Top 20 Misused (and Mistreated) Words

Jan 17, 2008 | Grammar and Usage, Proofreading

Top 20 Misused (and Mistreated) Words

Updated June 2023

At Writer’s Relief, our proofreading staff keeps a sharp eye out for commonly misused words and phrases, and we’ve compiled a list of the trickiest top 20 misused words for easy reference. Learn the differences between these words to improve your writing!

Accept or Except
: to receive; to answer positively
except: not including; everything but

Anxious or Eager
: worried/nervous
eager: excited/looking forward to

Affect or Effect
: to pretend; to influence
effect: a result

Assure or Ensure or Insure
: to make certain (such as with a person)
ensure: to make sure (such as with a thing)
insure: to provide or obtain insurance

Beside or Besides
: at the side of
besides: in addition to

Between or Among
: two items that are related
among: three or more things related
**Note: According to Gregg Reference Manual, “Ordinarily, use between when referring to two persons or things and among when referring to more than two persons or things.

And: Use between with more than two persons or things when they are being considered in pairs as well as in a group.”

Choice or Choose or Chose
: a decision or an option
choose: to make a decision
chose: past tense of choose

Compliment or Complement
: to praise
complement: something that completes

Farther or Further
: literal or physical distance
further: to a greater extent

Fewer or Less
: comparative with plural items
less: items that are singular

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Imply or Infer
imply: to suggest
infer: to deduce

Its or It’s
: possessive form of it
it’s: contraction for it is or it has

Lay or Lie
: to place, which is always followed by an object
lie: to recline
**For present tense only. Tip: If you can replace the word in question with put, then use lay. For more on this issue, read When To Use Lie Or Lay.

Nauseated or Nauseous
: not feeling well
nauseous: disgust

Set or Sit
In general, set refers to an object (“Set the materials down on the table”) and sit does not (“She sat for an hour, waiting for the bus”).

That Or Which
–“Which” is frequently used to introduce a nonrestrictive clause, a phrase that isn’t necessary or supplies additional information and is usually set off by commas.
For example: The burned CD, which she received from a friend, wasn’t as great of quality as the original from a music store.
–“That” is used for introducing restrictive clauses that refer to things, phrases that ARE essential to the meaning of the rest of the sentence.
For example: The CD that consists of all of the band’s top-ten singles is her favorite.

That vs. Who or Whom
In most cases, “who/whom” is the standard form when referring to human beings, especially in regard to an individual person. “That” is used when referring back to a class, species, or type. “Which” should never be used in reference to humans.

A correct example with “who”: She goes to the hairstylist who is the best.

A correct example with “that”: He is the type of hairstylist that should charge more because he is the best.

Their or There or They’re
their: possessive form of they
there: in or at that place
they’re: contraction for they are

Whose or Who’s
: possessive form of which, who
who’s: contraction for who is

Your or You’re
: possessive form of you; belonging to you
you’re: contraction for you are

Fiction writers, take note: When reviewing your final drafts, pay particular attention to tricky words such as these. If you still have doubts about correct word choice and usage, Writer’s Relief proofreaders will be happy to help. We’ll make sure your creative writing is error-free and your word choices are appropriate. For more on this, read Commonly Confused Words, List Of Confusing Words And Homonyms, or Odds and Ends–More Confusing Words.

After you’ve written several thousand more words (and edited, proofread, and rewritten to perfection), the next most important element of getting your completed story, poem, or novel published is submitting to the right markets! The research experts at Writer’s Relief can help you pinpoint the best literary agents or journals for your work. Learn more about our services and submit your work to our Review Board today!