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Commonly Confused Words

Commonly Confused Words

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson identifies and clarifies some of the most commonly confused words.

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Welcome back to English composition. I'm Gavin McCall, thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to go over some commonly confused words.

These are words that, like others too numerous to list here, are frequently misused or mistaken for each other, usually because they sound or are spelled similarly. The problematic words we're going to look at today are "they're," "their," and "there." As well as "your" and "you're," "two," "to," and "too," "its" and "it's," "who's" and "whose," and "a lot." Most of these words are homophones, which is the linguistic term for words the sound the same but have different meanings.

The first commonly mixed up words we'll look at are "there," "their," and "they're." Like many of the words we'll cover today, these three confuse writers primarily because they don't confuse speakers. In every dialect of spoken English that I'm familiar with, "there," "their," and "they're" are all pronounced the same way. So we don't have to distinguish between them unless we're writing, and that's when we get into trouble. Let's go through them one by one.

"There," ending E-R-E is used to indicate distance, as in, they live over there. While "their," ending in E-I-R is used to indicate possession, as in, that's their house. It's the plural form of his or her if that helps you distinguish it. Meanwhile, "they're" is a contraction of they are, as in, let's see if they're home.

Now here are two sentences which would sound perfectly fine if read out loud, but on your screen they should seem wrong, because they are. Here's a hint. Every version of there is misused. And here are the correct versions of the sentences. Don't worry if you're confused by this or have trouble remembering. In this kind of case, practice really will make perfect.

Two of the most commonly mixed up words in the English language-- at least from my very limited perspective-- are "your" and "you're." The first, spelled Y-O-U-R, indicates possession, like we would use to say, what's mine is yours and what's yours is mine. "You're," spelled with an apostrophe, is a contraction of you are, as in, you're welcome.

The best way to remember this-- as well as in they're with an apostrophe-- is to remember that the apostrophe is a symbol we use to mark contractions. Things like "you will" become "you'll" and "will not" become "won't." Thus, whenever you're writing and you're not sure which you're supposed to use, ask yourself, am I trying to write "you are?" If so, apostrophe with contraction. If not, Y-O-U-R.

Now here a couple more incorrect sentences. Hopefully they look strange enough to you that you'll be able to tell the difference. And as always, ask yourself if you're trying to write "you are" or not. Here are the corrected versions.

The next set of homophones will look at is the "two," "to," "too" group. Of these, the one least frequently mixed up is "two," as most native English speakers can easily remember that this is the spelling for the numeral two. For anyone having trouble though, I say only to consider the W in "twice" or "twins," and that should help you remember.

The other two "toos" are a little more trouble. "To" spelled T-O is a preposition or adverb that has many, many uses in English, too many to recite here. But safe to say, most of the time you're considering whether to write T-O or T-O-O, T-O is the best bet. The only times you want T-O-O are when you're trying to say something is too heavy, too hot, too far away, or something to that effect. Or when you're trying to include another noun, as in, take me too.

Let's look at a couple examples of misused twos. Again, these errors are egregious enough that they should seem pretty clear to you, but please, don't let that put your guard down. The thing about the twos is that we often don't think about short, commonly used words, and that can sometimes get us into trouble. Here are the corrected versions.

"Its" and "it's" cause problems for beginning writers and experts alike for two reasons. One, they're homophones and as such we only have to worry about them when we're writing, which even for a professional writer is far less often then we speak. And two, the apostrophe version of it's makes us think it's referring to a possession, which is actually the opposite case. "Its" spelled I-T-S is used to indicate possession of an object or a non-person noun, as in, give the dog back its bone. Or that book has seen its share of rough owners.

Meanwhile, "it's" spelled I-T apostrophe S is a contraction of "it is" or "it has." But since we use apostrophes to mark possession with proper nouns as in Washington's birthday or Cincinnati's tallest building, beginning writers and some experts now and then often tend to think they're supposed to use an apostrophe when indicating possession. There's no trick for memorizing this that I'm aware, other than telling yourself over and over again that "it's" equals "it is," "it is," "it is."

Anyway, here are some incorrect sentences. The corrected versions are here. It should be pretty easy to tell the difference. Just try to remember to tell yourself that "it is" is the exception to the apostrophe rule.

While we're talking about the possessives that confuse the most people, "who's" and "whose" are always in the running. "Who's" with an apostrophe is a contraction of "who is" or "who was," while "whose" is the possessive version of "who" or "which" when used as an adjective, as in, whose shoe is that or someone whose name escapes me. Here again, there's really no trick to remembering, except to remember that the apostrophe marks possession, except, of course, for "it's."

Here are two sentences. It should be fairly clear after looking at them for a moment that yet again, every sentence of the homophones we're looking at is incorrect. The corrected versions should seem a little better. But if not, and whenever in doubt about it "who's" and "whose," ask yourself whether you're trying to write "who is" or not.

The last of the commonly confused words we'll look at is not a homophone, just a word that's often misspelled. "A lot" is only correctly written as two words. It means one lot, or many or much, often, lots of something. It's commonly written as "alot" A-L-O-T, in part-- because in my opinion at least-- when most people say it out loud they speak the words so closely together that they both sound and seem like one word spelled probably A-L-O-T. Unfortunately, that's not the case in written English.

Here's an example of the words being mistakenly put together. When using a word processor with a spell check function, most instances of this word will be either corrected automatically or marked out as wrong. But don't allow that to let your guard down. Sometime, somewhere you'll be writing on or with something lower tech like a pencil or a lazily developed email program, and you'll slip up. Here's the corrected version. Remember, "a lot" is always two words, regardless of how it sounds when you say it.

We've now exhausted the list of commonly mistaken words we set out to cover. But watch out, there are more homophones out there, and even some words that while not technically homophones are close enough or identical in some dialects that they cause us problems. For example, "effect" and "affect" are sometimes pronounced the same way, though "effect" means something that is caused or functional, as an "effective," and "affect" means to act upon.

Similarly, "conscious" and "conscience" are not homophones for speakers of most accents, but they're often confused anyway. "Conscious" means "awake, alert, aware," as in, he regained consciousness. And "conscience" means an "inner sense of right and wrong." Ultimately, the only way to minimize the mistakes you make when writing words like these and the others we've covered is to practice writing more and to pay attention when reading. It's then, while writing and reading, that we develop our functional vocabularies. And it's only then that you'll grow as a writer beyond these kinds of errors. But once you do, it's forever.

What did we learn today? We covered a lot in one go. We looked at over a dozen commonly confused words, including three kinds of "theres," two "yours" three "twos" a couple "its," two "whose," one "a lot," and even a couple bonus words. I'm Gavin McCall, thanks for joining me.