• James Cullen

Is It Effect or Affect? 10 Commonly Confused Words


Does getting the right word make a difference? If Kylie Jenner said "Their are some new makeups coming out tmrrw" would she lose sales? Probably not, but no doubt many, many, many comments would be correcting her spelling and grammar.


Businesses, however, need to ensure that the spelling and grammar on their communications is ship-shape. Silly mistakes can make customers think negatively of you and they can actually erode some of the value associated with you in their mind. So, here are a list of commonly misplaced words and how to remember the right one:


Is it Effect or Affect?

This is one of the most Googled searches when it comes to grammar. But is there an easy way to remember is it effect or affect? Affect is a verb, while effect is a noun. Affect means to cause change or impact (many people use 'impact' instead when they're not sure, somewhat incorrectly) while effect is the result of this. So, one is the doing of the change and the other is the result of the change. A comes before E so an affect comes before an effect.


Is it Its or It's?

This is one that stumps a lot of people. Given what we know about the apostrophe, "it's" would seem like it means belonging to 'it'. But this is where your apostrophe know-how is subverted. It's is always a contraction of "it is" e.g. it's raining outside. While "its" is always belonging to it e.g. the cat sat on its mat. Only use 'it's when you are substituting for 'it is.'


Is it Envy or Jealousy?

Envy and jealousy are used interchangeably and context usually means that people understand your meaning and don't even notice you might have used the word wrong. But us keen linguists will always know. The best way to remember it sounds very soap-opera: envy is between two people, jealousy between three. If you are envious of your friend, you want what they have, if you are jealous, you want who they have or are worried they will want who you have.


Is it Poisonous or Venomous?

Poisonous and venomous are niche words for business, but the distinction is important. If something is poisonous, you could die if you bite into it e.g. a toadstool, whereas if something is venomous, you could die if it bites into you e.g. a snake. Snakes may also technically be poisonous (if you ate their venom sac) but they are typically venomous. Plants are never venomous.


Is it Flammable or Inflammable?

The old joke suggests that people didn't understand the 'in' part of inflammable and thought it meant un-flammable, so they added another word for it. Whether that's true or not is irrelevant, because inflammable and flammable actually mean different things.

If you work in a sector where you might use those words, the difference could cost you your job - or someone's life!


Flammable refers to items that can be set on fire e.g. paper or wood. Inflammable refers to items that can set themselves on fire e.g. lighters, blow torches, compressed gas canisters. Items that don't burn are non-flammable.


Is it Accurate, Precise or Exact?

If GCSE Science taught us anything, it was the difference between accuracy, precision, and exactness. Exact is the most close to truth in every way, accurate is close enough to the truth to be correct, while precise simply means the measurement is very detailed, but it might not actually be true. The words can largely be used interchangeably, but grammar nuts may want to get them right. So, if your watch says it is 14:23:19 then it is exact, if it says 14:23 it is accurate, and if it says 13:29:10 it is precise (but wrong).


Is it Hung or Hanged?

Cheery one here, but an interesting one. Hung is the past tense of the word hang, so you hung you washing out to dry. Hanged specifically means to have suspended someone by their neck in order to kill them. So your washing has never been hanged.


Is it Snuck or Sneaked?

This is an interesting one, too. Sneaked is the original past tense of 'to sneak', but the irregular snuck crept into our lexicon. Indeed, more people say snuck than sneaked nowadays in a case of a word going from regular to irregular (as opposed to the other way round). So, either are correct. However, snuck is often red-lined by spellcheckers. To be fully correct, sneaked is always accepted.


Is it Nauseated or Nauseous?

This is another example of use over time changing a word's meaning. Originally, to feel sick was to be nauseated, while to be nauseous meant to cause the feeling of sickness. So, to say you were nauseous traditionally meant that you caused people to feel sick, whereas if you are feeling unwell, you are feeling nauseated, or to be made to feel sick.


Is it Home or Hone?

These two are often mistaken for one another. You would hone your skills to home in on the next job opportunity. Hone means to perfect, while home means to close in on. Think of a homing device used in the war in order to locate troops, who may be honing their combat skills. People often say 'hone in on', which is wrong - but has entered US lexicon due to repeated use (like the newly added 'irregardless').


Here are some others that aren't two word differences, but they are commonly incorrect:

  • American reality TV stars are fond of saying they 'could care less' when they mean they 'couldn't care less.'

  • Your interest is piqued and your appetite is whet - not peaked or wet.

  • Customer service speak means that people often use reflexive verbs incorrectly e.g. "How could myself help you today/ Can I get anything for yourselves? / Your server is myself today." You don't actually need to use reflexive verbs that often - they describe actions you do to yourself or where the object and subject are the same in the sentence. People use it to sound more formal in customer service settings, but saying I/me/you instead is sufficient.

  • A lot of people purport not to take things "personal" when they should be not taking things "personally". The word here is modifying the verb - describing how you are taking something, so needs to be made into an adverb by adding 'ly' If you're doing something in some way, it's always with an 'ly.'


Are there any more you can think of? Do you struggle to try to remember specific meanings for words? Get in touch and I'll see if I can help you think of a handy way to remember commonly confused words! Mrs B, Mrs, E, Mrs AUT style.


Bonus: There/They're/Their - Some people still struggle with these ones. Remember that they're always means 'they are', if that's not the one you want, then are you talking about possession or something belonging to someone/s, then it's their. If neither of the two fit, then for everything else, use there. There/they're/their we have it!


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James Cullen the Writer - freelance copywriter in Leeds