Commonly Confused English Words And Stuff

Posted by Dan | Posted in Pedantry | Posted on 08-11-2013


This is a followup post to How To Proof Proper, Innit. If you find this guide helpful then be sure to check that out too.

Spelling matters. Weirdly, despite living in an age where everyone has smartphones with built-in spell checkers and the ability to access Google on a whim, nobody can spell or punctuate anymore. With luck, this colourful guide will keep you from committing some of the worst offences. The guide is ordered from Easy to Sod It, so more advanced readers may wish to scroll past the first few.



While they are pronounced the same, in writing these are two completely different words.

“Your” refers to a possession (your hat, your name, etc.).

The apostrophe in “you’re” tells us that it’s a combination of the words “you are” . Generally you’ll use this if you’re describing someone (you’re beautiful, you’re a murderer, etc.).

RULE TO REMEMBER: “If you’re talking at a person, use you’re. If you’re talking about an item, use your.”



Similar to “your” and “you’re”, these words often get mixed up because they are pronounced the same. As many people learn English through spoken word they don’t always realise that, in text, these words have quite different meanings.

“There” refers to a place (let’s go over there and play with that monkey).

RULE TO REMEMBER: Think of places. “There” is one letter away from “here”.

“Their” is possessive (uh oh. That’s their monkey).

RULE TO REMEMBER: Think of ownership and inheritance. “Their” is one letter away from “heir”.

“They’re” is short for they are (they’re going to kill us for touching their monkey).



If something is “loose” it’s not attached properly. Screws get loose.

If you “lose” something it means you can’t find it.

There is no such word as “loosing”.

RULE TO REMEMBER: I think “Don’t lose the loose-leaf tea” from those mugs full of wisdom is a pretty good way of remembering this.



“Then” is what happened next (…then the monkey pulled out a wakizashi and went on a killing spree).

“Than” is used in comparisons (the monkey’s skill at swordplay was far greater than my own, so I ran away, crying).

I can’t really think of a good rule to remember this one. Perhaps you could think of “then” rhyming with “when” to remember which one is used when referring to a certain time. But you can always bookmark this page and come back to it when you have a query.



“A lot” refers to a large number of something.

“Allot” means to assign or distribute.

There is no such word as “alot”, but don’t take my word for it — read Hyperbole and a Half’s brilliant comic.



If you “bought” something you purchased it.

If you “brought” something you carried or otherwise transported it.

RULE TO REMEMBER: The clue is in the changed letter.

“If you buy something, you bought it.”

“If you bRing something, you bRought it.”


Technically speaking, stationery is stationary most of the time.

Technically speaking, stationery is stationary most of the time.


If something is “stationary” it is not moving.

If something is “stationery” you put it in your pencil case.

RULE TO REMEMBER: The clue is in the changed letter.

“I am stAnding; I am stationAry.”

“I am a pEncil; I am stationEry.”



“Practise” is a verb (a doing word). If you’re rehearsing something you are practising it.

“Practice” is a noun (a name). A doctor has a practice.

RULE TO REMEMBER: “I will practiSe the guitar all day, but I find the practiCe of tuning tedious.”


Stephen_Kings_ITITS vs. IT’S

Weirdly, the rule about apostrophes denoting ownership doesn’t apply when something is an “it”. If I want to say “Dan’s cat” or “America’s military” the apostrophe and s on the end explains that we own those things, but once something loses its name it also loses its apostrophe privileges. While this is fairly odd, it does make it simpler to understand this rule.


“Its” always refers to something belonging to a nameless thing.

“It’s” is always a contraction of “it is”.


E.G. vs. I.E.

“e.g.” means “here’s an example”.

“i.e.” means “in other words”.

RULE TO REMEMBER: I always think of “e.g.sample”. Some people (wrongly) believe e.g. stands for “example given” and i.e. stands for “in essence” but they both work pretty well as memorable rules.

[I would also highly recommend The Oatmeal’s illustrated explanation]



I vs. i

“I” refers to yourself.

“i” is not a word: that’s why any even remotely sophisticated technology will draw a red squiggly line under it or try and autocorrect it to a capital. If you use “i” or any derivation of it (“i’ve”, “i’m”, etc.) you are unequivocally wrong. And if you don’t bother with the apostrophe you’re even worse.



This is a colon –> :

This is a semicolon –> ;

Don’t worry, they’re not as scary as they first appear. You use them in place of a full stop when you want to connect the sentence they’re ending with whatever follows.

A colon is used as an introduction. You often see it before a list or a definition. (There are only two things in the world I love more than you: my fridge and my glow-in-the-dark snow globe.)

A semicolon is used to imply a link between sentences — think of it as an alternative to using a word like “because” or “but”. (I failed my exams; I don’t have a job. <– This works as two separate sentences separated by a full stop. But by using a semicolon it implies there is a connection between the two sentences.)


More on colons and semicolons:

University of Victoria Study Zone — Very educational

The Oatmeal’s guide to Semicolons — Less educational but contains gorillas and dinosaurs


(By the way, I am available for freelance proofreading and editing. You can email me or leave a comment below.)


Comments (1)

Stolen from Sheenagh Pugh after Mandela’s death:
grammatical errors do not always obscure the intended meaning, but
sometimes they do. You can “grieve” someone transitively, but only if
you mean “to cause someone grief”. “I’m grieving X”, variants of which
have been infesting soshal meeja all day, does NOT mean “I am in
mourning for X’s death”; it means “I am making X unhappy”. If you want
to say the other thing, you need “I’m mourning X” or “I’m grieving for

Write a comment