10 Word Pairs Even Experts Mix Up

Sep 28, 2015

As an editor, part of my job is to make sure that published material is correct. Words that sound alike but have different spellings are a common source of error. Most writers quickly learn the correct usage of who/whom, its/it’s, and their/there/they’re. But some sound-alikes are tricky enough to trip up professionals, too–especially when we’re on a tight deadline or have a cat strolling across the keyboard.

Here’s a list of ten word pairs that I’ve seen used incorrectly in recently-published books, magazines, and authoritative blogs.

  • affect/effect: Very tricky pair as verbs, nouns, or adjectives. Affect refers to influencing a person’s mind or mood. Effect means achieving a result, whether mood-related or otherwise. The ninth rejection affected her ability to think clearly. Setting the manuscript aside for a month had the desired effect, and she was able to revise it.
  • complement/compliment: Complement means something that completes something else. Compliment means something nice, whether spoken or given away. I complimented my dentist for including toothpaste and floss to complement the complimentary toothbrush she provided. (This is an example of correct usage, not good writing!)
  • formerly/formally: Formerly means earlier. Formally means not casual or slang. “He who must not be named” is formally called Lord Voldemort. He was formerly called Tom Riddle.
  • gambit/gamut: Gambit is something done to achieve a desired result. Gamut is a series or range of related things. Her gambits for getting manuscripts to agents ran the gamut from following submission guidelines to shoving manuscripts under the door of a bathroom stall while an agent was using it. (Legend says the bathroom gambit really happened. It did NOT achieve the desired result.)
  • peak/pique: Peak is to reach a high point. Pique is to arouse interest, anger, or curiosity. These words are often confused because on a graph of your curiosity, the line peaks when something piques your interest.
  • pore/pour: Pore means to study something closely. Pour means to make something flow in a stream. He pored over the assignment until long past midnight. He wished he could just pour it all into his brain.
  • precede/proceed: Precede means went before. Proceed means to go ahead. The preceding program was pre-recorded. We will now proceed to a breaking news report on misused words.
  • principal/principle: Principal means main, primary, chief. Principle means an idea, value, or way of doing things. Her principal source of income is teaching writing. Her book on the principles of storytelling is a secondary source of income.
  • role/roll: Roll is a list of people. Role is a part or position that a person fills. “Roll call! Is the actor playing the role of Wilbur the pig here? Is the actor playing the role of Charlotte the spider here?…”
  • troop/troupe: Both words mean a group, but in different contexts. Troupe refers to performers. Troop refers to soldiers, scouts, and baboons. “Why isn’t it spelled troupe? The girls are putting on a play.” “Yes, but they’re a Girl Scout troop.” (Based on an actual discussion between two troop leaders proofreading a printed program, when I was in fifth grade. I’m 99.9999% sure that I am the only person to remember that conversation.)

Have you misused any of these words? You’re in good company! Even editors make these mistakes, sometimes.

Creating Edu Materials for Emotional Resonance

Glossary of Accessibility Terms

Return to top