Some words look the same, while others sound the same. Knowing the difference between these similar words can be very tricky. In this handout we have provided some of the most commonly confused word pairs, with definitions for each and sentences showing them in context. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should hopefully help you begin to recognize the particular differences between different words.

Here are what we consider to be the top ten most confusing word pairs, organized in alphabetical order:

Affect vs. Effect

Affect is a verb meaning to influence. Effect is a noun meaning result.

While the student didn’t see how studying affected his test-taking, the positive effects soon became clear.

Lie vs. Lay

Lie is a verb meaning to recline or rest on a surface. Lay is a verb meaning to put or place.

Kim lies down to take a nap every day at 3:30 p.m. Before falling asleep, Kim lays her bracelet on the table.

Lose vs. Loose

Lose is a verb meaning to misplace. Loose is an adjective meaning slack, moveable, or weak.

I always manage to lose my loose-fitting tank top.

One Word vs. Two Word combos

People often confuse similar words that appear as one word, or two words. They are used in separate contexts, however, and so learning when to use each will improve your writing’s quality. Examples of one word/two word pairs include altogether vs. all together; anyway vs. any way; and everyday vs. every day.

Here’s an example of the difference between them:

Anyway vs. Any way

Anyway is an adverb meaning regardless. Any way is a phrase meaning any manner or method.

I don’t want to go to the party, anyway. We could take any way we want to get to the party.

Than vs. Then

Than is a conjunction used to compare two things. Then is usually an adverb indicating time.

Do you think that Pepsi Cola is better than Coca Cola? We went to the store, and then to a movie.

That vs. Which

That is used when the phrase or clause that follows it is necessary in the sentence. Which is used when the phrase or clause that follows it is not necessary.

Students that fail to thoroughly proofread often miss unnecessary points. Procrastinated papers, which students write often, fail to lead to the desired grades for their classes.

Their vs. There vs. They’re

Their is a pronoun that is plural possessive. There is a word that means place. They’re is a contraction that means they are.

Their dog is over there digging through the trash. They’re not the most responsible pet owners.

To vs. Too vs. Two

To is a preposition indicating direction. Too is an adverb meaning in addition or also. Two is a number.

Too many times, students go to their adviser to set up their classes, but only have two of their five classes picked out.

Who vs. Whom

Who is a pronoun used as the subject of a sentence. Whom is a pronoun used as a direct object.

Who is responsible for the research on this group project? We assigned research to whom for this group project?

NOTE: As a general rule, if you can substitute “she” then “who” is the appropriate choice. If you can substitute “her” then “whom” is the appropriate choice.

Your vs. You’re

Your is a pronoun that is second person possessive. You’re is a contraction that means you are.

Your clothes will wrinkle if you’re not careful with the drying cycle you choose.

Other Confusing Word Pairs

Accept vs. Except

Allusion vs. Illusion

Appraise vs. Apprise

Capital vs. Capitol

Climactic vs. Climatic

Complement vs. Compliment

Compose vs. Comprise

Elicit vs. Illicit

Emigrate vs. Immigrate

Ensure vs. Insure

Farther vs. Further

Imitated vs. Intimated

Its vs. It’s

Passed vs. Past

Set vs. Sit

There are many other resources out there to find help with other commonly confusing word pairs. Check out what the internet has to offer to improve your grammar/mechanics and writing skills!