.

13. Famous and Infamous

This one can be like nails on a chalkboard when you hear someone use “infamous” interchangeably with famous or to imply someone is even more famous than famous. In reality, it means someone who has a terrible reputation. You do not want to be infamous. 

14. Capitol and Capital

These two commonly confused words are tough because they have similar meanings, sound exactly the same, and yet they’re different. Capital is the broader definition. It refers to a capital city, a letter, or raising money. Meanwhile, capitol is more specifically the building where the government is — which is often in a capital city!

15. Historic and Historical 

Historic and historical can be tricky, and they’re often used in the same way; however, there is technically a subtle nuance. Historic refers to something that is important or noteworthy. The historic signing of a document, for example. Historical describes something that has to do with history. For example, you could put a historical wallpaper in your historic house.

16. Farther and Further

Both of these words are used to describe distance, but the differentiation comes in the type of distance they are describing. Farther is specific to measurable, physical distance. Further is the idea of distance from a given time, event, or space.

17. Eminent and Imminent

Eminent and imminent may sound alike, but their definitions have nothing to do with each other. Eminent means something is famous or respected, while imminent means something is about to happen in the near future.

18. Altogether and All Together

Altogether is an adverb, while all together is a descriptive phrase, although both generally refer to something in its entirety. Think of altogether as a way to indicate that the overall feeling of something was altogether happy. Meanwhile, you would tell a group to get all together before taking a photo.

19. Among and Between

Both of these words can be tricky to use, but think of among as describing the possibility of many things together. You’re frolicking among the flowers. Meanwhile between is a more specific relationship. There is a book between the bookends.

20. Emigrate and Immigrate

If we are talking about moving internationally as an American, and you move to Paris, you emigrated to live your Parisienne life. Emigrate is to move away. Meanwhile, if your best French friend moves to New York, they’re immigrating to New York, because immigrating is moving into a place.