When writing an email or letter, whether private or professional, it is a good idea to do a review before you send it off. This is your chance to make sure the tone is right; not too aggressive for example. It is also an opportunity to check for some of these easy to make errors.
Whether you are a native English speaker or English is your second (third or fourth) language, you have probably made some of the following mistakes. In each case, both words are real words, so a spellcheck will not correct them. When you understand the difference between them, it is easier to get it correct every time. For each word pair, I have offered a way to remember which is which, if you don’t like my suggestions, make up your own mnemonics, they will be easier to remember.
Loose / Lose
This is a very common mistake. These words are actually pronounced differently, Lose rhymes with snooze, loose rhymes with goose. Loose is an adjective and Lose is a verb. Correct examples:
There is a loose thread on my shirt.
If we lose this game we are out of the tournament.
How to remember: Lose: all parts of the verb: lose, losing and lost have one O. The goose is loose. (For Scots: There is a moose loose aboot this hoose. – Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)
Than / Then
This is also a very common error, possibly due, in some cases, to a simple typo.
Than is a conjunction used to make comparisons and Then is an adverb related to time. Correct examples:
He is taller than I am.
I was at work then. And Come at 6, I will be ready then. (at that time)
We walked to town and then we had dinner. (next or afterward)
If the weather gets worse, then the match will be cancelled. (in that case)
How to remember: Then is related to time, both have an E, than is for comparison and they both have an A.
It’s / Its and Who’s / Whose
These word pairs are also fairly commonly confused. The most likely reason is the apostrophe which is used to denote possession when used in a name or noun eg. Dawn’s book, the book’s title.
Apostrophes are also used to indicate a contraction or missing letter eg. Don’t is short for do not.
In the words It’s and Who’s, the apostrophe is used to indicate a missing letter, It is and Who is. Its and Whose are possessive pronouns like his, hers and yours. Correct examples:
It’s going to rain this evening. And Who’s going with us this evening?
The dog has lost its ball. And Whose car is parked outside?
How to remember: Whose and Its don’t have an apostrophe because they are the same as his and hers.
Dessert / Desert
These two words have no relationship with each other. Dessert is a noun and the stress is on the second syllable. Desert can be a noun with the stress on the first syllable, but is also a verb with the same stress as in the first word. Correct examples:
Shall we look at the dessert menu?
There was a beautiful oasis in the desert. And The two young soldiers decided to desert because they were frightened.
How to remember: dessert has two S’s because it is so sweet.
Compliment / Complement
These words have the same pronunciation but have quite different meanings.
Compliment is a noun or verb which means praise, while complement refers to an addition that makes the whole better than the parts. It can also mean complete or whole.
My manager complimented me on my dedication to my job (praise). And We received complimentary tickets (free). And The compliments of the season. (rather old-fashioned way of saying season’s greetings)
An extensive wine list is available to complement your meal. And She chose a red carpet to complement her furniture. And We currently have a full complement of staff.
How to remember: Say “I like to give compliments” with the emphasis on the I.
Stationary / Stationery
These words are pronounced in the same way but have no relationship with each other.
Stationary is an adjective and means not moving while stationery is a noun meaning writing material and office supplies. Correct examples:
The drunk driver crashed into several stationary cars before the police stopped him.
When I started my new job, my desk had a full set of stationery.
How to remember: The A in stationary stands for adjective.
Accept / Except
In some English accents it can be difficult to hear the difference in these two words, but in writing, you should understand the difference.
Accept is a verb and can usually be changed into ‘receive’, Except is generally a preposition meaning ‘but’ or ‘leaving out’, but can also be a verb ‘to leave out’. It is mostly in the verb form that we find the error. Correct examples:
I accepted the gift.
The headmaster excepted Bill from the exam. (did not include him).
How to remember: Always accept advice. Except is like exclude.
Breathe / Breath
These words are pronounced differently, Breathe rhymes with seethe and breath rhymes with death. Breathe is a verb and breath is a noun. Correct examples:
The driver was asked to breathe into the alcoholmeter.
The doctor asked me to take a deep breath.
How to remember: No breath leads to death.
Practice / Practise
This noun/verb pair causes a lot of confusion, because it is different in British (or International English) from American English. The latter does not use practise at all. If you have a American English spellchecker, this will be marked as an error. In British English, practice is a noun and practise is a verb. Correct examples in British English:
Practice makes perfect. And She has just joined a local medical practice.
He must practise the piano for two hours each day.
How to remember: ICE is a noun and IS is a verb.
Proceed / Precede
The main reason for confusion between these two words is the similar pronunciation. This can also lead to spelling errors such as preceed. Proceed means to carry on. Precede means to come before something or someone. Correct examples:
Once the protesters were removed from the court, the hearing proceeded.
A talk by the director preceded the documentary.
How to remember: Proceed comes from the same roots as process and procession, something that continues. Precede gives rise to precedent, something that goes before and provides an example or guide.