Commonly Confused Words

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize the correct word in pairs or trios of commonly-confused words

The English language can be tricky in part because there are multiple words that sound the same, so some people use them interchangeably, even though they have meaning-changing differences. Here are some examples of commonly confused word pairs and trios, as well as tricks to tell which option a writer should use.

Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule about how to avoid using the incorrect word in these pairs. Many people—even professional writers—continue to confuse these words; the trick is to know where to look for an answer when you’re not sure which one to use. You could look up the word in a dictionary, or google the pair of words, which often takes you to an explanation of the difference.

  • Accept/Except
    • Accept means “to receive.”
    • Except means “excluding.”
    • Examples:
      • Except for John, everyone accepted the compliments.
      • While accepting the trophy, the actress thanked everyone except her husband.
  • Affect/Effect
    • Affect usually means “to have an effect on.”
    • Effect usually means “a result.”
    • Examples:
      • When the speaker was describing the Doppler effect, Mary’s ringing cell phone affected her peers’ concentration.
      • The disease, which affected everyone, had an especially terrible effect on the women.
      • Watch this Khan Academy video to learn more.
  • Its/It’s
    • Its refers to something that belongs to someone or something.
    • It’s means “It is.”
    • Examples:
      • When the mouse said, “It’s raining,” it accidentally dropped its umbrella.
      • Its tiny little feet skitter downstairs because it’s morning.
  • Their/There/They’re
    • Their refers to the objects belonging to a group of people.
    • There is a location, usually some distance from the speaker.
    • They’re is the shorter way to say “They are.”
    • Examples:
      • Over there, where they’re sitting, is where their coats belong.
      • Their trombones fell down over there, but they’re not picking them up.

Watch It

This video explains the distinctions between there, their, and they’re.

You can view the transcript for “There, their, and they’re | Frequently confused words | Usage | Grammar” here (opens in new window).

  • To/Two/Too
    • To will either be before a verb or an object, depending on how you’re using it.
      • My son and I are going to the playground to play basketball.
    • Two is the number between one and three.
    • Too means “also” or “excessively.”
    • Examples:
      • To get to work on time, set your alarm clock for two o’clock, too.
      • Two rabbits were too late for school to catch the bus, so they went back to bed.
  • Where/Were/We’re
    • Where asks about the location of something.
    • Were is the past tense of are.
    • We’re means we are.
    • Examples:
      • Where are my keys?
      • They were on the counter.
      • We’re going to have to search for them.
  •  Whose/Who’s
    • Whose asks to whom the object belongs.
    • Who’s is the short way to say “who is.”
    • Examples:
      • Whose jacket is that, and who’s picking it up?
      • Who’s the one responsible for this mess, and whose stuff is spread all over the place
  • Your/You’re
    • Your refers to something belonging to you.
    • You’re is the short way to say “you are.”
    • Examples:
      • You’re the one who dropped your soup.
      • Your mom said you’re in a lot of trouble!

Try It





Writing Workshop: Reflection

In one or two paragraphs, answer the following question:

  • Which English grammar rule do you find must challenging, frustrating or annoying, and why?
    • The rule you choose might be related to the commonly confused words, but it could also be verb tense, pronoun agreement, subject-verb agreement, or any of the other rules you’ve learned in this course (or elsewhere!).
  • In your response, you should try to use that grammar rule (correctly) at least once.



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