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Holy (holey? wholly?) macaroni: Don’t trust spell check

Who among us hasn’t dashed off an email at the end of the day, and then cringed when the morning light reveals a word that sounds similar but has a different meaning? Most of the time, it’s a simple error.

But when precise English counts, for example, when you’re (not your) writing a proposal to a prospective (not perspective) client or your annual personnel (not personal) review, build in some extra time to pore (not pour or poor) over your writing and flush (not flesh) out incorrect words.

The following is a list of commonly confused words I’ve come across while editing my own or others’ work. I’ve included some memory aids.

Accept: Always a verb meaning “to receive.” Accept an award.
Except: Means “but for.” Think of exclude.

Addition: In math, you add two numbers. You would never ed.
Edition: An editor edits a new edition of the book.

Advice: Noun meaning “guidance” or an adjective, “advice column.” Advice and guidance both end in ce.
Advise: Always a verb. Advisers advise.

Affect: Almost always a verb meaning “to change.”
Effect: Almost always a noun meaning “result.”

Assure: To calm someone.
Ensure: To make sure.
Insure: To provide insurance.

Breath: A noun that rhymes with death.
Breathe: A verb that rhymes with seethe.

Cite: Verb meaning “to name.” The police cited him in the citation. ¬¬¬
Sight: Something seen or the sense. What a sight to see!
Site: A place, as in worksite or website.

Complement: A verb meaning to supplement and a noun meaning complete.
Compliment: That’s so nice.

Council: A noun for a group of people, like a tribal council.
Counsel: Usually a verb. A counselor counsels.

Desert: A dry place like a desert island. Both have one “s.”
Dessert: Super sweet.

Foreword: Comes before chapters in a book.
Forward: Onward!

Lay: Verb that takes an object. Now I lay the baby down to sleep.
Lie: Also a verb, no object required. I too lie down, my rest to keep.

Loose: Adjective describing how something fits or something that isn’t confined. A moose is loose.
Lose: Verb that rhymes with choose. If I lose weight, my clothes will be loose.

Moot: Debatable. Up in the air, like a hoot owl.
Mute: Speechless. Rhymes with flute. You can’t talk and play a flute.

Precede: Comes before. The firetruck precedes the parade.
Proceed: The parade moves forward.

Principal: Usually an adjective meaning the first or chief. Can be a noun, as in the school principal. Originally, the school principal was the principal teacher.
Principle: A rule. Both end in le.

Set: Takes an object. I set the book on the table.
Sit: I sit in the chair to read.

Than: Used when comparing. Easier said than done.
Then: Relates to time. Think “when.”

There: Not here.
They’re: Contraction for “they are.”
Their: Possessive, like his and her. They’re going to their house.

Wave: Wave goodbye.
Waive: Waive your rights.

Who’s: Contraction for “who is.” Who’s having a party?
Whose: Possessive, like his or hers. Whose party is it?

Your: Possessive of you. What was your score?
You’re: Contraction of “you are.” You’re the best. Really, you are!

Simply becoming aware of frequently muddled words will improve your writing. But I encourage you to develop your own mental tricks – words that rhyme, familiar sayings or lyrics, visual cues (the more farfetched the better) – to help you find the right (not rite) word every time.

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